Emma Case BSc (Hons), Nutritionist with Baileys Horse Feeds, looks at how best to achieve and maintain the ideal condition in our ponies whilst still acknowledging their basic physiological needs and the limitations of the equine digestive system.

Fit Not Fat

What is condition?

Horses and ponies carry different proportions of muscle and body fat according to their type and level of fitness or training. It is our aim, as horse owners, to ensure that these proportions are appropriate to the work we are expecting of the horse and adjust his diet and work load accordingly. Body condition scoring, using a numerical scale where 0 is "poor" and 5 is "obese", can be a useful way of objectively assessing condition by looking at the horse's neck, ribs and rump. Whatever method you use, it should be both visual and "hands-on" - you need to feel through a thick coat in the winter, which can cover the true picture, whilst a good step back in the daylight will allow an overall assessment. It is also useful to monitor a pony's bodyweight by using a weightape or, better still, a weighbridge. This will not only help you in your calculation of how much to feed but is particularly useful in assessing progress, especially when you are hoping to make considerable changes to a pony's condition.

The Right Condition

Having established your pony's current condition, the next step is to decide whether that is how you would like him to stay or whether you need to make changes in order to help change his condition. For this you will also need to consider the work the pony is expected to undertake and the level of fitness he needs to attain. A pony who does dressage or showing, for example, needs muscle tone and the strength for shorter bursts of physical effort but may carry more "condition" than a pony competing in driving trials and needing stamina for the sustained efforts of a lengthy marathon section. Even when trying to keep the level of body fat to a minimum, with correct diet and training, you should be able to achieve top line and well-muscled hind quarters. Equally, if your aim is for a more rounded appearance for the show ring, aim to achieve this by building muscle rather than extra body fat.

Putting it On

A common approach to promoting weight gain, is to feed more of the existing feed, or to add straights, such as barley or maize, and gradually the costs mount up but the condition you are looking for may not. Not only is it unbalancing the ration by adding straight cereals to an already balanced compound feed, but you are also likely to be feeding ever increasing volumes which the equine stomach, with its limited capacity, simply cannot take. What we risk when feeding large volumes in each feed is that some will pass on out of the stomach and small intestine before it has been fully digested. This presents a couple of problems - firstly the risk of digestive or metabolic upsets, such as colic or even laminitis, as a result of undigested starch reaching parts of the hind gut that it shouldn't. Secondly, the feed will not be fully utilised so some of its nutrients will be lost, resulting in a simple waste of money!

It is therefore much more efficient, more cost effective, and safer, to feed for the job in hand by selecting a compound feed formulated for weight gain and condition. Feeding smaller amounts of a high calorie concentrated feed, like Baileys Top Line Conditioning Mix or Cubes, allows for less starch to be fed in order to promote weight gain. Most reputable feed manufacturers will also use cooking techniques, like steaming or micronising, which significantly increase the digestibility of the starch granules, ensuring that they are broken down in the foregut rather than the undesirable hindgut. Oil is another useful concentrated source of calories which is non-heating and helps to increase the energy density of the ration without significantly increasing volume - Baileys Outshine is particularly beneficial as a concentrated oil source, with added antioxidants, to add to any existing balanced diet for superb condition and coat shine.

The art with promoting weight gain, particularly for the show ring, is knowing when to stop! Continue to monitor your pony's progress and consider the changing contribution that forage makes as the spring grass comes through - be prepared to alter the diet again to one with a lower energy content once your pony is looking how you want him and finding it easier to maintain his condition during the spring and summer months.

Getting it Off

If your pony is at the other end of the scale (and let's face it, most of them are!) and you are always struggling to keep him trim, then a different approach will be required. Feeding less than the recommended quantity of a low energy mix or cube will deprive him of essential nutrients needed for health and well-being whilst still providing some calories that he doesn't need. The fact that your overweight pony is dull and lack lustre may not be so much to do with lack of energy in his diet but with a lack of vitamins and minerals. An ideal solution here is to choose a feed balancer, like Baileys Lo-Cal.

Balancers provide a very concentrated source of nutrients without extra calories and enable you to feed a balanced diet to ensure your pony is receiving all the nutrients for overall health and body maintenance. With correct work you should be able to encourage weight loss, whilst the protein content of the balancer will help promote muscle tone. So on a fully balanced diet, and losing some weight, your previously dull good doer should develop a brighter outlook on life!

Again, be prepared to change what you are feeding throughout the year to suit the changing weather conditions, routine and work load. For the exceptionally good doer, a balancer may be an excellent year round solution whilst for others, once the weight is lost, you may find that as work load increases and the nutrient content of the grass drops off in late summer, you need to reintroduce some calories by choosing a low or medium energy mix or cube, like No.2 Working Horse & Pony Cubes. Remember that keeping things balanced is the key to optimising performance - feed your concentrate at the recommended rate and if it provides too many or too few calories, switch to something that gives you the energy levels you want when fed at the recommended rate.

The Role of Forage

Overweight horses and ponies and good doers must be maintained on a forage-based "calorie controlled diet". Forage should be clean and dust free but of low nutritional value, so choose a stalkier hay, which will contain a higher proportion of indigestible fibre, or consider soaking it for about 2 hours to "wash out" a proportion of the nutrients. Limiting forage intake may be necessary to encourage weight loss (or prevent weight gain) but it should never be allowed to fall below 1% of the pony's bodyweight. If necessary, feed hay in small holed haynets and even put a net within a net to make a small amount of hay last as long as possible. For the poorer doer on the other hand, feeding a good quality hay or haylage that is soft and leafy, will ensure your pony receives plenty of nutrients alongside the all essential fibre.

Keeping it Right

Having achieved the level of condition that suits your pony and the work you require of him, careful monitoring will help you make the adjustments necessary to keep him that way. Try to avoid the massive condition fluctuations which may result from any "down time", whatever the time of the year, as it will take you longer to achieve your "ideal" again. Keep a watchful eye, or use a weightape, and above all, be prepared to alter your regime accordingly to ensure your pony remains on a balanced diet and is fit and healthy to perform.

Feed According to Workload!

One of the most frequently forgotten or misinterpreted Rules of Feeding is the one about "feeding according to work done". Many owners overestimate the amount of work their horse or pony is doing and consequently over feed, resulting in weight gain which can lead to obesity and the risk of laminitis. A pony needs food for the maintenance of body functions and condition and to fuel his work - any that is consumed but not used will be laid down as fat. Good doers can be notoriously difficult to maintain in an acceptable condition but there is no excuse for allowing a pony to become dangerously overweight. Remember, forage contains calories too; it may be essential for a healthy gut function and a healthy mind but too much can still make a pony fat, especially if he is fairly inactive!

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