Why is my horse an “easy keeper”?
Air ferns are those whimsical little plants that you don’t need to feed or water - they just grow with air. In the horse world, this is the equivalent of the “easy keeper”. But how do you know if your horse is technically an easy keeper, and what are some of the root causes of this? And is it “bad”, and what can you do about it?
This lovely creature has visible ribs - not usually a sign of an "easy keeper".
Easy keepers are often the overweight or obese horse. They are a challenge because they collect weight like it’s going out of style, and quite often it’s really hard to meet their daily nutritional requirements (like vitamins and minerals) without causing their weight to increase.
An easy keeper will be easy to find - you need to use your eyes and fingers to examine your horse. Perhaps you have heard of a body conditioning score? Easy keepers often have the following:
- Ribs that are hard to find and even harder to see.
- A neck that’s cresty and often lumpy with fat deposits.
- Withers that are covered in a layer of fat.
- A tail head area that has fat pads. You may also find fat pads on flanks and shoulders. I have seen some the size of lily pads, and they are super squishy and fatty.
- Between the hind legs as the butt cheeks are so big they extend lower than normal.
Your Veterinarian can easily do a body conditioning score on your horse at the next visit. A score between 7 and 10 indicates some weight issues towards the obese end of things. Most horses that are easy keepers have an underlying metabolic issue, such as insulin resistance or Cushing’s disease. Easy blood tests can give your Veterinarian the complete picture.
Here’s where you get into trouble with easy keepers:
- They are at risk of overheating from the extra layers of fat insulation.
- Their stamina is decreased.
- They are more likely to develop laminitis. For more on the early signs of laminitis, read this article.
- Their joints are stressed more than normal.
- They can develop fatty lipomas that can strangle the gut, requiring surgery to repair.
Your Veterinarian and Equine Nutritionist can help you come up with the best diet possible to maintain nutrition and steady nibbling of food without causing weight gain. This is not done with a drastic reduction of forage. Instead, be selective about the forage - and you may need to steam or soak your horse’s hay and use a hay net or slow feeder. Again, your Vet can help you with what choices are available in your area. Most horses benefit from reduced pasture or no pasture at all. Most horses will need supplements to provide the correct vitamins and minerals. Grazing muzzles are a good choice for some horses.
You also need to regularly exercise your horse. Doing so in a methodical and gradual manner is best. Avoid being a weekend warrior. Your Vet can help you determine a safe and fair exercise plan.
Definitely keep a weight tape around so that you can measure your horse’s progress if he needs to shed some pounds! You can learn how to do this in this article.