Fit or Fat

Overfed horses are more likely to have health and training problems.

Overfed horses are more likely to have health and training problems.

Martin Black rides Borsalino a fit 3 year old stallion alongside Royal Haida, a 16 year old gelding whos been getting too many groceries
Martin Black rides Borsalino, a fit 3-year-old stallion, alongside Royal Haida, a 16-year-old gelding who's been getting too many groceries.

By Martin Black

Some people may think they are being nice to their horses by feeding them the best feed available, keeping them fat and their hair slick.

People are doing the best they know how, but humans have taken animals that have been bred for centuries to work and be fit, and in only a few decades, fed and confined them like an animal for slaughter.

If we could just step back and make an observation, the cure to a lot of our horses’ problems may be obvious.

We are feeding them like Sumo wrestlers and then wanting them to work like soccer players, or not work enough. In either case, they are not mentally or structurally designed for this life of luxury.

I come from a background of raising horses in harsh conditions, so when I see horses that are over-cared for and compare the problems, there is no question: Overfeeding is a problem.

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Ranch horses in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada may look like the high school cross country team, but they are healthy, fit and without the psychological problems found in stables and backyards. What most people identify as discipline problems with their horses is more likely too much stored energy. When horses consume high-energy feeds, they become hyperactive and need the chance to exercise.

Horses that are confined and overfed will have problems with hypertension, digestion, hormones and leg soundness, not to mention cribbing, weaving, ulcers, colic, founder, parasites and viruses not as prevalent in horses with lesser feeds in open spaces. If they are in training, the handlers will be challenged with directing the excess energy.

I see more problems mentally and physically with horses being overfed and under-worked than with horses that are burning as much energy as they consume and maybe show a trace of their skeletal structure. When analyzing problems with horses, I often ask myself, “Would this be a problem if the horse did not have excess energy?”

It’s also important to realize that corn, oats, barley and molasses do not supply a consistent energy supply for a performance horse who is working hard. These feeds contain excessive carbohydrates that lead to hypersensitivity because of the horse’s inability to utilize too many carbohydrates at a given time.

Also, the nutrient levels of a high-protein hay are often not consistent, which means that the hay your horse gets today may be richer or poorer than what he gets tomorrow, even though it came from the same field and looks the same.

Hay is not a reliable nutrient source for performance horses, but it is necessary in every horse’s diet. Good grass hay will provide plenty of roughage and a great source of fiber.

In bagged feeds, key things to look for are vitamin levels, organic minerals rather than inorganic, which the horse is unable to utilize, and Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which provide a more consistent energy source than excess carbohydrates.

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I am not a nutritionist, but I deal with many horse problems and have witnessed much success in health and training programs when the right balance is found between nutrition and the horse’s workload.

Some situations don’t allow horses to have the space they need, but things can still be brought into balance if owners recognize the effects of their feeding programs and allow more unrestricted exercise or work of the consumption of less energy.

Without the excess energy, more training could be done without extreme training methods, which would result in happier, more willing horses.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we could ask the horses who is the happiest and feels the best, it would be the ones without the crease down their backs.

11 thoughts on “Fit or Fat”

  1. I believe that this article should have been released a long time ago!, Owners pamper their animals to much these days, you can get alot further in any disipline by feeding the proper amounts to horse.

  2. This is a great article. More people need to be educated on feeding.
    I have many horse people around me that have very fat horses and think they are helping them keep warm in the winter. But in reality over weight horses cant regulate their body heat.

  3. Hi,
    I am concerned about our horses; we have an older horse, about 18 yrs. old, who has hoof problems and our vet thinks he should not be on grass…period. He and our younger horse, age 7, are in a fenced gravel area about an acre in size. I tend to think, because I read it somewhere, that horses are grazers and are happiest in a pasture grazing all day. Are we doing the right thing? They seem heathy, our older horse has had better hoofs, they get hay and grain and they do have room to run and kick, etc.; I just want some assurance that we are doing the right thing.
    Concerned horse lover.

  4. key things to look for are vitamin levels, organic minerals

    What should horse owners look for? Every article I read eludes to what is good and what is bad but offer no absolutes. where is reliable accurate information regarding nutrition for a horse?
    Commercial manufacturers of pellet supplements are in the business of selling product. What is the objective information that people can reference when choosing vitamins and minerals for there horse?

  5. I believe if a horse is ridden regularly and by regularly I mean at least 3 times a week…much of this information would be self-evident either the horse would start losing weight and you would give more food or he would remain the same which is rarely the case. He would also relish his food. Horses just like humans need exercise – our muscles were made to MOVE and so are theirs. Standing in a stall day in and day out is not condusive to a horse being to metabolize his food whether you are feeding grains/pellets or combo grains/hays etc. Having your hay tested for nutrients is an important step and then adding where there are deficiencies makes the most “cents.”

  6. I think the trend of feeding all sorts of high-test feeds and supplements and keeping horses in stalls 23 hours a day has passed,thank goodness and people are realizing that horses,by nature,are grazers,who need to move around freely. We’ve always fed plenty of hay and turned our horses out,24-7,weather permitting. We feed very little grain,but we do supplement as necessary. Naturally,the amount of feed and roughage has to be adjusted according to the horse’s work load. Our one horse has a tendency to get too heavy,so we try to keep him off the best pasture. He is primarily a trail horse,while the other is a performance horse,who is competed regularly in driving events,along with being pleasure ridden and driven. Naturally,he requires more grain,but still not the enormous amounts that some people seem to feel are necessary. I truly feel this is where many people run into trouble with behavior issues,as well. You have over fed,under worked horses that are basically going stir crazy. In addition,as far as winter goes,and we get some nasty winter weather in Pennsylvania,it has been proven that hay and not grain,is what helps keep a horse warm. We never blanket and our horses stay very comfortable when turned out.

    I was wondering about Jeanne’s question-when you say hoof problems,do you mean he has had Laminitis at some point or does he have Navicular? If he has had Laminitis or Foundered,I could see why your vet doesn’t want him out on grass. We had a pony years ago,who had suffered previous bouts of Laminitis,so we had to keep him off of grass. On the other hand,if the problem is Navicular,the grass really wouldn’t be a factor,other than if he gets too heavy,it puts more weight on his already sore feet. My Paint Horse who had Navicular,always did best when he was out and moving around and I did keep his weight down. I wanted to add a word of caution-you said your horses were turned out on gravel-watch that you don’t feed them hay off the ground.I know of a horse that nearly died from colic that was caused by ingesting gravel with his hay. (The owner had spread gravel in a muddy area.)

  7. The case is over feeding our horses .The fact is alot of horses owners do not know how much hay is required per horse.I believe a horse should be fed 30lb of hay per feeding twice a day . I do not free feed . With that being said my horses are still over fed . My 8 year old gelding just has to look at hay and he will gain 50 lb.
    So the question is…. “How much hay are we safely to feed per horse with out over feeding . This Question is applied for winter feeding as it does vary for weather . Horses do need more hay in -20 + winter months to keep warm .

  8. Hi.

    within the past few months there was an ad for an automatic feeder, can you let me know which issue it was in?

    Thanks for the help,


  9. I have been reading up on a system called paddock paradise, it limits grass but still allows lots of movement in a track type of system. I do a slow feeder type and try and make it so my horses get limited fresh grass but don’t just stand in one place to eat. make em move around for the food you give them.

  10. The novice horse owner is usually unaware that the feeding directions on the bag of feed is outrageously high.
    I always felt they put it really high so you would feed more/buy more.
    Nicole…..30 lbs of hay (I assume you mean grass hay) twice a day is an insane amout of hay. Unless your feeding an elephant.
    I agree, horses are herd, grazing animals. They are not designed to stand in stalls, they are created to move around grazing.
    This not only gives them mental satisfaction but helps their gut keep moving, blood circulate and muscles work.
    I sold a horse to a lady and told her DO NOT keep him stalled and of course she did, 24/7. He was a big performance horse and her stalls were small. 6 months after she got him he had a lethal colic. His body just shut down. Terribly sad.
    Always observe how animals survive in the wild and try to duplicate it as much as possible.

  11. a few months ago to take a course on feeding horses. I now understand how badly we feed our horses on many occasions here in Argentina.

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