If your horse is an easy keeper, sometimes it can seem like they get fat off of air.

Some equine breeds are known for being more metabolically efficient than others. They require less digestible energy (calories) to maintain an ideal body condition than other horses. This means they can easily become overweight.

Research shows that up to 40% of horses and ponies are overweight. [21] This can have long-term negative consequences for equine health and well-being, leading to inflammation, metabolic dysfunction, and a higher risk of laminitis.

But there are a number of effective strategies that you can use to help your easy keeper lose weight and maintain a healthy body condition. These strategies include forage selection, pasture management, soaking hay, and choosing low-calorie vitamin and mineral supplements.

This article will discuss how to best feed your easy keeper and how to track their body condition score over time. If you would like personalized recommendations for feeding your horse, submit their diet online for a free consultation from our equine nutritionists.

What is an Easy Keeper?

An easy keeper – also known colloquially as a good doer or thrifty horse – is a horse or pony that does not require many calories to remain in optimum body condition.

These horses are often hardy, native or cob-type breeds that thrive in sparse landscapes.

Easy keepers are prone to putting weight on when allowed to graze freely on rich grass pasture. They require little-to-no concentrate feeds in their diets.

These horses can have several differences compared to hard keepers that allow them to gain and maintain weight more easily, including: [22][23]

  • More efficient digestion and absorption
  • Differences in gut microbiome
  • Build fat reserves easily and are resistant to body fat loss

The Problem of Modern Management

In domestic management settings, easy keepers are at risk of becoming overweight and developing associated health problems.

Availability of rich grass pasture, high-quality hay and calorie-dense concentrate feeds means that energy intake is often higher than it needs to be.

Furthermore, the provision of shelter, use of blankets, and limited turnout can lead to significantly lower energy expenditure than their feral counterparts.

Higher energy intake and lower energy expenditure can quickly lead to weight gain, if not managed properly.

Obesity-Related Issues

If your easy keeper is allowed to put weight on, they are at greater risk of developing many obesity-related conditions including: [8][11][18]

Obesity is a growing problem for domestic horses. It is estimated that up to 54% of the U.K. horse population is obese, with similar findings across Europe and America. [18][21]

Why You Shouldn’t Restrict Feed

One way to address weight gain in easy keepers is to restrict feed intake by rationing feed or reducing the frequency of meals.

Restricting your horse’s access to feed might seem like a good way to decrease calorie consumption, but this can lead to more problems than it solves, including stereotypic behaviours and gastric ulcers.

Horses are trickle feeders that evolved to graze continuously for up to 16 hours per day. [1]

Your horse’s feeding program needs to satisfy its natural desire to forage throughout the day. Otherwise, your horse might start eating other items in their environment, including bedding, fences, barn boards, and soil.

How to Feed an Easy Keeper

What should you feed your easy keeper to prevent them from gaining weight?

We know that easy keepers have a slower metabolism and require fewer calories than hard keepers to maintain their body weight.

But they still have the same requirements for protein, vitamins, and minerals as other horses within their workload and weight class. [5]

Thus, your easy keeper’s diet needs to satisfy the three following constraints:

  1. The diet needs to provide the appropriate calorie level.
  2. The diet needs to provide sufficient protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  3. The diet needs to satisfy your horse’s desire to forage throughout the day.

A nutritionist can help you design a balanced feeding program that optimizes for these constraints. Below are all of the considerations that a nutritionist looks at when balancing a diet.

1) Assessing your Horse’s Dietary Needs

First, we need to determine a target calorie level for your horse’s feeding plan. This starts by assessing the weight and body condition score of your horse.

Before making any dietary changes, we want to know whether your horse is at the optimum weight, needs to lose weight, or needs to gain weight.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is a method of assessing your horse’s weight and fat composition. BCS evaluates fat deposition on the neck, body, and hindquarters using the nine-point Henneke scale.

The 0-9 scale grades horses as: [2]

  1. Emaciated
  2. Very underweight
  3. Underweight
  4. Slightly underweight
  5. Ideal
  6. Slightly overweight
  7. Overweight
  8. Obese
  9. Very obese

Easy keepers should be maintained at a BCS of 4-5 for optimal health. Tracking BCS over time will help you observe and respond quickly to changes in your horse’s metabolic health.

Fat is evaluated both by visual assessment and palpitation. Fat will typically feel softer and spongier to the touch than muscle.

A hard neck crest is a potentially dangerous fat deposit and could indicate insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome.

You should also weigh your horse to determine whether they are at a healthy weight. Use a weighbridge (scale) for an accurate measurement.

Weigh tapes do not provide an accurate weight but are a useful tool for monitoring whether your horse is gaining or losing weight. [3]

2) Determine your Horse’s Workload

We also need to consider what level of work your horse is involved in. Horses with a higher workload will have higher calorie needs, but will also need to meet higher requirements for protein, vitamins and minerals. [4]

Workloads are classified by the NRC using the following four categories:[5]

Maintenance: Consists of stall rest, field rest or horses that are retired from work.

Light work: Involves slow hacking, trail riding, or some light schooling. These horses are exercised 1-3 hours per week.

Moderate work: Involves hacking, trail riding or ranch work every day for up to 3-5 hours per week. Also includes school horses, show horses and polo.

Heavy work: Consists of hard training and competitions for 4-5 hours per week including significant time spent in trot, canter or gallop. This includes heavy ranch work, race training, low to medium level eventing, barrel racing and dressage horses.

Very heavy work: This includes racehorses, endurance horses and elite 3-day eventing. Consists of at least 6-12 hours per week of slow work and 1-2 hours of speed work.

Your horse’s level may change throughout the year, depending on various factors such as lameness, breeding, and competition seasons. Your horse’s diet needs to be adjusted as their workload changes.

3) Determining Individual Requirements

Your easy keeper’s dietary needs will also depend on their physiological status and any special health considerations.

For example, pregnant or lactating mares and breeding stallions will have different nutrient requirements than mature horses at maintenance. Growing horses also have different requirements to support development and bone formation.

Horses with dental issues will need forages that are easily digestible and do not require a lot of chewing. Horses with gut issues may need additional digestive support.

The information based in this article is primarily intended for mature adult horses, but our nutritionists are available to assist if you have a horse with individual needs.

4) Selecting Forage for the Easy Keeper

Once you have identified your horse’s dietary requirements, forage selection is the next step in building their feeding plan.

Forage should make up 80-100% of an easy keepers diet, depending on workload and body weight. Fibre-rich forages – such as grass, hay, haylage, silage, straw, and chaff – are broken down by microbes within the gut to produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs).

Volatile fatty acids provide slow-release energy for the horse and do not significantly spike blood sugar levels. VFAs should be the main calorie source for all horses, but especially for easy keepers with a thrifty metabolism.

What type of forage is best for the easy keeper? Choose low quality hay with reduced energy density. Straw can be used to add bulk to the diet without significantly increasing calorie supply.

Grasses

The easy keeper will rapidly put on weight if allowed free access to high-quality grass pasture. Fresh grass is rich in fructans (complex sugars) and simple sugars, containing up to 15% NSC.

Fructans are a risk factor for pasture-induced laminitis. Simple sugars and ethanol-soluble carbohydrates increase blood glucose (sugar) and can contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance.

Horses can consume 5% of their body weight in pasture grasses within just a few hours. Horses turned out on rich grass can quickly exceed their calorie requirement. [6]

Turnout in pastures with a mixture of grasses is better for the easy keeper, rather than grazing in a monoculture pasture of high-calorie grass.

A mixture of warm-season (such as coastal Bermuda), cool-season (such as timothy, fescue, and orchard grass) and legume (such as alfalfa and white clover) grass provide the best pasture for easy keepers.

Follow these strategies to control the sugar content within grass when your easy keeper is turned out: [6]

  • Turn your horse out overnight or in the early morning and late evening. Grass fructan content is highest during the day as the plant photosynthesizes.
  • Avoid turnout when the ground is frosty. In cold conditions, the grass is stressed and not growing so it stores more fructans, resulting in higher sugar content.
  • Avoid pastures with flowering grass. Grass that has flowered and gone to seed has significantly lower fructan content compared to flowering or pre-flowering grass.
  • Avoid turnout in overgrazed pastures. The fructan content of grass is highest in the stems and lowest in the leaves. Minimize turnout in grass that has gone below 4 inches in length.

Always be careful to avoid poisonous grasses such as Sudan and Johnson grass, alsike and red clover. [1]

Hay/Haylage/Silage

Choose hay, haylage or silage that is good quality (free from mould, clean, and dry) but that has moderate-to-low calorie content.

Mature cut hay from native or unimproved grass is ideal for easy keepers. These hays will have lower sugar content than early cut grass. Late cut hay should only be used if the grass was not exposed to temperatures less than 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 degrees Fahrenheit) before cutting. [6]

If you are unsure about the calorie content and composition of your hay, submit a forage sample for nutrient analysis. For easy keepers, the following information is the most important when reading a forage analysis: [6]

  • Water soluble carbohydrates (WSCs): Includes fructans found in grass and hay/haylage/silage. The WSC content should ideally not exceed 12% in forage fed to the easy keeper.
  • Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs): Simple sugars plus the starch found within grass and hay/haylage/silage. The NSC content should ideally not exceed 10% in forage fed to the easy keeper.

Straw

Straw provides lower nutrient value and sugar compared to other forages. It is fed to easy keepers and overweight horses that require fewer calories.

Straw also takes much longer to chew, which extends eating time and reduces time spent with an empty stomach for horses on a restricted diet. This lowers the incidence of stereotypical behaviours and can decrease the risk of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS). [7]

Oat and wheat straw are both suitable for easy keepers and can be purchased in bales or as chopped chaff. Choose straw that is clean, dry, and free from mould.

Straw should be introduced very gradually into the diet over a period of a few weeks, but can eventually consist of up to 50% of the dry matter content of the diet.

Because straw has low vitamin and mineral content, a balancer or mineral-vitamin supplement should always be fed to avoid deficiencies in the diet.

Feeding straw also has metabolic benefits for easy keepers. Diets that contain straw lower insulin levels in the blood, helping to reduce risk factors for obesity, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and insulin resistance. [7]

5) Determining How much Forage to Feed

How much forage should you feed per day? All horses require a minimum of 1.5% of their body weight in forage per day, unless on the advice of a veterinarian.

Restricting forage below this level can lead to a metabolic condition known as hyperlipidaemia due to rapid weight loss. Other health conditions such as gastric ulcers, colic, and stereotypical behaviours. Hyperlipidaemia increases the risk of laminitis and is potentially fatal. [6]

To maintain your horse at their current weight, feed forage at a rate of 2% body weight per day. For example, to maintain weight a 500 kg (1100 lb) horse should be fed 10 kg (22 lb) forage per day.

To lose weight, a horse should be fed 1.5% body weight per day. A 500 kg (1100 lb) horse that needs to lose weight should be fed 7.5 kg (16.5 lb) forage per day.

Horses that have little-to-no grass pasture access and that are fed mature low-sugar hay or straw may be fed at 2% body weight to achieve weight loss.

Hay nets or slow-feeders can be used to extend the time your horse spends consuming forage while reducing calorie intake.

Monitor your horse’s workload, weight, and body condition score regularly and adjust the amount of forage they receive accordingly.

Soaking Forage

If your dry forage analysis shows a high sugar content, the forage can be soaked to help reduce the calorie density.

Soaking hay in cold water has been found to reduce fructans and simple sugars by up to 50% in some hay types. [9][10] This can make your hay more suitable for easy keepers. [8]

However, soaking will also remove some water-soluble minerals from the forage. A vitamin and mineral supplement must be fed to replace lost minerals.

Some forages may still contain large amounts of sugars even after soaking. In these cases, selecting a different forage is advised.

Below are some important points to remember when soaking forage: [8]

  • Soak your hay in as much water volume as possible to remove more sugar.
  • Longer periods of soaking will remove more sugar.
  • In hot weather, soak the hay for shorter periods of time as bacteria and fungi can breed rapidly in the water.
  • Steaming your forage in a hay steamer is an option for warmer climates but is not as effective at removing sugars.
  • Only soak fresh, clean, mould-free forage and change the water each time you soak a new hay net.

6) Avoiding Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies

Easy keepers that are on a calorie-restricted forage-based diet are at greater risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Practices such as soaking hay or turning out your horse while wearing a grazing muzzle help to ensure they don’t over-consume calories, but also restrict the intake of required nutrients.

Although easy keepers need fewer calories to maintain their weight, they still have the same needs for vitamins, minerals, and protein as other horses of the same weight and workload. [8]

A forage balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement should be provided to cover common gaps in the equine diet. [11] Mad Barn’s Omneity is a complete vitamin and mineral supplement available as a powdered premix or a low-NSC pellet.

Omneity provides all of the nutrients required to balanced most forage-based diets in a concentrated form that will not add significant calories to the diet. It is suitable for both easy keepers and metabolic horses.

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It is also important to give your horse free access to plain loose salt (sodium chloride).

Sodium deficiencies are common in horses on forage-based diets and horses on grain feeding programs. Supplementing with salt supports electrolyte status and promotes hdyration.

Electrolytes may also be required if your horse sweats a lot, particularly in hot weather or during regular hard work.

7) Choosing Appropriate Supplemental Feeds

Easy keepers rarely require concentrate feeds or grains in their diet. They can usually derive all the energy they require from forages.

However, some horses with a high workload may need additional calories to offset energy expenditure. High-calorie forages, such as alfalfa, can be supplemented in the form of chaff or pellets.

If your easy keeper is at a good weight and body condition but still requires more energy for exercise demands, additional calories can be supplied in the form of cool energy mixes or cubes. These feeds are high in fats and fibre, but low in sugar to enable a slow release of energy.

This helps to prevent a spike in blood glucose levels which can trigger laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome.

Managing your Easy Keeper

In addition to feeding your easy keeper a forage-based balanced diet, you can support their well-being by adopting appropriate management practices.

This can include pasture management, use of a grazing muzzle, exercise, and other strategies to avoid stereotypic behaviours while controlling calorie intake.

Grass Management

To help reduce the calorie intake of the easy keeper, consider the following pasture management techniques: [8]

Strip grazing: Section your field off with fences and allow your horse to graze small sections at a time. Be careful not to overgraze the field.

Bare or sparse paddocks: For the easy keeper that is over-conditioned, turnout on a bare paddock will ensure they do not over-consume rich pasture grasses. Provide access to soaked hay, straw or low-calorie hay at all times.

Track systems: Create a track around a field with fencing. Food, water, and shelter are spread out around the track system, encouraging the horse to exercise.

Natural environments: Turn your horse out in environments that match the settings under which these breeds evolved. This includes moorlands, rocky mountainous land, woodland, or dessert areas. These environments provide low-calorie food and require the horse to move more. Be careful of poisonous plants and make sure your horse has shelter and fresh water available.

Unimproved pastures: Choose a field with grass that has not been fertilized or harrowed. Or turnout your horse in a pasture with a native grass species that has not been genetically improved. Many grasses have been bred to increase calorie density for dairy and beef cows.

Enrichment Activities

Horses evolved to naturally graze for up to 16 hours per day. Restricting grazing can increase the risk of stereotypical behaviour and gastric conditions.

Enrichment tools can help extend feeding times and promote natural foraging behaviour, both in and out of the stable. These strategies also help to reduce boredom and stress in your horse.

Enrichment options include: [12][13]

  • Hay balls
  • Treat balls (with low calorie treats or high fibre pellets)
  • Hanging forage in hay nets at different height and locations
  • Hanging low calorie vegetables – including swede, parsnip, celery, and cucumber
  • Hanging tree branches from non-toxic species
  • Feeding different types of forage, such as hay, soaked pellets, dry pellets, and chaff

Grazing Muzzles

Grazing muzzles can prevent your horse from putting on weight, while still allowing them to be turned out with their friends. These muzzles are recommended for easy keepers that are on rich sugary grass pasture when pasture management strategies are not an option.

Research has shown that wearing a grazing muzzle can decrease daily grass consumption by around 80%. [14] In overweight ponies allowed free access to grass pasture, wearing a muzzle for 10 hours during the day and removing the muzzle overnight has been shown to promote weight loss. [15]

Monitor your horse for signs of stress when they start wearing a grazing muzzle. Ensure they can still drink water with the muzzle on and body condition score your horse weekly to monitor for changes in weight.

Give your horse three weeks to get used to wearing a muzzle. Natural behaviour is not affected in most horses that are gradually transitioned to wearing a grazing muzzle. [16][17]

Your horse will consume less grass when wearing the muzzle, which will lead to nutrient deficiencies. Feed a vitamin and mineral supplement and allow free access to plain loose salt when your horse is not wearing the muzzle.

Colder Temperatures

It is natural for feral horses to lose some body fat during the winter months when food is sparse and energy is expended to maintain body temperature. Wild horses naturally regain weight over the spring and summer months. [24]

You can support your easy keeper’s weight management by allowing them to lose some weight over the winter. To maintain an ideal weight, the ribs should just be visible by the time spring arrives. When spring comes, they will naturally put some weight back on.

Natural weight loss in the winter can be achieved by limiting the use of blankets for your horse. Horses are comfortable at lower ambient temperatures than humans and will expend energy to maintain their body temperature.

For underweight, ill, clipped, or elderly horses, it may be more suitable for them to be blanketed. [18]

Exercise for Weight Loss

Increasing your horse’s exercise level will not only help to support a healthy body weight but will also improve insulin sensitivity. When horses exercise, cells in muscle become more responsive to the hormone insulin.

There are many forms of exercise to help your horse maintain a healthy weight: [8]

  • Ridden: trail riding, fast work, slow hill work, schooling, pole work and jumping.
  • Non-ridden: in hand walking, in hand dressage, in hand adventure playgrounds, lunging, long reining, ‘ponying’ from another horse, dry treadmill, in hand pole work, and horse walkers.
  • Swimming: particularly good for weight loss but contraindicated with some conditions such as back problems.
  • Water treadmill: appropriate for horses with joint issues or injuries
  • Baited stretches: promotes flexibility, suppleness, and core strength

Supplements for Easy Keepers

Cinnamon

There is growing interest in the use of cinnamon to support weight loss in horses. Cinnamon has long been used in traditional herbal medicine and is purported to work by enhancing insulin sensitivity. [19]

The active ingredient in cinnamon – a water-soluble polyphenolic polymer – exhibits insulin-like properties and acts as an antioxidant. [19] This has been confirmed in some animal and human studies. [20]

A safe dose of up to 5 g of cinnamon per 100 kg bodyweight per day has been suggested in horses. However, there are no research studies available to evaluate whether feeding cinnamon to horses promotes weight loss. [19]

Spirulina

Spirulina is a nutritionally-dense blue-green algae that is high in antioxidants, fatty acids and protein.

In one study, spirulina supplementation supported weight loss in horses with equine metabolic syndrome. After 3 months of supplementation these horses had improved insulin sensitivity and decreased cresty neck. [25]

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Conclusion

Feeding a horse or pony that is an easy keeper can be challenging. It takes careful balancing to ensure your horse is receiving the correct nutrients to support well-being while also limiting energy intake.

This guide provides a number of feeding and management practices that can help you avoid excessive weight gain in your easy keeper. Not only will this support your horse’s metabolic health, but also this can reduce the risk of laminitis and other obesity-associated conditions.

When feeding any horse, follow these four golden rules to support gut health and overall wellbeing:

  • Feed little and often
  • Make all changes gradually
  • Feed according to workload and bodyweight
  • Feed adequate forage

Get a hay analysis and work with a nutritionist to check that your easy keeper’s diet is meeting all of their nutrient needs. Regularly body condition score your horse and make changes as needed to maintain your horse at a 4 or 5 on the BCS scale.

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References

  1. Bott, R.C. et al. Production and environmental implications of equine grazing. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2013.
  2. Dugdale, A.H. et al. Body condition scoring as a predictor of body fat in horses and ponies. The Veterinary Journal. 2012.
  3. Ellis, J.M. and Hollands, T. Accuracy of different methods of estimating the weight of horses. Veterinary Record. 1998.
  4. Hale, C., Hemmings, A. and Randle, H. Accuracy of horse workload perception by owners when compared to published workload parameters. In International Society for Equitation Science. 2016.
  5. National Research Council [NRC]. The Nutrient Requirements of Horses. 2007.
  6. King, C. and Mansmann, R.A. Preventing laminitis in horses: dietary strategies for horse owners. Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice. 2004.
  7. Jansson, A. 2021. Straw as an Alternative to Grass Forage in Horses—Effects on Post-Prandial Metabolic Profile, Energy Intake, Behaviour and Gastric Ulceration. Animals, 11(8), p.2197.
  8. Mack, S.J. et al. Impact of water-soaking on the nutrient composition of UK hays. The Veterinary Record. 2014.
  9. Longland, A.C., Barfoot, C. and Harris, P.A. Effects of soaking on the water-soluble carbohydrate and crude protein content of hay. Veterinary Record. 2011.
  10. Warr, E.M. and Petch, J.L. Effects of soaking hay on its nutritional quality. Equine Veterinary Education. 1993.
  11. McGowan, C.M. et al. Dietary restriction in combination with a nutraceutical supplement for the management of equine metabolic syndrome in horses. The Veterinary Journal. 2013.
  12. Goodwin, D., Davidson, H.P.B. and Harris, P. Foraging enrichment for stabled horses: effects on behaviour and selection. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2002.
  13. Thorne, J.B. et al. Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: Practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005.
  14. Longland, A.C., Barfoot, C. and Harris, P.A. The effect of wearing a grazing muzzle vs. not wearing a grazing muzzle on intakes of spring, summer and autumn pastures by ponies. Forages and grazing in horse nutrition. 2012.
  15. Longland, A.C., Barfoot, C. and Harris, P.A. Efficacy of wearing grazing muzzles for 10 hours per day on controlling bodyweight in pastured ponies. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2016.
  16. Davis, K.M. et al. Effects of grazing muzzles on behavior and physiological stress of individually housed grazing miniature horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2020.
  17. Davis, K.M. et al. Effects of grazing muzzles on behavior, voluntary exercise, and physiological stress of miniature horses housed in a herd. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2020.
  18. Furtado, T. et al. Exploring horse owners’ understanding of obese body condition and weight management in UK leisure horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2021.
  19. Anderson, R.A. et al. Isolation and characterization of polyphenol type-A polymers from cinnamon with insulin-like biological activity. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2004.
  20. Dugoua, J.J. et al. From type 2 diabetes to antioxidant activity: a systematic review of the safety and efficacy of common and cassia cinnamon bark. Canadian journal of physiology and pharmacology. 2007.
  21. Jaqueth, A.L. et al. Characterization of the Prevalence and Management of Over-Conditioned Ponies and Horses in Maryland. J Equine Vet Sci. 2018.
  22. Johnson, A.C.B. and Biddle, A.S. A Standard Scale to Measure Equine Keeper Status and the Effect of Metabolic Tendency on Gut Microbiome Structure. Animals. 2021.
  23. Martin-Gimenez, T. et al. Ultrasonographic Assessment of Regional Fat Distribution and Its Relationship With Body Condition in an Easy Keeper Horse Breed. J Equine Vet Sci. 2016.
  24. Barbender, K. et al. Seasonal Changes in Body Condition of Przewalski’s Horses in a Seminatural Habitat. J Equine Vet Sci. 2016.
  25. Nawrocka, D. et al. Spirulina platensis Improves Mitochondrial Function Impaired by Elevated Oxidative Stress in Adipose-Derived Mesenchymal Stromal Cells (ASCs) and Intestinal Epithelial Cells (IECs), and Enhances Insulin Sensitivity in Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) Horses. Marine Drugs. 2017.