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A safe weight-loss plan

Q:How do you get an obese horse to lose weight with­out too much stress? I am adopt­ing a 12-year-old geld­ing from a res­cue group. He looks like he is in ad­vanced preg­nancy. You can’t feel his ribs, even when press­ing down! He needs to go on a diet and start daily work­outs, but I am con­cerned about the proper way to go about this with­out caus­ing ul­cers or other stress-re­lated prob­lems.

He will have daily turnout but will be in a stall at night and for break­fast. I am think­ing of us­ing a graz­ing muz­zle but am wor­ried this will add to his stress.

What are re­al­is­tic mile­stones for weight re­duc­tion? In terms of ex­er­cise, what is a good bal­ance so he will not get soured or sore, yet still lose weight?

Name with­held upon re­quest

A:Obe­sity in horses is a very com­mon prob­lem but for­tu­nately one that can be ad­dressed with strict man­age­ment.

The first step is to re­duce the amount of feed he eats per day with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing his vi­ta­min and min­eral bal­ance. If your horse is on an all-hay diet, this is rel­a­tively sim­ple. Most horses need to eat around 2 per­cent of their body weight in feed (which is 20 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse). With an over­weight horse, start by re­strict­ing his hay to 1.75 per­cent of his body weight for the first week, then go to 1.5 per­cent af­ter that. The slow re­duc­tion will help de­crease the stress of re­ceiv­ing less food. More dras­tic di­ets--re­strict­ing hay to be­low 1.25 per­cent of body weight---re­quire the su­per­vi­sion of a ve­teri­nar­ian or equine nutritioni­st.

Re­searchers have ob­served that horses on re­stricted di­ets tend to seek

out al­ter­na­tive food sources and may be­gin chewing on wood shav­ings or fences. One so­lu­tion for this prob­lem is the use of slow feed­ers or slow-feed hay nets, which make a horse’s ra­tion last longer by lim­it­ing the amount he can take in one bite. Re­cently, re­searchers de­ter­mined that hay nets with medium (1.7-inch) and small (1.2-inch) open­ings were ef­fec­tive in de­creas­ing both the rate and the amount of for­age consumed by ma­ture horses.

An­other way to help a horse lose weight is to re­duce the over­all caloric den­sity of his diet. For ex­am­ple, you could slowly re­place a high-qual­ity hay with a less calo­rie-dense hay (that is, a more ma­ture hay or a blend con­tain­ing more grass and less al­falfa). Un­like the caloric-restrictio­n strat­egy, this ap­proach does not dra­mat­i­cally change the to­tal amount of for­age the horse re­ceives, and it may be less stress­ful for him.

Manag­ing the feed in­take of a horse kept on pas­ture can be a bit more dif­fi­cult be­cause it is hard to de­ter­mine how much he is ac­tu­ally eat­ing as he grazes. Still, you can re­strict pas­ture in­take in a cou­ple of ways de­pend­ing on your setup:

Turn the horse out in a dry lot for a por­tion of the day. By re­strict­ing ac­cess to pas­ture by six to 12 hours a day, you are re­duc­ing pas­ture in­take by about a quar­ter or half. But be aware that some re­search has shown that horses who have adapted to this sce­nario may con­sume about half of their to­tal di­etary needs in only four hours. If lim­it­ing turnout time on pas­ture isn’t help­ing your horse lose weight, you’ll need to try a dif­fer­ent strat­egy.

Keep the horse in a stall for a por­tion of the day. This op­tion is less de­sir­able than the dry lot, and it may be more likely to cause stress-re­lated be­hav­ioral prob­lems and/or gas­tric ul­cers. If you go this route, pro­vid­ing a lowqual­ity grass hay for the horse to munch on is prob­a­bly bet­ter than leav­ing him alone in the stall with noth­ing to do.

Ap­ply a graz­ing muz­zle. A graz­ing muz­zle is de­signed to limit ac­cess to grass while still al­low­ing a horse on pas­ture to drink and so­cial­ize with oth­ers. This is a good op­tion if you do not have a dry lot and the horse must be out­side all day long. As with any man­age­ment change, you’ll want to in­tro­duce the muz­zle grad­u­ally.

The big­gest con­cern with any of these strate­gies for lim­it­ing a horse’s food in­take is the pos­si­bil­ity that he might not get enough vi­ta­mins and minerals. Adding a ra­tion bal­ancer pel­let to your horse’s diet might be a good idea. Ra­tion bal­ancer pel­lets are low in calo­ries but high in pro­tein as well as the vi­ta­mins and minerals that might be lack­ing in hay and/or pas­ture. These feeds are usu­ally fed at roughly one pound per day and are around 30 per­cent pro­tein. When added to a diet with hay and/or pas­ture, the to­tal diet is about 10 to 12 per­cent pro­tein, which is ap­pro­pri­ate for a ma­ture horse.

No mat­ter which ap­proach you take, di­etary changes must be made slowly. De­cide on your man­age­ment strat­egy and im­ple­ment the changes over the course of about one to two weeks to de­crease any stresses. That is, grad­u­ally de­crease turnout time, or in­crease the time the horse is muz­zled on pas­ture.

Over the course of your horse’s new feed reg­i­men, it is best to mon­i­tor his weight loss us­ing a weight tape or by as­sess­ing his body0 con­di­tion score ev­ery two weeks. This will let you know if the horse is los­ing the right amount of weight or if you need to de­crease turnout time even more. A healthy time frame for weight loss should be one body con­di­tion score or about 100 pounds in one month. Forc­ing weight loss to hap­pen any faster could cause other be­hav­ioral or health prob­lems.

In­creased ex­er­cise is also a great way to help your horse reach an ap­pro

pri­ate weight. First, have your ve­teri­nar­ian as­sess the horse to make sure he is phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble of the level of work you want to do. A good start­ing reg­i­men for a horse who hasn’t been ex­er­cised is to walk 10 to 15 min­utes three to four times a week. This du­ra­tion can be in­creased the fol­low­ing week.

When the horse can com­fort­ably han­dle 40 min­utes of walk­ing, add some two- to three-minute in­ter­vals of trot­ting three or four times dur­ing each work­out. You can also add work on hills and other vary­ing ter­rain at this time to help en­cour­age your horse to use more of his body. This will in­crease the calo­ries burned and help build mus­cle. It would be a good idea to con­sult with a trainer so you can max­i­mize the amount of calo­ries burned in each work­out with­out over­do­ing the amount of ex­er­cise your horse can han­dle.

Once your horse has reached his tar­get weight, you will need to slowly in­crease his pas­ture or feed in­take so he can main­tain it. How­ever, you’ll al­ways need to mon­i­tor his body con­di­tion. You wouldn’t want to have to start the weight loss process all over again. Carey A. Wil­liams, PhD Rut­gers, the State Univer­sity

of New Jersey New Brunswick, New Jersey

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