A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

A Change of Lifestyle

One of my client’s ponies has always struggled with her weight. She has too much of it!

They were doing everything right; soaking her hay, minimal hard feed, exercise, restricted grazing, but after an injury and enforced rest over the summer this plump pony was even plumper!

We started her rehab, and although she started to lose a bit of weight but then she plateaued and as winter approached it was a stalemate. Something had to change before spring, when she might actually explode on the sugary grass!

The mare needed more exercise; canter work specifically but in order to do that post injury she needed a different arena surface to work on, and it being winter they needed more dark evening friendly facilities. So they found another yard, with an arena that wasn’t as deep as her current one, and with very good floodlighting, which meant she could be ridden every evening, and the work could be faster and more intensive. More polework and jumping could then be reintroduced. With faster workouts, and more frequent ones, she will increase in muscle tone, posture, and burn off fat.

Her routine was also changed as they went onto a DIY yard, so she was turned out earlier in the morning and caught in later. This totals an extra three hours out in the field. This might not be so great in spring or summer, but on a winter paddock it’s three hours more of wandering around, nibbling at grass, rather than those three hours spent stationary, demolishing a haynet. This means she requires less soaked hay as her nights are shorter, and I think it’s had a surprisingly strong effect on her losing weight.

With the change of yard there is of course a change in the hay and type of grass in the paddocks. The grazing is slightly poorer, but this suits a good doer, and has a higher percentage of grass in it rather than her previous field, which had a lot of clover in. Clover is rich in nitrogen and very fattening. I think this will have more of an impact in the spring and summer. I think the hay the little mare is now fed is of a similar nutritional value to before, and it is still soaked overnight so I don’t think the forage has affected her weight.

In the two months since moving to their new yard, the pony has become much fitter, improved muscle tone, and has improved in posture, which will hopefully mean that she is less likely to injure herself. Her good muscles have improved, so she has a topline. The weight has literally dropped off her; she’s gone from the bottom hole on each side of the girth to top hole and it still being loose!

Before Christmas…
… today.

I find it amazing the way a couple of changes – increased workload and reduced time chomping in the stable – have had such a huge impact on this mare’s weight. I feel much happier heading into spring with her and less concerned about laminitis, as I feel we will be able to control her weight more easily. I also think that she will be finding the ridden work far easier carrying less weight,which will only improve her performance.

It does make you realise that if you struggle to get the weight off your horse then increasing workload and increasing turnout on minimal grazing but plenty of space, is paramount to the weight loss journey.

A Weighty Issue

A client`s mum asked me over the weekend about an article she`d read about overweight riders. She has considered taking up riding but is concerned that she is too heavy. Fortunately, at that moment on the yard were two of our horses, one a 16hh Thoroughbred, the other a 16.2hh cart horse, so I could illustrate the different builds of horses and how that affects peoples mount. I explained the difference in bone density and size, which she found very enlightening, but also that the issue around weight is they type of horse people choose to ride, what they do with their horse, and how often they ride, as well as their riding ability. I find it incredibly difficult, when trying to put clients onto suitable mounts, to get the weight to height ratio correct. We have some clients who are short, but rather rotund, which means that if you put them on the horse who can carry their weight (16.2hh) they feel over horsed because their legs barely come past the saddle flap, which hinders their riding progress. The obvious answer is to lose weight. But times are hard so I have to encourage clients, rather than insult them.

There are hundreds of examples of mis-matched horse and rider combinations if you just look around; one of my working liveries is owned by a woman who knows she is too heavy for him. But she only rides once a week and just goes for a pootle round the woods to catch up with her friends. Hardly taxing work, which means that her horse doesn`t suffer too much. However, the story would be different if she wanted to event. At the other end of the scale we often see tiny little petite women riding great big 17hh dressage horses. Surely this means that their work is jeopardised because the rider isn`t physically strong enough or big enough to use their seat and legs to ride the horse and subsequently ride through the hand?

I regularly, however, put the taller teenagers onto the ponies to school them, or squash them if they are getting too big for their boots. These girls are balanced riders, and only ride the pony for a short amount of time so I feel no harm comes to the pony. And the benefit means that my next few lessons run smoothly because the pony is mild mannered and accepting of their small jockeys.

When I look at the magic 10% theory; that is, that the rider should weigh 10% of their horses` bodyweight I feel it is a little extreme. I look at myself, 60kgs, 5`5, and my horse, a 16hh Welsh Section D, 600kgs, and feel that I am right on him – he could carry a bit more weight, and if I was a bit taller I wouldn`t look massive on him, however he couldn`t take anyone much smaller as they would look massively over horsed. Each to their own, but when deciding on whether you, or anyone you know, is overweight for their mount, we should all consider that it is not black and white, if we are a balanced rider and doing low level, irregular work, then we can afford to be slightly underhorsed. The problems if our horse is too small is that it makes us feel unbalanced – there`s nothing in front of us, which will in turn unbalance the horse. However, for those people aiming at international competition, particularly showjumping and eventing, there is nothing worse than being underhorsed! Plus the vet and physio bills for a horse with a bad back are crippling …