I see weight control as two issues in horses. Either the horse remains underweight despite abundant food, or the horse remains overweight despite a restrictive diet. Weight needs to be seen as both body fat and as muscle mass. Both are important for health but have different purposes.
Muscle develops to make movement possible, but it is also critical in maintaining overall health. When improperly fed, the horse will turn muscle into fuel, and over time, the horse will lose the muscle of the top line. Body fat covers the lack of muscle, so when a horse successfully removes the fat, it reveals the underlying muscle loss. During a long winter that consumes body fat, the owner will start to see this muscle loss but not recognize it as muscle loss. Instead, the owner will add more calories with sugar (grain), adding back fat. Covering up the muscle loss doesn’t replace it; the horse becomes unhealthier over time. In humans, this is known as sarcopenia and leads to the number one accidental killer of senior humans – falling.
Regardless of the diet, some horses never seem to add body fat. Horse owners call these horses “hard keepers.” However, there are complications where the horse consumes too many calories (overworked) or cannot convert the calories fed into energy for use. Improper conversion is called a dysfunctioning gut, and the number one reason for this is dysbiosis, or where the gut bacteria (microbiota) are not functioning correctly.
The solutions for too much fat with underlying muscle loss and too little fat in the abundance of food are very much the same. The first step is to remove the inflammation in the gut. The primary cause of this is the feeding of high sugar diets every day of the year. I have seen hard keepers gain weight rapidly after removing the inflammatory feed. It goes against logic until the cause is understood.
Sugar in the form of starch has the primary purpose of adding body fat for the upcoming winter. Most horses do this effectively, but over time and without a break from sugar intake, the horse becomes overfat and develops metabolic syndrome, including obesity. But daily sugar intake in some horses inflames the gut to the point that it no longer functions properly, and they don’t add body fat. Glucose absorption in these horses fights gut inflammation for an unknown reason but also disrupts the normal gut bacteria (dysbiosis), further preventing the digestion of cellulose into fats. The result is starvation amid plenty plus ulceration of the gut wall from the dysbiosis. Adding medications helps, but removing the disruptive ingredients is more effective.
Food aggression in horses is common, especially in ponies and mini horses and is where the horse seems to live only to eat. But are they really hungry? Another way to look at this need to eat is that the horse is missing something critical in the diet. A successfully proven theory was developed in humans, tested in lab animals, and is called the “Protein Leverage Hypothesis,” which states that mammals will eat until they consume the daily amount of amino acids required to maintain themselves. When this occurs, satiety will occur.
Horses fed adequate amounts of high-quality protein can have grazing muzzles removed, and the ponies lay contented in piles of hay. Horse owners discovered this decreased hunger in their horses after removing grain from the diet and adding protein.
The additional human discovery showed that adding protein to a low carbohydrate diet produced body fat loss, but adding the same amount of protein to a high carbohydrate diet made things worse (adding more body fat). Therefore, from the evidence, it is clear that horses need to have restricted sugar intake, and this is done with the elimination of grain and all other sources of sugar, limiting the intake of starch from pasture and hay and the addition of adequate amounts of a high-quality protein source (soybean meal).
For horses with muscle loss seen as a poor top line, adding high-quality protein with the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine) is necessary to build muscle. Exercise alone will never create muscle. If you had all the lumber to build a new barn (the existing muscle on the horse) and a bus full of workers with hammers ready to build the barn (your exercise program), you would never get the barn built without nails (the protein).
- Step one – remove all inflammatory ingredients.
- Step two – add high-quality protein in sufficient amounts.
- Step three – exercise to build the muscle needed for the specific purpose.
- Step four – write it all down in a dated journal. Improvements over time will develop if you are patient. Sometimes it takes a year or more, especially in senior horses.
Food aggression and horses that vacuum every bit of food in sight.
I have always said that fast food restaurants don’t make us fat – but driving to them instead of walking to them makes us fat. Many people tell me that their horses work “hard.” I then ask them, “So your horses pull cannons over mountains into battle?” I continue, “Let’s hook your horse up to the buckboard and drive him into town where we can have lunch and discuss this further.” A dressage rider asked me once, “What’s a buckboard?”
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