How many of us have or know of somebody with, a small, furry pony whose sole role in life is to keep the other bigger horses company? Some have been round the block and are now retired to a role as a companion animal. Some may never even have been a working animal, and have always been a “pet”. We all know these ponies are worth their weight in gold and so deserve as much care and attention as their larger counter-parts.

Not just a small horse

Ponies are not just small horses they are evolved from a separate, genetically distinct group. Through years of natural selection the toughest have survived. The traits that ensured their survival, including “thriftiness”, unfortunately cause them, and us, huge problems in the domesticated setting. They are very prone to obesity and tend to be insulin insensitive. This, in conjunction with the fact that they generally do little or no exercise along with a gross overestimation of their actual requirements is why the majority of pony companion animals are fat at the very best and obese at the very worst.

Pampered ponies

To add to this, we all get a warm fuzzy feeling from pampering our little ponies, and to this end many of them are stabled (sometimes not through the choice of the owner but the bigger companion!), and/or well rugged which removes a natural way to use up calories by keeping warm and also further reduces the opportunity for exercise. Treat feeding is another trap which many owners fall into. No account is taken of the amount of calories that the treats are contributing to the overall diet. If treats must be fed then make sure they are small (tiny) and healthy (a slither of or the core out of an apple, or small pieces of turnip).

Forage First

With these ponies, as with all animals that are not in work or only light work, the ration should start with providing the appropriate amount and quality of forage and then adding in any extras on top of that. The rules of thumb are the same, 2% of the ponies IDEAL body weight should be fed a day. This would basically amount to 2kg of feed for every 100 kg of bodyweight. Therefore a 150kg pony would receive 3 kg of forage per day. This obviously includes grazing (even rubbish winter grazing) and so in the winter probably only half of this will have to be provided as extras from you. The majority of hay is far too good for ponies. The best way to ensure that your pony can still get a decent quantity of hay without taking on too many sugars and therefore calories, is to soak their hay for at least four hours preferably longer (or one-two hours in warm water), this will leach out most of the sugars and therefore provide the pony with fibre (to keep him occupied and a healthy gut), without piling on the calories.

The Right Weight

The next problem is that the weight of small ponies is very often over-estimated (the opposite problem from their larger counterparts), weigh tapes are useful, but can be inaccurate at either extreme. Researchers in the states carried out an extensive study on the weights of small ponies and found that the following equation most accurately predicts their body weight. Failing that a local weighbridge is probably your most accurate method!

Body weight (kg) = (3.7 x girth, cm) + (2 x length, cm) – 348.5


Restrict Grazing

It should go without saying that small ponies prone to obesity should not be given free access to grass during the spring, summer and autumn and especially not during the spring and autumn flushes. This is where it is best to confine them to a small paddock in the corner of their big friend’s field and/or use a grazing muzzle. I have extolled the virtues of a track system before and if it can be managed this is a perfect scenario for companion/pet ponies as it also affords them some exercise. Soaked hay can be supplemented to them if their paddock or track is very bare. Some chronic laminitics may only get out onto the grass for a few hours a day and many not at all. Also beware of frosty, sunny days during the winter, have a “frost paddock” to keep the companion animal off the grass for that day.

Vitamins and minerals

The only things your small friend will probably be lacking in, once his forage needs are met, are vitamins and minerals. There are many general purpose vitamin and mineral supplements in the market place. Powdered minerals/balancers are best fed alongside a handful of very low calorie chaff (oat straw type). Beware using traditional pelleted balancers (feeding rates ~ 300-500g) as they will have a greater feeding value and will contribute some calories to the diet. Not a lot but when your pony gets fat on a sniff of fresh air, it all counts.


Companion ponies can develop ulcers just like their larger friends, if left without anything to eat for too long. This means that hay should be provided in as small holed a hay net as you can find (perhaps even 2 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). Obese ponies should not be starved due to the risk of hyperlipemia. Hyperlipemia 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.

Cruel to be kind

The main point to remember is that all horses should be fed as individuals and companion ponies are no different. They should be fed according to work load, weather conditions and body condition. Exercise is great (as long as pony is sound and pain free) so a walk in hand or a 10 minute run around on a lunge line, a few times a week is better than nothing. Make sure you know what weight they actually are so that you are not overestimating their requirements. Feed very little, very often and make use of grazing muzzles, track systems or bare paddocks to help restrict grass intake. Don’t forget they still need vitamins and minerals. Your little pal will not thank you for imposing this regime on him and he may even throw a temper tantrum or two!! Before

giving in to any gilt pangs remember if you have ever seen a pony with laminitis, how much agony this is to watch and turn away knowing that you are doing your best for the little guy, even though he would most definitely disagree.