1. Avoid feeding cereals or cereal-based feeds

If your horse/pony is currently fat and overweight then feeding a traditional coarse mix or nut with high cereal content should be avoided.

Even just a small amount will contribute to weight gain and certainly won’t help with any weight loss regime.

To add to this, feeds high in starch and sugar cause significant spikes in blood glucose and insulin after a meal and this kind of feeding management, over a prolonged period of time, could potentially lead to insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and/or trigger a laminitis attack.

I will often advocate the strategic feeding of a handful or two of oats or high energy coarse-mix to a laid back horse to give them a bit more oomph, but not if they are fat and certainly not if they are not in a decent level of work. Often just shedding a few pounds will give a horse a lot more energy.

2. Ensure provision of vitamins and minerals

Always make sure that your horse’s daily requirement of vitamins and minerals are met.

Be aware that if you feed lower than the recommended level of any feed then your horse could be lacking in some key trace elements or vitamins.

This is easily achieved by feeding a good quality powder mineral or a lo-cal balancer pellet mixed in with a low calorie chaff. Depriving your horse of these important nutrients can actually make it more difficult to shift excess fat and can lower your horse’s energy levels considerably.

3. Restrict grazing especially in summer

Always restrict grazing in the spring and summer months. This is the “unknown” part of your horse’s diet and therefore should be restricted as much as possible.

There are many ways to do this but it has to work for you and your horse if it is to be successful. Muzzles work in many situations, especially if you have no control over what grazing your horse has access to, as in a livery yard situation.

Some ponies become quite adept at either taking them off or eating almost as much as they would without, so monitor the situation.

Strip grazing is a popular option as the horse gets a fresh bite every day of older, longer grass. You just have to ensure that the grass behind them is not growing too much, basically undoing all your hard work.

Track grazing systems are ideal as also keep the horses moving. Where grazing is heavily restricted or withdrawn altogether, low nutritional quality or soaked hay should be fed to ensure that the horse’s digestive system and drive to eat are satisfied.

4. Do not starve an overweight pony or horse

There are two very good health reasons for not starving your horse in order to lose weight.

Firstly, obese animals should not be starved due to the risk of hyperlipemia which occurs when the body mobilises fat, due to being in a negative energy balance (eg fasted or off-feed) and the plasma becomes clogged with fatty oil.

It gets into the organs (especially liver and kidneys) and causes organ dysfunction on many levels. It is a multi-organ disease and can be fatal.

Secondly overweight horses and ponies can develop ulcers, just like their slimmer friends, if left without anything to eat for too long.

Any dieting should be carried out slowly with the horse being kept on a “starvation” paddock and hay (soaked for at least 4 hours) being fed at 2.5% Body Weight (BW) to start with, alongside a vitamin and trace element supplement.

This is gradually reduced to 1.5% of current BW and then further reduced to 1.5% of ideal BW. It may take up to six months for the horse to lose weight, and may be a painful exercise for both the horse and the owner but worth it in the long term.

Hay should be provided in as small holed a hay net as you can find (perhaps even two inside each other), and in as many “meals” as possible. Soaking his hay will mean that he can receive a little more (remember to weigh hay and weigh it dry).

5. Exercise is crucial

Exercise is the most important part of beating obesity in horses and it is most often over-looked. Even if the horse can’t be ridden, perhaps it can be walked in hand, loose schooled or given more space at turnout to allow it to run-around.

Most obese ponies and horses are couch-potatoes and won’t self-exercise. Horse’s that are used to a decent level of work generally exercise themselves in the field if they are given any time off, the couch potato horse won’t do this so you have to help him out in whatever way you can.

An experiment to show the benefits of exercise in obese horses showed that with just 10 minutes of exercise a day they had already lost significant weight after only two weeks. It should be pointed out however that eight minutes of this was cantering so was a very intensive exercise session, but even 20-30 minutes at a slower pace will help enormously. Have your horse as fit as possible, muscle burns calories, so a fitter horse with more muscle will find it easier to lose weight.