While many owners might look at a roly-poly pony or a fat shiny horse and think they look good, there are a slew of health issues attributed to obesity. Many owners are not educated about their horses’ nutritional needs, and few people work with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian to evaluate their animals’ diet.

This can lead to overfeeding nutrient-dense concentrates or the inclusion of products in a diet that the horse simply does not need. This, combined with the overestimation of how much exercise the horse gets, can lead to overfeeding.

With the exception of training for activities like endurance and extensive showing, most daily exercise the average horse gets is still considered “light to moderate.”

In other words, you might be sweating and tired from that 30-minute hack, but your horse could keep going for hours. In certain disciplines, like hunters and halter, obese animals have the desired “look” and are rewarded in the ring or pen, further contributing to the problem.

If you consider human sports, an obese person would not be asked to run a marathon or play in a soccer match, so why do we have these expectations of our horses?


Obesity in horses is not without health consequences. The extra fat and bodyweight can increase chances of injury during exercise and reduce exercise capacity.

Risk of lipomas (fatty tumors that form in the belly of a horse) increase in obese horses and can lead to colic because of intestinal strangulation. Finally, obesity increases the chance of metabolic issues such as insulin resistance and laminitis.

The easiest way to manage an obese horse is to not let them become obese in the first place. It is much easier to gain weight than it is to lose weight.

A proper body condition score can be maintained by carefully monitoring the horse and adjusting feed intake accordingly.

An equine nutritionist can help evaluate the horse’s needs and develop a plan to maintain bodyweight. Weight tapes can be used to get an approximate bodyweight and to monitor the horse’s weight over time.

With a little training, body condition scoring can be used to assess fat deposits on specific points on the horse and determine where they lie on a scale. While this is a subjective method, it can be used to monitor changes in weight.

Just like in people, the best way to manage a horse that is already obese is to modify the diet and increase exercise. Horses can safely lose up to 0.5 to 1 percent of their bodyweight per week.

Modifying a horse’s diet may include reducing grain intake or switching to a less energy-dense feed.

Feeding grass hay (which is lower in energy than legumes such as alfalfa) at no less than 1.5 percent of the horse’s target weight, spread out throughout the day, will help maintain satiety, gut function and alleviate boredom.

Fresh pasture is typically more energy-dense than grass hay, so access should be restricted by using a grazing muzzle or limiting turnout time in the obese horse.

When reducing the diet, care must be taken to ensure your horse’s nutritional needs are still met. This can be accomplished by feeding a ration balancer, which is a low-calorie pellet that contains the essential vitamins, minerals and protein needed to balance a horse’s diet.

To increase energy expenditure, daily exercise should be incorporated into an obese horse’s weight loss program. This may be as simple as turning out a stalled horse, but this only works if the horse is self-motivated to exercise.

Most animals will need “forced” exercise through riding, lunging or use of a hot walker. Regardless of the method, the level of exercise should be increased gradually to prevent stress and injury in an unfit horse.

It goes without saying, to achieve weight loss, feed should not be increased as exercise is increased. In the end, management of obese horses starts with simply making sure the animal burns more energy than it consumes.  end mark

Kristen Brennan

Kristen M. Brennan
Research Project Manager