Nutrition 20 of 24

The Fat Horse

Horses, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Determining the ideal weight for your horse will be very helpful in keeping him healthy. Most people agree on what is too thin but people’s opinion about what is too fat may vary greatly. Some people equate fat with healthy; Let me explain why this may not be true.

Overly fat horses are more prone to heat stress because fat acts as an insulator, holding heat in the body. Laminitis is more common in overweight horses due to the increased load on the lamina within the hoof capsule. Excess weight is hard on joints and tendons, and if your horse becomes injured and has to stay off of one leg, the other legs are more likely to break down. It can be very difficult to fit a saddle on horses with excessive fat over the withers. Also, excessively fat brood mares tend to have more difficulty with late pregnancy and delivery.

So, now that you are convinced of the importance of keeping your horse trim, you need to learn how to evaluate the correct weight for your horse. Some heavy boned horses may appear fat even in optimum condition while others look cute but may be dangerously over weight. The latter is especially true of ponies. My best guide is fat cover on the ribs. I want to be able to feel ribs under a thin layer of fat but not see them. A horse in optimum condition will have a trim profile with even fat distribution. An overweight horse will have larger accumulations of fat over the crest, withers and loins. Sometimes a horse in good condition will have a hay belly. This is from eating large amounts of poor quality roughage, which causes the large intestine to expand. It can be unsightly but is not a health risk. If you are not sure if your horse is too fat or just has a hay belly then check the fat cover over the ribs and backbone.

Management For Weight Control


If your horse hangs out in a stall all day get him out for some regular work. If you don’t have time to ride consider lounging for 10-15 minutes a day or even a brisk walk down the road. If your horse lives in a large pasture but parks himself under a shade tree consider putting the water and salt at opposite end of the field to encourage some movement.


Cut back on or cut out grain. In active adult horses can maintain well on roughage alone. I would suggest giving a vitamin mineral supplement such as Blue Green Algae to make sure your horse gets all the nutrition he needs. Many of our hays and grasses do not have trace minerals due to depleted soils and stored hay is often lacking in vitamins. Many overweight horses are actually under nourished and the algae will prevent this. You may also want to give your horse 2 – 4 TBS of canola or soybean oil daily to curb his appetite. You can give this in a small bran mash or pour it directly on hay.

Managing your Horse’s Metabolism

Ideal weight influenced to a large extant by proper feeding and exercise, however, your horse’s previous management may also play a role. It is my understanding that the number of fat cells an animal has in determined at a young age. Therefore, if you over or under feed young horses this will influence how they store fat when they mature. So, feed your foals using the same criteria as adults.

If your horse stays fat on almost no food despite regular exercise he may have an inactive thyroid gland. Your vet can run several thyroid tests to determine if hormone levels are constantly low. Some hypothyroid horses respond to homeopathic remedies or glandular supplements to stimulate thyroid function. Others require daily supplementation of thyroid hormone.

About the Author

Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy.

Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.

She has authored several books and publishes at her blog.

Madalyn Ward DVM