Metabolic Concerns With Equine

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As responsible horse owners, we want to do right by our horses. This means keeping them fed and at a healthy weight. As we look out at our horses in the pasture, we see that they are nice and fat, but is that really a good thing? It may make us feel good, but we are doing more harm than good. Obesity can lead to all kinds of health problems for horses and can even have them living a very uncomfortable or poor quality of life.

To help horse owners better understand how to properly care for their horses, a few local N.C. Cooperative Extension agents have organized a horse health series, and the first presentation was done on January 6, 2021, by Dr. Shannon Pratt-Phillips, a professor of Equine Nutrition and Physiology from NC State University on Metabolic Concerns with Equine. The following information is adapted from Dr. Pratt-Phillips’ presentation.

Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) or more commonly known as Equine Cushing’s Disease, is a metabolic problem seen in all breeds of horses. Cushing’s is caused by an enlarged, benign tumor in the pituitary gland that causes an overproduction of hormones. The most critical hormone that is affected is ACTH (adrenocorticotrophin hormone) which increases the production of cortisol. The overproduction of cortisol is the leading cause of many symptoms seen with Cushing’s. Signs that a horse may have Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) are shaggy hair coat, muscle loss or wastage, unexplained bouts of laminitis, and increased drinking and urination. Many horses with Cushing’s can also develop isoline resistance.

Another condition that affects horses is Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). EMS is a collection of metabolic and endocrine (glands that secrete hormones or other products directly into the blood) problems associated with increased risk of Laminitis. These problems include Insulin Dysregulation or Insulin Resistance, obesity, Hyperinsulinemia, Hypertriglyceridemia (elevated fats in blood), and Hyperleptinemia (hormone that is used for energy balance and maintenance of body weight).

Other problems seen with obesity are heat intolerance, reproductive problems, and orthopedic disease such as arthritis. But how do you grade your horse on obesity to prevent these problems? A horse can have a body condition score done, which is done on a scale of 1-9. A score of 6 is overweight and a score of 7 and up is considered obese. If doing a crest neck score, the scale is 0-5 with >3 being overweight and concerning.

Horse

To help prevent horses from developing these metabolic conditions we need to focus on keeping horses at a healthy weight. A horse that needs to lose weight will have better results with exercise and diet combined. It’s important to balance energy. There needs to be less energy intake (diet) and more energy output (exercise). It’s key to keep in mind that a horse only needs to lose 0.5-1% of its body weight per week. If you have a 1000lbs horse, they need to lose about 10lbs per week. A horse with a body condition score of 8 will need restricted time on well-established pastures, or a grazing muzzle can be used to limit forage intake. Other steps that can be taken are hay testing and soaking of hay. Hay testing lets you know what the hay you’re feeding is made up of as far as nutrients and minerals. Soaking hay in water lowers the sugars in the hay and also decreases the DE (digestible energy). Another option to help a horse lose weight is ration balancers. Ration balancers can be fed multiple times a day as advised on bag/container.

As mentioned before, diet and exercise go hand in hand when it comes to getting extra weight off a horse. Different exercises that can be done are lunging at a walk and trot for an extended period of time or long rides done at a walk. Within a pasture, different objects can be set up to make the horse walk around more, for example, adding hills or obstacles to maneuver around before getting to pasture, hay, or water.

Having a good relationship with a vet will also be beneficial. A good time to bring up metabolic concerns is when the vet comes out to administer seasonal shots. Things can be addressed and properly taken care of after the vet has looked over the horse and addressed your concerns.

For more information and questions, you can reach out to your local livestock agent. The next presentation will be on January 13 on Equine Dentistry by Dr. Bryan Taylor of Taylor Mobile Equine Dentistry. If you would like a copy of the Metabolic Concerns with Equines presentation form Dr. Shannon Pratt-Phillips contact Katie Carter via email at katie_carter@ncsu.edu.

Written By

Katie Carter, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionKatie CarterArea Agent, Agriculture - Livestock Call Katie Email Katie N.C. Cooperative Extension, Jones County Center
Updated on Jan 7, 2021
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