Feeding the Easy Keeper
If you’re fortunate enough to ever own an “Easy Keeper,” consider yourself one of the lucky horse owners. Most horses do not fall into this category. Easy keepers are horses that usually maintain or gain weight on a minimum amount of feeding and require a lesser amount of management from horse owners.
But there is a downside to owning or caring for the easy keeper. Unfortunately, the easy keeper has potential for obesity, laminitis, and metabolic issues. Overfeeding an easy keeper can:
• be hard on his musculoskeletal system,
• decrease his athletic stamina
• interfere with heat dissipation, and can contribute to metabolic syndrome
• cause insulin resistance
• cause laminitis
There are various aspects of feeding the easy keeper that horse owners should think about can aid in management:
1. Owners of easy keepers should routinely perform body condition scoring (BCS) and modify feeding regimens to ensure these horses maintain a healthy body weight.
Horses at an appropriate body weight should have rib and hip bones that are not visible, but easily felt. In contrast, a horse is considered overweight if:
• His ribs are difficult to feel with firm digital pressure
• He has a “cresty” neck
• His withers are rounded and covered in fat
• The saddle and girth make indents in his fat when positioned
• His shoulder blades are not easily seen
• The area surrounding his tailhead is bulging or feels soft
• His inner thighs are in contact more than a quarter of the way down the inner thigh region when he is standing square.
2. Offer free range mineral blocks in the pasture or stall. This should be both salt and mineral blocks. There also “all-in-one” blocks available.
3. Many times, an easy keeper may need forage alone to meet all dietary requirements. Thus, concentrates can be possible eliminated.
• A horse owner can offer forage either free-choice or as a daily ration. Although, as a daily ration, there will be less wasted and the bale of hay will be maximized fully.
• A healthy adult horse requires 1.5-2.5% of his body weight in hay per day. Easy keepers generally require only 1.5% of their body weight in hay each day. Thus, an average 1,000-pound easy keeper only needs 15 pounds of hay daily. This can be fed in either square bale form or round bale form. While round bales are more difficult to move, they are a cheaper form of feeding. Hay should be weighed prior to making any change. Simply estimating weight will not provide complete accuracy.
o This amount also varies greatly on quality and quantity of grazing in pasture or turnout area.
• The quality of hay is also an important factor in determining nutritional requirements for horses. The most reliable way to determine nutrient content is to have your hay tested. Contact your county extension agent to learn more about this option.
• Keep any and all hay feeding changes gradual. Start with a handful during the first feedings and increase slowly. You can also mix with existing hay.
4. Easy keepers who are overweight are also susceptible to developing equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and/or insulin resistance (IR). EMS is associated with obesity, abnormal fat deposits, and chronic insulin resistance. IR is a condition in which an increased production of insulin is required in order to maintain (or attempt to maintain) circulating blood sugar levels within normal limits. Horses with EMS/IR have a higher chance of developing laminitis than other, non-EMS/IR horses.
• Rather than controlling EMS/IR through pharmaceutical drugs, it should be controlled through the horse’s diet as well as instituting exercise into the horse’s daily routine.
5. Speaking of diet, the easy keeper pasture access should be somewhat limited.
• Turnout time during the spring and fall should be restricted to just a few hours a day if possible.
• Also, the grass length should be 3-4 inches tall (fully mature, lower calorie content)
• Grazing muzzles can also be used. However, they should only be used in an environment where they are not likely to get caught on something.
• Low sugar content hay is recommended. Have tested to ensure levels are 10-12%.
o If sugar levels are high, the hay can be soaked in water for approximately 60 minutes.
6. Exercise should be part of the easy keeper’s daily routine. It can be in the form of:
Though all these factors of having an easy keeper are important, there is no substitute for a good working relationship with your veterinarian. When purchasing a horse, weigh all factors that are part of responsible ownership.
Sources: Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc; . Mendell, C. A better “weigh.” http://www.TheHorse.com/pdf/nutrition/bcs.pdf; Burwash, L, Warren LK. Alberta Ag-Info Centre. Body condition scoring your horse. www1.agric.gov. ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex9622/$FILE/ body-condition-scoring-horses.pdf; Committee on Nutrient Requirements of Horses, National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition. 2007; Oke, S. Cushing’s Disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome http://www.TheHorse.com/16042 ; Oke, S. Equine insulin resistance. http://www.thehorse.com/; pdf/factsheets/insulin-resistance/insulin-resistance.pdf; 6. Ralston, SL. Maintenance of the easy keeper horse. http://www.esc.rutgers.edu/publications/factsheets_nutrition/