Equine obesity is a growing problem in the UK horse population and is often called the silent torturer, with overfeeding and lack of exercise being the main reasons for its increase. Obesity is a considerable health risk and can lead to organ damage, osteoarthritis and almost certainly Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), insulin dysregulation and hyperinsulinaemia, which are risk factors for laminitis.
Interestingly, current research is beginning to show strong links between obesity and the hindgut microbiome. So, in our latest technical blog, Lisa Elliott, MSc of Equine Nutrition Solutions explores the connections between obesity, EMS and the Hindgut microbes together with essential guidelines to help combat equine obesity through the right dietary management and nutrition.
Equine Obesity and EMS
Equine Metabolic Syndrome known as ‘EMS’ is a common syndrome that affects normal hormone regulation and metabolism within horses, and particularly ponies, and has similarities to type 2 diabetes in humans. Whilst not all obese or overweight horses and ponies are predisposed to EMS, there are strong links between EMS and obesity and obesity is a core factor within horses and ponies with EMS. The classic signs and symptoms of EMS are generally increased regional adiposity or put simply, fat pads in certain areas on the body, an inability to regulate insulin levels within the body, known as ‘Insulin Dysregulation’ and ultimately a predisposition to laminitis, representing a significant health risk.
The impact of the Hindgut Microbiome
The hindgut microbiome is responsible for fibre digestion and has a significant impact on your horse’s health and well-being. Whilst management practices can affect your horse’s weight, the hindgut microbiome can affect the breakdown and utilisation of energy ingested by the horse, and therefore, also have a significant impact on their weight.
In humans, it has been found that those with low digestive tract microbial levels increased insulin resistance and greater levels of fat circulating in their blood. Meanwhile, in horses, it has been found that those who are obese also have different levels and variations of bacteria in their hindgut.
Recent research has shown an abundance of hindgut bacteria that have an enhanced ability to break down plant material and supply a greater level of energy, in obese compared to leaner horses and obese ponies who struggle to lose weight. These types of bacteria were, therefore, positively associated with obesity and their abundance in the microbiome will have a significant impact on promoting weight gain and the potential for obesity. However, it is still unclear whether their abundance is influenced by diet or genetics. The research has also found that obese horses and ponies who had lower weight loss rates had a greater diversity of bacterial species within the hindgut, but this could be linked to the increased abundance of various additional species positively correlated with obesity.
Tips for managing obesity through focused nutrition:
Understanding the links between obesity and the hindgut microbiome helps provide the foundations for preventing and combatting it through focused nutrition, alongside general management tips and advice:
If you have your own land, a really useful way to prevent and combat obesity is to consider the grass types and growth stage of your grazing. Providing a range of mixed-species grasses can be beneficial as many species can be much lower in sugar and calories than the traditional ryegrass based pastures in the UK. Grazing which is lower in sugar and calories will not only help prevent the development of obesity but may also help reduce the abundance of hindgut microbes linked to obesity whilst encouraging the growth of microbes less likely to promote it. Similarly, letting your horses graze consistently on grasses that have gone to seed and are, therefore, much higher in fibre and lower in sugar can have the same effects. A paddock filled with tall, mixed grasses and wildflowers can be ideal.
Improve microbial diversity
Building biodiversity within your grazing with a wide range of grasses and wildflowers will help support better overall diversity within the hindgut microbiome and could also help reduce the potential for a greater abundance of certain microbes associated with obesity. A diverse range of forage will help support a wide range of microbes, promoting a healthy, more balanced microbial population.
In the absence of mixed-species grazing or if you don’t own your own land, this biodiversity can be provided through feeding a mixed herb supplement like Pure Paddock Essential Mix.
This hindgut friendly, herbal blend will help support overall diversity within the hindgut microbiome but without the calories which are important for horses and ponies prone to obesity. Additionally, the herbs within this mix provide feed to stimulate beneficial microbes for a healthy hindgut. A healthy, balanced hindgut microbial population will help reduce the chance of digestive disturbances, whilst potentially helping your horse or pony to maintain a healthy weight.
Horses are supposed to use their fat reserves to keep warm in winter, so keeping rug use to a minimum or turning the horse out without one can help your horse lose those extra pounds.
Implement a suitable diet and exercise regime
Creating a ‘calorie deficit’ or in other words, more calories going out than in is key for effective weight loss and can be achieved through a combination of diet and exercise. If your horse is overweight, a suitable calorie reduction diet that doesn’t compromise on fibre intake or essential vitamins and minerals should be planned with the help of your vet or nutritionist.
Ensuring your horse has plenty of exercise is one of the most important things you can do to maintain them at a healthy weight. For an obese horse, however, exercise should be started very gradually and built up to the chosen level once the horse drops weight and becomes fitter.
Feed for work done not what is anticipated
Feeding unnecessary energy will result in weight gain, so always ensure you feed for the type of work the horse is doing now and not for what may or may not be done in the future.
Monitor weight and condition regularly
Using a weight tape and condition scoring chart to monitor your horse’s condition regularly can help pick up subtle changes in condition and weight loss or gains. In this way, the diet can then be adjusted accordingly or not as necessary to ensure the right amount of condition for optimum health.
What can you do next?
Click below to order your sample of The Essential Mix and start improving your horses’ hindgut health today!