Let’s take a look at how a wild horse’s weight naturally fluctuates through the seasons because the spring grass is starting to come through and then we all have to be vigilant for the dreaded L-word.
This is when horses should be in their peak condition. Grass is growing steadily, it’s warm, the grass has a fairly good level of nutrition but there might be slight variations if there’s a hot spell.
There is a flush of rich, highly nutritious grass in the autumn, and the horses put on a bit of weight in preparation for the coming months. After the flush of grass, the temperature cools down and the grass grows more slowly and with less nutritional value.
Wild horses may look on the rotund side in autumn, but their bodies are stock piling energy reserves for the colder months.
Grass stops growing at six degrees Celsius, and what does grow isn’t very nutritious. Wild horses forage to fill their belly, but rely on their fat stocks for the majority of their energy requirements.
Towards the end of the winter, the horses start to look a bit ribby and thin as they use up their fat resources.
Wild horses are looking thin, but the spring grass grows rapidly, is lush and full of sugars. The horses put on weight and no longer look half starved. They can end up looking too fat, but once the grass growth levels off for summer then the horse’s weight will plateau.
So how do we, as horse owners, affect this natural fluctuation and what problems does this cause?
By domesticating horses we put them at risk of obesity. For starters, we limit their habitat. This means that they do not need to scavenge for food over miles, thus limiting their exercise. Partnered with the fact our paddocks are specifically grown with horses in mind. That means it’s good quality, plentiful and encourages horses to put on weight easily. After all, in the wild, how often do you see large areas of good quality grazing? You don’t. It’s either small patches of good grazing or larger areas of poorer grazing.
So our horses don’t have to work as hard to fulfill their energy requirements.
Next up, is how we dress our horses. Some of us clip, most of us rug. Clipping removes the thick winter coat, and doesn’t really cause a weight problem in itself. The problem comes in how we rug the horses. Putting a rug on horse means their bodies don’t have to work as hard to keep warm. Which means their energy requirements are less. An unrugged horse will raise their long winter coat, trapping pockets of air to insulate themselves. They will also be using up energy to keep warm. Now, I’m not saying either side is right, but I am saying that there is a balance: an over rugged native pony won’t lose valuable pounds over winter which means that they are already obese coming into spring and are at high risk from laminitis. A clipped horse in too few a rugs will shiver and lose condition because they don’t have their long winter coat to trap air pockets. We have to find the personal balance between clipping and rugging to keep our horses at the optimum temperature.
Stabling horses, and supplementing forage in winter is vital for horse owners because we require horses to work for us and in order to perform for us they need more energy than a wild horse does through winter. Additionally, we have limited land available to us so need to rest our paddocks. Wild horses would roam across vast areas, avoiding the exposed, bare areas in winter thus letting the ground rest and spring grass to flourish before returning there in better weather.
There isn’t much we can do in terms of not stabling unless we are lucky enough to live on our own large private estate (in my dreams!) but we can be aware of the changing daylight hours, changing temperatures, and make sure forage levels are adjusted in line with grass availability. For example, as the spring grass starts to grow it’s wise to slowly reduce hay put in the field for horses so they don’t have too much intake of food and put on weight too quickly. Often we don’t see the spring grass in our paddocks, but that’s because the horses are eating it as soon as it grows! To monitor grass growth, watch empty paddocks, or grass outside the fields and that will give you a good indication.
By putting our own demands onto horses and domesticating them, we don’t want our horses’ weight to fluctuate, we want them in prime condition all year around. Which is fine, but it’s wise to remember that we have to work with the land, so having your horse come out of winter a little on the lean side is no bad thing because they will soon pick up as the spring grass grows. Likewise, having a horse who will winter out being a bit tubby in autumn is a good thing as he’ll soon lose that keeping himself warm and then be of a good weight ready for the spring.
It’s hard to balance both the natural pressures of the environment and the artificial pressures that we apply to our horse’s lives, but I don’t think we should worry about them being a little lean coming out of winter.