Fat Horses: Reasons, Prevention and Maintenance

December 9, 2022
Fat horse running in pasture

Horses, much like humans, come in different shapes and sizes. As obesity in humans can cause many problems, it isn’t surprising that obesity in horses is a problem and a top concern among equine vets. Like humans, some horses tend to be overweight. So, how can horse owners deal with fat horses?

A lack of exercise and a poor diet lead to a horse being fat. An overweight horse needs a weight loss strategy that combines diet and exercise. The horse’s diet should never undergo dramatic alterations. Reducing calorie intake, feeding a healthier diet, and exercising are important.

There are some serious health implications for fat horses. It is important for horse owners to constantly be aware of their horse’s body condition. Recognizing when a horse is overweight is imperative as it will help keepers understand what a healthy weight is, why the horse is obese, how to prevent the horse from becoming fat in the future, and how to manage a horse’s weight.

All About Fat Horses

Bay horse walking in show. Fat horses are easy to see
Horse feeding in fresh snow

A horse shouldn’t carry over 20% of its own weight. However, some horses are prone to putting on too much weight. When it happens, not many horse owners can spot it. When keepers see their horses frequently, it can be easy to overlook steady weight gain.

The reason for this is that many owners would have a difficult time being able to tell the difference between muscle and fat. This is because some fat a horse can gain is firm around the neck, whereas fat is normally spongy.

Suppose you’re wondering how to tell when your horse is overweight. In that case, one of the best ways to figure out whether your horse is overweight is to assess its body. This is called a Henneke body condition scoring assessment that should be carried out every couple weeks.

This assessment will help you to be able to determine whether or not your horse is overweight. This body scale assessment is done on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being fat. There are three different sections to look at when carrying out this assessment.

The first section is the front section which consists of the horse’s neck, shoulders, and crest. The next section, the middle section, consists of the back, ribs, and underbelly. The last and third section is the rump, inner things, and tail head.

Those three sections are scored separately and given a score ranging from 0 to 5. They are then added together and divided by 3 to get the final score. This check can be done by a vet, or it can be done by the horse keeper themself.

What the owner is essentially doing is running their hand along the horse’s body and feeling the neck, crest, etc. This will help the owner to determine if it is fat or muscle and if they can feel the horse’s ribs, etc.

Horses that are overweight are unfit. Their loins shouldn’t have fat pockets, and their necks shouldn’t be broad and cresty. By simply brushing your palm over their sides, you must be able to discern their ribs.

Here are some signs to look for:

  • Even with forceful pressure, it’s challenging to feel the ribs.
  • You’ll notice that the horse’s neck is bulging, which is often referred to as cresty.
  • Withers are significantly rounded, and just the spinous processes can be felt or are encased in fat.
  • Fat has accumulated around the lower portion of the girth, and when it is tightened, it leaves an impression.
  • The region of the loin beneath the saddle position has a prominent indentation.
  • Whenever the horse is in a square standing position, its inner thighs rub against each other more than 1/4 of the way down.

What Are Some Reasons A Horse Becomes Fat?

It is the outcome of receiving excessive feed, the incorrect type of nutrition, and insufficient activity. Horses should ideally have unlimited access to space and grazing. Since many horses reside in more metropolitan settings where that is impossible, they require deliberate daily exercise, preferably numerous times, and free turnout periods.

Overweight horse in field
young man and his stallion in a field

Additionally, the type and quantity of their food may not match their degree of effort. Daily checks on the horse’s health are not being done. Therefore, minor tweaks may are not being made. The probability of colic, founder, and other serious illnesses developing increases with the size and severity of a food shift.

Some horse breeds are much more prone to excess weight than others. They may develop obesity if you don’t keep an eye on their diet and don’t have a regular workout program for them. Regardless of breed, it’s critical to keep an eye on your horse’s eating habits in order to prevent weight gain.

The usual amount of activity a horse gets each day could be lessened if it gets hurt or ill. Suppose this exercise variation is not considered when determining feed rations. In that case, particularly if an injury necessitates stall rest, the chances of the horse accumulating fat and putting on weight is high.

How Can Horse Owners Prevent A Horse From Getting Fat?

Horse owners must prevent their horses from becoming overweight. Prevention is always preferable to treatment. Excess fat causes a strain on the lungs, musculoskeletal system, heart, etc. The goal of prevention should be to avoid weight gain at its earliest stages by adjusting the diet and exercise rather than having to implement more drastic measures once the horse has reached excessive weight gain.

Equine weight gain is just as likely in a horse constantly turned out on good grass with little to no vigorous exercise. All horses must be managed to maintain a healthy weight all year round by a balance of reasonable rationing, a healthy, high-fiber diet, and regular physical activity that is suitable for their requirements and skills.

horse and boy standing together. Is this a fat horse?
Teenager boy and brown horse standing near the tree

A horse owner has to maintain their horses’ physical well-being and appropriate body weight. Horses can always be kept happy, fit, and trimmed by modifying care and mixing exercise with a fiber-based diet and access to sufficient mixed forage.

Keep track of your horse’s weight so its diet can be modified as necessary. Additionally, you can periodically measure the horse around the ribs and keep a log. Weekly use of a weigh-tape to measure the horse’s girth is an excellent idea.

Even though weigh tapes aren’t always reliable in determining the precise weight and can vary between types, when the same tape is being used repeatedly, any weight gain or decrease will be comparable to earlier measurements.

What Are Some Ways To Manage A Fat Horse?

Since thoroughbreds are notorious for being hard keepers, it can be challenging to help them gain and maintain a healthy weight. They are bred and developed with a slender, even skinny, body type as their standard. In contrast, some horses are simply easy keepers, as horse keepers like to say. They eat relatively little and keep a good weight. There are several things you must do and keep in mind.

Man rubbing horses face.
Horse in Farm

1. Find A Way To Limit The Fat Horse’s Grazing

If your horses are on pasture, the fat horse must be placed in a dry lot or limited with a grazing muzzle. These muzzles prevent them from overeating by limiting their ability to graze. It can cut down consumption by at least 60%.

As an added benefit, they walk more when eating, which aids in calorie burning. However, keep in mind that a horse should never consume less than 1.5% of its body weight in dry grass or its equivalent in daily grazing if you’re trying to help it lose weight.

Cortisol, a stress hormone that also encourages the body to gain and keep extra weight, rises when a species’ forage intake is severely restricted. Throughout the majority of the day, horses must graze or consume forage.

They usually take a step, nibble, take another step, and repeat all day long while living naturally. The digestive system of an equine is designed to break down little amounts of food all day long. They don’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time and spend most of the night eating. A slow feeder enables one to replicate the pattern of nibbling for hours.

2. Ensure You Give Your Horse Sufficient Exercise

Exercise is very important for a horse. As horses are running animals, it isn’t surprising they enjoy a good workout. As with humans, not only does running burn a lot of calories, but it will also help the horse’s accumulated body fat decrease.

Regularly exercising your horse will also enhance its health and muscle and bone capabilities. Research has proved that when a horse is exercised within reason, combined with a decrease of calories consumed, there is a beneficial effect on the horse’s health.

So, you’ve reduced the feed. Although not the main factor, that is a component. For starters, they should get a minimum of an hour of quality exercise daily, preferably by lunging, riding, or doing both. Lunge horses for an hour if you do not ride them.

You can lunge the horse for an hour, then ride for an hour and even two each day until they’re in better form. If they are engaging in athletic activity, such as jumping, you can typically lunge for two to three days each week and jump for two to three days each week.

The exercise will be gradual because the horse is not in good shape. Up until the horse starts to build any amount of fitness, the horse’s exercise program will be relatively low-key.

3. Forgo Giving Your Horse Grain When They Are Fat

Give no grain to your horse. During a period of three to four days, all grains must be cut out of the diet. To ensure the horse receives the vitamins and minerals it needs to balance its diet, you can give them a ration balancer. Triple Crown 30 is one good example.

If they aren’t receiving grass, you might wish to supplement with 1,000 to 2,000 international units of natural vitamin E. The veterinarian should decide whether the grain is required. Generally speaking, grain should only be introduced if the hay supply does not already offer sufficient calories or minerals.

4. Reduce The Amount Of Feed Given To A Fat Horse

A horse should eat between 1.5 and 2% of his body weight in feed each day. Reducing the amount of feed you give them is a good idea. Ensure that no sweets or other treats are added to the meal or included in it.

Apples, carrots, and other root vegetables are, in fact, good snacks. Dandelions are loved by almost all horses. Horses are fed per their weight, not their height, and the food’s weight, not its volume.

5. Ensure The Horse Eats Low-Calorie Hay

The type of hay the horse requires will be determined by his metabolism. Give them hay with fewer calories if they are currently eating hay. For instance, keepers wouldn’t advise eating alfalfa hay because it has a lot of calories. Compared to alfalfa hay, grass hay has fewer calories, is less nutrient-dense, and has less protein.

6. Implement Some Supplements After Consulting A Vet

It is believed that several dietary elements can aid in weight loss. These should consist of a blend of trace minerals and amino acids such as zinc, chromium, and L-carnitine. Consult your veterinarian if the horse is fat because of a metabolic condition like Cushing’s disease or EMS to learn whether medicine or supplement would be helpful.

7. Don’t Leave Your Horse Out On Rich Grass All Day

Avoid leaving the horse out all day on the lush grass. It’s acceptable to let them spend a few hours each day on the pasture because they like it. They can typically spend the entire day outside if they’re in a paddock. They can’t overeat the grass because it has already been much reduced by their nibbling. If the grass is thick, your only option is to restrict their time.

Note: Once a horse has regained good health, it is crucial to take action to prevent an increase in weight and keep the ideal weight and body condition. Adopt a reasonable management strategy to make sure a horse is getting the right amount of activity and a balanced diet

Raise the quantity of grass hay supplied progressively until the horse isn’t losing weight once it has achieved the required body condition. You’ll also want to feed the horse numerous little meals during the day instead of going back to big meals.

In some seasons, like the summer and fall, horses kept on pasture can still require the usage of grazing muzzles. This is because the grass is lush around that time, and horses may have difficulty resisting gorging themselves on it. Water and salt blocks should continue to be available whenever and wherever.

A good balance of vitamin and mineral supplements should be given to the horse in the specified doses if it only consumes dry grass hay. Should the horse need grain to be able to take the supplements, ensure, you do not go overboard.

Aim for less than 1/2 pounds for the horse to eat. A serving of 1/4 to 1/2 cup of soybean meal offers high-quality protein without adding many extra calories. As can be seen, easy keepers are, in other words, both a treat and a struggle.

Simple food requirements for them include adequate forage, feed, and water. It can be difficult to keep the fat off them, particularly during the summertime when they are most susceptible to heat exhaustion and foundering.

Why Is It Important That Horses Don’t Get Fat?

There are several important reasons why horse owners should keep their horses healthy. This means that your horse should have good body condition. One reason is that you want your horse to have good joint and bone health.

The risk of osteoarthritis is when the horse has excessive weight. In addition to the weight bearing, one has to take into account the surface that it is based on. As each horse hoof is going to carry the horse, that means that when there is more weight, the horse will be more susceptible to laminitis or just hoof stress.

Horses that are overweight also have compromised mechanisms of thermoregulation and insulin dysfunction. Furthermore, a horse’s body’s physiology regarding hormone balance can be completely thrown off. As you can see, there are many key reasons why managing an overweight horse is important. When a horse accumulates excess fat, its performance and functionality are impaired.


Given that keepers are in charge of the food, it is their responsibility to supply food with the proper calorific value and at the appropriate time. If you are unable to ride, then hand walk, or long your horse for 30 minutes or more, at least three to four times each week. Allowing your horse to get fat will lead to many health problems and even serious diseases. Your horse will be much happier when it is not fat.




I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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