Obesity in Horses: II, Balancing Diet and Exercise

Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

In Part I of this series, we talked not only about the difficulty in removing extra pounds from our equine companions, but also the health benefits that our horse will gain from doing so. Our strategies included seeking a more mature grass hay with a lower caloric density and reducing the amount of forage offered to the horse.   The horse will probably need to be confined to a dry lot, but fed in a way to minimize boredom related to reduced  feeding time. This month’s article will look more closely at the diet of our horse, to ensure that we are reducing the calories the horse receives, but are still feeding a balanced diet that provides sufficient amounts of our other nutrients.
We will continue to use the example of our 1300 lb horse who was at a body condition score of 8 and a goal weight of 1165 lbs. The maintenance requirement for the 1165 lb horse was 17.7 Mcal per day. We decided to feed the horse at a rate of 1.5% of its target weight in order to achieve the desired weight loss. That would mean our horse would consume 17.5 lbs of feed per day. Now, because we specifically chose a lower calorie hay which is more mature, it probably is lower in other nutrients as well. In order to ensure that your horse’s amino acids, vitamin and mineral needs are met, one should look for a low calorie supplement. Fortunately many reputable feed companies produce feeds that are designed for the easy keeper. Typically these feeds will be much higher in crude protein, minerals and vitamins and are designed so that you only need to feed one to two pounds per day. This ensures that your horse will not suffer from deficiencies while we achieve the desired weight loss.
Additionally, we can accelerate the horse’s weight loss by instituting a regular exercise program. Now, assuming our horse was at a body condition score of 8, it probably wasn’t on a consistent exercise program earlier. The key in implementing an appropriate exercise program is to realize that the horse is relatively unfit and we should begin exercise carefully. Ideally the horse should be ridden or worked five to six days per week.   If this is not possible, try to institute an exercise program at least every other day. Begin with intermittent periods of walking and trotting, and slowly increase the duration of the trotting periods. You should notice that the horse is able to recover its heart rate and respiration rate more quickly during the walking recovery periods as it becomes more fit. Then you can increase the intensity of its exercise program.
Now let’s take a look at how much exercise your horse needs for increased energy expenditure. For every 45 minutes the horse spends walking per day, it will expend an additional one Mcal/d of net energy.  But what exactly is net energy? To this point in time, we have always discussed the energy needs of the horse in terms of dietary energy or DE. Dietary energy refers to the energy available in the feed once the digestibility of the feed is taken into account. When we determine how much to feed our horse, it is always based on the DE concentration of the diet compared to the horse’s DE requirements. Net energy is more specific about the flow of energy through the horse’s body. Net energy refers to the amount of energy needed to support exercise, growth, lactation, etc. after other energy losses to the horse have been accounted for. These other energy losses include the energy lost from gas production, urine, the work of digestion and the heat lost from the digestion and fermentation of the feed. The energy that is left over after all of these losses is what is available for the animal to use for other purposes.
The efficiency of conversion of dietary energy to net energy of a horse in light-to-moderate exercise is only about 40%. Therefore, if the horse expends 1 Mcal of net energy, he actually used 2.5 Mcal of DE.  Even regular trail riding will greatly help the horse with our weight loss goals, but increasing the exercise intensity will increase the calorie expenditure even more. If we use the horse’s heart rate as a guide, we can determine how much exercise they need to perform to represent significant calorie expenditure. Let’s say we would like to increase our horse’s energy expenditure to 20% over his maintenance energy requirements. Our goal for our original horse, then, is to use an additional 3.5 Mcal every day.   Our horse’s typical heart rate when he is walking is usually around 60 bpm while trotting will elevate the horse’s heart rate to around 90 bpm. This relates to 24 kcal/min and 56 kcal/min of net energy respectively for walking and trotting.    If we convert that to Mcal of DE, our horse is consuming .06 Mcal /min or .14 Mcal of DE/min. To achieve an energy expenditure of 3.5 Mcal, that would mean we would walk our horse for almost an hour a day, or about a half hour of trotting.  However, these are heart rates of horses which already are fit. For the obese horses we are discussing, the heart rates are usually higher, thus less time will need to be devoted initially to exercising these guys. Good news for them! Heart rates for an unfit horse trotting have been recorded at 120 to 140 bpm! This would correspond to about 0.25 Mcal of DE per minute. Thus only about 15 minutes per day would achieve our increase in energy expenditure of 20%. Remember, this would be 15 minutes total of trotting with intervals of walking. As the horse begins to become more fit and its heart rate lowers, he will tolerate more exercise and will need to increase the amount of time he works to continue using the same amount of calories.
Alternatively, once our horse is fit, we can also add bouts of cantering or loping to his exercise program.   A horse which is cantering typically has a heart rate between 110 and 130 beats per minute and utilizes about .25 Mcal of DE/min. If we add 10-20 minutes of cantering to our exercise program, the duration the horse needs to be ridden to achieve our target energy expenditure would be about 45 minutes per day, which is probably more realistic for most horse owners. This would include a mix of walking, trotting and loping. Combining this regular exercise program with our restricted diet will help your horse add years to his life.
Good luck with your weight loss goals.

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