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Feeding the Easy Keeper

Dr. Martin Adams, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Some people can eat whatever they like, even in large amounts and remain lean. Other folks must be careful in the amount and type of foods they eat, and may even need to add an exercise program to maintain a desirable body weight. Just like people, some horses gain weight even under conditions where other horses will lose weight. A horse is considered an easy keeper when it is able to maintain an optimal body condition on less than average amounts of feedstuffs. Such horses are less demanding on the budget than a hard keeper that requires a more substantial diet, but feeding an easy keeper presents a different nutritional challenge. The challenge of maintaining the easy keeper is to meet the nutritional requirements (besides calories) while managing to avoid obesity.

Easy Keeper grazing.The tendency to become obese is likely the most common problem among easy keepers. Obesity is detrimental to horses for many reasons. The biggest problem facing the athletic obese horse is decreased performance due to heat stress. Excessive fat acts as insulation and decreases the horse's ability to cool quickly, which causes increased sweating and reduction in physical performance due to fatigue from overheating. Additional body fat will also increase oxygen needs due to the extra weight, but the ability to take in oxygen is also more restricted in obese horses. Extra weight may also induce joint problems in horses, which could shorten the career of a horse involved in a performance activity. Obesity will cause insulin resistance in many horses, which is called equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and is known to be associated with a higher incidence of laminitis in affected horses. Obese horses are also more prone to lipomas, which are fatty tumors that can develop in the abdominal cavity. The intestines can become entangled with a lipoma, resulting in strangulation colic. Strangulation colic is a serious, life-threatening condition requiring surgical correction.

Weight reduction will only occur if the horse's energy expenditure is greater than its energy intake. Weight loss can only be accomplished by reducing the number of calories going in and increasing the number of calories expended. So a combination of diet and exercise is in order to shed extra weight from the easy keeper. Especially if turnout space is limited or unavailable, the horse should be exercised regularly, provided it is sound and healthy. This is one of the best options for weight loss, especially if the horse is usually sedentary. If possible, exercise the horse more often than it had been before dieting, to increase the rate of weight loss. If an exercise or dry lot paddock is available, where there is no pasture available for grazing, regular turnout will allow for increased activity and weight loss.

To start a weight reduction program for an overweight horse, provide moderate to good quality grass hay at 1.5% of the horse's target weight, not the current weight if it is obese. Provide Triple Crown Lite Formula at the rate of approximately one pound per 500 pounds of the horse's body weight. For example, two pounds of Triple Crown Lite Formula per day would be adequate for a horse weighing 900 to 1,200 pounds.

Triple Crown Lite Formula is a low-calorie, high-fiber pelleted supplement formulated to balance the nutrient requirements of a horse on a hay-only diet. Also have water and a salt block available on a constant basis. Once the horse has reached the desired weight or body condition, increase the amount of grass hay to the point where the horse is no longer losing weight. Also adjust the amount of Triple Crown Lite to the horse's current body weight if there has been a drastic change. If weight loss does not occur very quickly, or you have a horse with a history of obesity and chronic laminitis, consult with your equine veterinarian about the therapeutic use of Thyro-L (levothyroxine) to increase the rate of weight loss and reduce episodes of laminitis.

Easy keepers can be a joy and a challenge. Keep their dietary requirements simple with grass hay and Triple Crown Lite. Remember that diet and exercise are the keys to weight management. Keeping excess weight off your horse will allow your easy keeper to avoid heat stress, perform better, and have a longer, healthier life for you to enjoy him.

Tips on Feeding an Easy Keeper

  1. Limit pasture grazing time. This is especially true in spring and early summer, when pasture growth is most rapid. If this is not possible, fit the horse with a grazing muzzle, a device that reduces the amount of forage the horse can consume.  
  2. Don't feed high-fat supplements. Corn oil, flaxseed and rice bran are high in fat and so are high in calories. Eliminate these supplements from your horse's diet and you can cut out some calories and prevent excessive weight gain.
  3. Eliminate high-calorie concentrates. Most concentrates or grain-based feeds are formulated for a minimum feeding rate of 0.5% of body weight (5 pounds daily for a 1,000 pound horse) to provide the proper amount of required vitamins and minerals.  This amount of feed usually provides an excessive amount of calories for an easy keeper. Triple Crown Lite Formula Is a low calorie and low starch, vitamin and mineral fortified supplement in a pelleted form that supplies the missing nutrients for a horse consuming only hay or pasture.
  4. Start an exercise program. If your horse is not involved in a performance activity, the best type of exercise for any type of horse is of low intensity and long duration. The main purpose of exercise is to increase energy expenditure or calorie loss. Other benefits of daily exercise include an increase in metabolic rate, a possible reduction in appetite, and prevention of bone and mineral losses that may occur during calorie restriction when the horse is inactive.
  5. Replace legume hay with grass hay. Legume hay, such as alfalfa and clover, contains more calories per pound than grass hays. Instead of alfalfa, feed a high-fiber, good quality grass hay free of dust, mold and weeds.
  6. Limit the amount of hay fed and divide it into several daily feedings. Horses are continuous grazers by nature because the capacity of the stomach is limited. This behavior also ensures that stomach acid is buffered by saliva and ingested plant material. Infrequent meals can result in gastric ulceration due to constant exposure of the stomach wall to acid. Divide the amount of hay fed into 3 or 4 daily meals to increase meal frequency along with salivation and stomach fill to prevent ulcer formation. Limit the amount of hay fed to 1.5% of body weight, this is enough to insure maintenance and proper digestive function. If the horse's body condition is still excessive after weight loss has stabilized, then decrease the feeding rate of hay to 1.25% of body weight or less and continue feeding management for weight loss.
  7. Use the following formula to determine the proper healthy weight for your horse. Take a weight tape and measure body weight (Starting BW) and body condition score (Starting BCS) your horse. With these two values, use this formula: (Starting BW - (Starting BCS - Desired BCS x 50) equals Desired BCS. For example, your horse weighs 1,200 lbs and has a BCS of 8. You want a BCS of 5 so the formula is: 1,200 lbs - (8 - 5 x 50 lbs) = 1,050 lbs.

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