Ponies and horses have different nutritional requirements and need to be fed in different ways.

The feeding program you use for your horse may not work for your pony, even if you adjust feeding rates to match body weight.

Ponies are more prone to metabolic issues including obesity, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and Cushing’s disease (PPID).

They gain weight easily on rich pasture or energy-dense hay. Ponies should also not be fed grains or concentrates as these feeds are high in sugar and starch.

If your pony becomes overweight, they will be at higher risk of developing laminitis and joint problems which can reduce longevity and comfort.

Follow this article to help develop an appropriate feeding plan for your pony. You can also submit your pony’s information online and our nutritionists will help you create a diet specifically for your pony.

What Makes Ponies Different?

It’s important to create a diet plan specific to your pony’s needs. Ponies are not just small horses.

While a defining feature of ponies is their smaller stature, these animals also evolved to survive in much harsher conditions with lower nutrient availability.

Ponies are much more metabolically efficient compared to horses. Breeds such as Shetland, Mountain, and Welsh ponies are adapted to survive on harsh mountainous terrain and moorlands with sparse food sources.

Research shows that pony breeds are also less sensitive to the effects of the hormone insulin. [14] This makes them more adapted to storing fat when they consume a high-glycemic diet, potentially resulting in excess body condition.

Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin is produced by the pancreas when blood glucose (sugar) levels are high. This hormone acts on various tissues to help move glucose out of the blood and regulate blood sugar concentrations.

Horses and ponies that are insulin resistant do not respond well to insulin, resulting in more of this hormone being secreted and released into the blood.

High levels of insulin in the blood (hyperinsulinemia) are a risk factor for laminitis and hyperlipidemia.

It is well-known that obesity and insulin resistance are closely linked. Higher levels of insulin lead to horses storing more calories as body fat (adipose tissue).

However, breed also plays a role in insulin resistance and laminitis risk. Even when comparing ponies and horses of the same body condition, ponies are less insulin sensitive than horses. [6]

Weight Issues

This partly explains why ponies are more prone to becoming overweight and developing lamintis.

Ponies should therefore be fed and managed to minimize the negative consequences of their easy keeper metabolism.

Weight loss should also be carefully managed in ponies. Insulin resistance puts them at higher risk of becoming hyperlipidemic when they are fed a low-calorie diet. [15]

8 Steps to Feeding your Pony

Below are some steps to follow when planning a feeding program for your pony to help keep them healthy and at an appropriate body condition.

1) Identify Health Conditions

Before creating a feeding plan, it is important to determine your pony’s current health status. Speak to your veterinarian to get an appropriate diagnosis if you suspect EMS, PPID or any other health issues.

Some common signs of metabolic dysfunction in ponies include:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Overweight/obese body condition
  • Cresty neck
  • Laminitis
  • Delayed shedding
  • Change in appetite

Determining your pony’s body condition score will help you understand whether their diet is meeting their current energy demands.

Consult the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale for instructions on how to score your horse. [1] If your pony is a 6 or above on the 9-point scale, they are considered to be overweight.

If your pony is overweight, it is important to reduce their calorie intake or increase their energy expenditure (calorie burn) by exercising them regularly. Making these changes will support weight loss and metabolic health.

Dental Care

Particular attention should be paid to your pony’s teeth and ability to chew. Dental issues can have several negative impacts on a pony’s health and nutrition.

Have a trained professional check your pony’s teeth at least once per year. Chewing forages can cause their teeth to wear unevenly, often leading to sharp edges and hooks.

If this isn’t managed, problems including inflammation, abrasions and even abscesses can arise.

Forage that is not chewed properly can result in gut issues including indigestion, colic, or choke. Poor chewing also inhibits nutrient absorption from feed and forages.

Tooth pain can also lead to loss of appetite and weight loss. If your pony has dental issues, a nutritionist can help you formulate a diet for their needs.

2) Start with Forage

A pony’s diet should be based primarily on fibre-rich forage. Ponies should have access to forage for the majority of the day with limited time between feedings. [2]

This near-constant feed intake helps to prevent several health issues including colic, gastric ulcers and constipation. [2]

However, not all hay is equal. Most ponies can be maintained on low-quality forages, meaning hay that is low in protein, sugars and digestible energy.

Follow this guide on how to select hay for your pony and send a sample of your hay for analysis.

3) Extend the Time Spent Feeding

As the basis of the diet, ponies should be consuming 1% – 2% of their bodyweight in forages per day. This may not seem like enough if your pony tends to consume hay quickly. [4]

If the hay isn’t lasting long enough to provide a constant source of food, gastric ulcers can occur. Additionally, behaviour problems can develop due to boredom.

The techniques below can help increase the amount of time your pony spends eating without changing the amount of forage they consume.

  • Feeding small meals more often can reduce boredom and improve gastrointestinal health.
  • Using a slow feeder hay net will increase the time spent eating without oversupplying hay. Make sure the hay net is hung at a comfortable level for a pony to reach, usually lower than for a horse.
  • Use a pony-specific grazing muzzle to reduce grass intake if your horse is on pasture. Follow appropriate pasture management strategies as well.

4) Reduce Calorie Intake

Ponies should not be fed concentrates such as grains or sweet feeds. These feeds tend to be high in energy and provide excess calories leading to obesity.

High amounts of concentrate feed have also been shown to reduce fibre digestibility in ponies. This can lead to a higher incidence of colic and gastric ulcers. [3]

Some ponies may continue to gain weight even while on a forage-based diet. This may be due to the quality of the forage or amount that they are eating, especially if forage is offered at free choice.

Always choose hay that is low in starch and sugars (non-structural carbohydrates). It is recommended to submit a hay sample for analysis to accurately assess your hay quality.

Below are two methods to reduce the excess calories in hay:

  • Soaking hay will reduce sugar content and energy supply. Hay should be soaked for at least 30 minutes (warm water) or an hour (cold water) to reduce NSC content while minimizing nutrient loss and changes in palatability.
  • Dilute high-quality hay with straw, which has a very low nutritional value. Chopped straw can account for up to 25% of the forage supply of the diet.

5) Limit Pasture Access

Fresh pasture is typically very high in digestible energy, protein and sugars. Controlling your pony’s access to pasture is necessary for healthy weight management.

There are several precautions you can take to limit access to pasture.

Whenever possible, keep your pony on a dry dirt lot with access to appropriately selected hay. Completely avoiding pasture reduces the risk of overconsumption, weight gain and laminitis.

If the hay is blowing out of the paddock or it is being consumed too quickly, consider a slow feeder. There are plenty of options including slow feeding round bale nets, balls, and tubs.

If a dirt lot isn’t accessible or avoiding pasture isn’t an option, a grazing muzzle will help reduce the amount of fresh forage the pony consumes.

In a study of overweight ponies with free access to grass pasture, wearing a grazing muzzle for 10 hours during the day and taking it off at night was successful in promoting weight loss. [16]

It is recommended to keep ponies off pasture during the spring. This is when starch levels are at a peak and when ponies are at the highest risk for metabolic issues. [5]

6) Monitor Body Condition

A pony’s health and weight condition can change quickly. You should regularly monitor your pony for any physical or behavioural changes.

We recommend keeping a monthly log of body condition scores to help track your pony’s weight fluctuations.

When evaluating health and weight changes, it is important to keep in mind that ponies have lower insulin sensitivity which is why they are more prone to metabolic diseases. [6]

Metabolic issues are strongly linked to laminitis, a painful and chronic condition in the hoof that can lead to life-threatening debilitation. [7][8]

Symptoms of metabolic syndrome include obesity, difficulty losing weight, localized fat deposits and insulin resistance. If EMS is suspected, consult your veterinarian for a diagnosis. A positive diagnosis requires extra precautions when developing a feeding plan. [9]

7) Supplement Missing Vitamins and Minerals

It is important to ensure that your pony is still meeting its nutrient requirements even when being fed a calorie-controlled diet.

Ponies rarely receive all their required vitamins and minerals from forage alone.

A low feeding rate ration balancer or vitamin/mineral supplement is necessary to cover common gaps in the diet.

Concentrated mineral and vitamin supplements can provide the missing micronutrients without oversupplying other macronutrients such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

Mad Barn’s AminoTrace+ is a vitamin and mineral targeted specifically to the needs of ponies and horses with insulin resistance. It contains higher levels of key antioxidants and nutrients that support metabolic health.

AminoTrace+ Equine Supplement

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  • Complete mineral balance
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Free-choice access to loose salt is also recommended at all times. Salt intake encourages water consumption and provides sodium – an important electrolyte. [10]

Signs of Dietary Imbalance

Some signs that your pony’s diet is not properly balanced include: [10][11]

  • Changes in appetite
  • Licking soil and objects
  • Changes in weight and muscle mass
  • Poor coat quality
  • Poor hoof quality
  • Muscle weakness
  • Lameness
  • Fatigue

If you notice any of these signs in your pony, consult with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist to identify possible causes.

8) Support Gut Health

Supporting your pony’s gut health is critical to overall well-being and comfort. Horses and ponies are hindgut fermenters, meaning they digest forages in their large intestine and colon.

Sudden dietary changes can upset the hindgut fermentation process, which may result in diarrhea, hindgut ulcers or other illnesses.

Feed changes should be made slowly to give your horse’s microbiome a chance to adjust. Consider feeding a gut health supplement to support your pony’s digestive function and immune system. [13]

Water Intake

Providing free access to water also promotes digestive health. If a pony becomes dehydrated, it is at a higher risk for impaction colic.

Dehydration can be assessed with a skin tent test or capillary refill test. [12]

If dehydration is suspected, consider adding an electrolyte or flavouring (i.e. apple juice) to your pony’s water to encourage drinking. During the winter, horses and ponies may be more inclined to drink warm water.

Nutrient Requirements for Ponies

The chart below depicts the nutrient recommendations for a 200 kg (440 lb) pony at varying levels of activity. The chart also provides symptoms to monitor for if you suspect a dietary imbalance. [10][11]

Energy

  • Light exercise: 6.1 – 8.0 Mcal
  • Moderate exercise: 9.3 Mcal
  • Heavy exercise: 10.7 Mcal
  • Deficiency: Weight loss
  • Excess: Weight gain

Protein

  • Light exercise: 216 – 280 g
  • Moderate exercise: 307 g
  • Heavy exercise: 345 g
  • Deficiency: Weight loss and muscle mass loss
  • Excess: Increased water consumption, higher urine output, strong smell of ammonia in urine

Calcium

  • Light exercise: 8 – 12 g
  • Moderate exercise: 14 g
  • Heavy exercise: 16 g
  • Deficiency: Stiffness and lameness
  • Excess: May cause abnormal bone deposition

Phosphorous

  • Light exercise: 5.6 – 7.2 g
  • Moderate exercise: 8.4 g
  • Heavy exercise: 11.6 g
  • Deficiency: Stiffness and Lameness
  • Excess: Enlarged facial bones

Magnesium

  • Light exercise: 3.0 – 3.8 g
  • Moderate exercise: 4.6 g
  • Heavy exercise: 6.0 g
  • Deficiency: Muscle tremors, nervousness, increased respiratory rate
  • Excess: Not documented

Potassium

  • Light exercise: 10.0 – 11.4 g
  • Moderate exercise: 12.8 g
  • Heavy exercise: 15.6 g
  • Deficiency: Fatigue, muscle weakness and decreased feed and water intake
  • Excess: Potassium induced periodic paralysis (HYPP)

Sodium

  • Light exercise: 4.0 – 5.6 g
  • Moderate exercise: 7.1 g
  • Heavy exercise: 10.2 g
  • Deficiency: Muscle contractions, reduced feed and water intake, pica (licking objects such as rocks with trace amounts of salt)
  • Excess: Weakness and lack of coordination

Vitamin A

  • Light exercise: 6.0 – 9.0 kIU
  • Moderate exercise: 9.0 kIU
  • Heavy exercise: 9.0 kIU
  • Deficiency: Reproductive and respiratory issues, excessive tear production
  • Excess: Reduced appetite, poor hair and skin

Vitamin D

  • Light exercise: 1320 IU
  • Moderate exercise: 1320 IU
  • Heavy exercise: 1320 IU
  • Deficiency: Swollen painful joints
  • Excess: Over-calcification of bones and soft tissue calcification

Vitamin E

Lysine

  • Light exercise: 9.3 – 12.0 g
  • Moderate exercise: 13.2 g
  • Heavy exercise: 14.8 g
  • Deficiency: Weight loss and muscle mass loss
  • Excess: Increased water consumption, higher urine output, strong smell of ammonia in urine

Sample Maintenance Diet

The following diets are examples based on a mature 200 kg (440 lb) pony at maintenance.

For ponies at a healthy body condition, the total energy supply of the diet should be close to 100% of their requirement in order to maintain their current body weight.

Weight Maintenance Feeding Plan

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Grass hay (~ 7% protein) 4 kg (~9 lb)
Salt 7 g (1/2 tbsp)
Omneity pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Optimum Probiotics 1 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 101%
Protein (% of Req) 103%
NSC (% Diet) 6.8%

 

With higher-quality hay, you may need to restrict the amount of hay offered per day or dilute it with lower-quality hay or straw.

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Sample Weight Loss Diet

Many ponies are overweight and could benefit from a lower-calorie diet to support weight loss. Aim for gradual weight loss in your pony to decrease the risk of hyperlipidemia, which can occur when the diet is too low in calories.

Using lower-quality hay and adding straw are good options to reduce the calorie density of the diet. However, these forages may not supply enough protein to keep up with metabolic demands.

You may need to feed an amino acid supplement such as Mad Barn’s Three Amigos which supplies lysine, methionine and threonine.

Weight Loss Feeding Plan

Feed Weight Loss Diet
(Amount / Day)
Grass hay (~ 7% protein) 3 kg (~6.5 lb)
Straw 1 kg (~2 lb)
Three Amigos 20 grams (1 scoop)
Salt 7 g (1/2 tbsp)
Omneity pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Optimum Probiotics 1 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 97%
Protein (% of Req) 104%
NSC (% Diet) 6.3%
Essential Amino Acid Supplement with Lysine Methionine Threonine

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  • Optimal protein synthesis
  • Hoof & coat quality
  • Topline development
  • Athletic performance

Sample Weight Gain Diet

If your pony is underweight, it is important to first identify any health or dental issues that may be contributing to this.

To increase the calorie supply of the diet, highly digestible fibre sources such as beet pulp or soy hull pellets are suitable options that also support gut health.

Fat-based oils, such as w-3 oil, are an energy-dense source of calories to add to the diet.

Weight Gain Feeding Plan

Feed Weight Gain Diet
(Amount / Day)
Grass hay (~ 10% protein) 4 kg (~9 lb)
Beet pulp shreds 450 grams (1 lb)
Salt 7 g (1/2 tbsp)
Omneity pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Optimum Probiotics 1 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 124%
Protein (% of Req) 157%
NSC (% Diet) 9.2%

 

If your pony struggles with digestive health issues such as diarrhea, hindgut ulcers or gastric ulcers, you may want to consider using a more comprehensive gut health supplement such as Visceral+ or Optimum Digestive Health.

These supplements contain probiotics as well as other nutrients to support gastric and hindgut health.

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  • Support hindgut development
  • Combats harmful toxins in feed
  • Complete GI tract coverage

Whenever you change your pony’s feeding plan, it is important to closely monitor their body condition and health status. Adjustments may be needed as your pony gains or losses body condition.

To ensure your pony’s diet is meeting their needs, submit their information online for a free evaluation from our equine nutritionists.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Henneke, D.R. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J. 1983.
  2. Baumgartner, M., Initials. Common Feeding Practices Pose A Risk to the Welfare of Horses When Kept on Non-Edible Bedding. Animals. 2020.
  3. Liu, L. Effect of Dietary Forage/Concentrate Ratio on Nutrient Digestion and Energy and Protein Metabolism in Adult Donkeys. Animals. 2020.
  4. Kentucky Equine Research Staff. Feeding Ponies: Don’t Shortchange Nutrients. Kentucky Equine Research. 2017.
  5. Treiber, K. Evaluation of genetic and metabolic predispositions and nutritional risk factors for pasture-associated laminitis in ponies. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006.
  6. Bamford, N.J. Breed differences in insulin sensitivity and insulinemic responses to oral glucose in horses and ponies of moderate body condition score. DOmest Anim Endocrinol. 2014.
  7. Goer, R. Metabolic Predispositions to Laminitis in Horses and Ponies: Obisity, Insulin Resistance and Metabolic Syndromes. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2008.
  8. Mitchell, C. The Management of Equine Acute Laminitis. Vet Med. 2015.
  9. Morgan, R. Equine Metabolic Syndrome. Vet Rec. 2015.
  10. Novak, S. Nutrition and Feeding Management for Horse Owners. Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. 2008.
  11. NRC. Nutrient Requirement of Horses (5th edition). Washington, D.C, National Academy Press. 1989.
  12. Kentucky Equine Research Staff. Checking for Dehydration in horses. Kentucky Equine Research. 2014.
  13. Weese, J.S. Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2002.
  14. Jeffcott, L.B. et al. Glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in ponies and Standardbred horses. Equine Vet J. 1986.
  15. Jeffcott, L.B. and Field, J.R. Current concepts of hyperlipaemia in horses and ponies. Vet Rec. 1985.
  16. 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. J Equine Vet Sci. 2016.