Horse weight management

As with humans, when it comes to horses, maintaining a healthy weight is key to overall wellbeing. Being over or underweight can cause a whole range of problems from issues with your horse’s hooves to problems with their hearts, so it’s essential to keep an eye on your horse’s weight. Unfortunately though, measuring a horse’s weight isn’t quite as simple as hopping on the bathroom scale!

Horse Weight Management

We’re all guilty of being a little lazy sometimes, and the same goes for our horses. But is it your horse’s weight that is making him lack that get-up-and-go attitude? Might he have a spring in his step if he lost a few pounds?

So if your horse is slow to move off the leg, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re feeding him correctly. It’s a bit of a vicious circle, as horses that are overweight will feel less inclined to move around, but still eat lots of food – horses are genetically programmed to eat and store energy. Here are some practical steps if your horse is on the podgy side:

1. Calculate your horse’s weight and decide on a target. Your vet will be able to weigh him and advise on an ideal weight for his build and level of work.

2. Reduce feed gradually. Take, for example, a pony weighing 440kg that has a target weight of 360kg. Rather than feed him for 360kg, which might irritate him and lead to behavioural issues, Gil suggests initially feeding for 400kg. A good rule is to feed 1.5% of a horse’s body weight in dry matter every 24 hours. So this pony would need 6kg of dry matter daily, split up as 1.5kg of hay and 1.5kg of chaff morning and night. It’s vital that you weigh food to ensure accuracy.

3. Assess progress by trial and error. If your horse’s weight goes up or stays the same, you need to feed him less. Perhaps he needs less turnout, or to be muzzled. If his weight is dropping slowly but steadily week on week, your calculations are right. Remember, though, to keep an eye on the amount of feed after the goal weight has been reached, to ensure he doesn’t become thin.

If a lack of motivation seems to tip into listlessness or lethargy, there could be more serious medical issues at hand, such as anaemia, liver or lung problems, or (in older horses in particular) Cushing’s disease.

Making sure your horse is not over or underweight is important for his health and wellbeing. It may be that he is a little on the lazy side, so spicing up your ride should inspire him to enjoy exercise more, and weight can be managed through controlled feeding. But if you notice listlessness and lethargy, it’s important to consult your vet.

Horse body language

Your horse’s body language can provide clues to his physical wellbeing. Petplan Equine look at the possible reasons behind a range of ‘bad’ behaviours.

Horse Body Language​​

Unhappy riding

If your horse resents his girth being tightened, or is unhappy during ridden exercise (especially when cantering, which demands a horse’s back to go through a greater range of motion), he could be suffering from ‘kissing spine’. This is a condition where the vertical spinous processes of the vertebrae – most especially those in the saddle area – are excessively close and rub against each other, resulting in a painful back. Definitive diagnosis is made by x-ray and the treatment is usually surgical.

Head shaking

Different to head tossing (see below), this is where a horse jerks his head suddenly when ridden and is an extremely frustrating condition for both horse and rider. It is caused by a dysfunction in the nerve supplying sensation to the skin of the face, and afflicted horses tend to develop it at around five to seven years of age. It is often worse in the summer and is unfortunately a lifelong condition with no current cure. You can help manage the condition with nose nets, fly masks and various medications – ask your vet for further advice.

Head Tossing and Irritability

Head tossing and irritability

These are two very common behavioural problems and can occur as a result of health issues as well as rider technique. Riders need to understand the root of the problem here – using artificial aids such as draw reins may simply prevent a horse from showing signs of pain, increasing the stress he feels.

If you notice that your horse is behaving poorly during exercise, you must consider the possibility of lameness. This occurs because of pain somewhere in one or more of the limbs and is often only obvious during ridden exercise – the additional weight of the tack and rider and the demands of the work increase the pain the horse is experiencing. Head tossing and irritability are two likely signs of his unhappiness.

Your horse may also toss his head around if he has any dental problems – especially when wearing a noseband. This presses his cheeks against the sharp enamel points of his cheek teeth, increasing the pain in his mouth. By tossing his head around, your horse is trying to get comfortable. Horses are usually affected more on one rein than the other, depending on where the dental problems are. It’s a good idea for your horse to have twice-yearly dental examinations by a vet or a (BEVA qualified) equine dental technician to help prevent or to treat problems.



Stable Entertainment

When the weather is dreadful, we don’t get out as often as we’d like to. How can we keep our horses mentally stimulated when we’re riding less, and they’re stabled more? Here is some advice on how to keep a horse entertained through the long, dark winter months.

Stable Entertainment

Play ball

Playing is important for a horse and some horses like footballs to nose around. Trickle feeding balls are also a good option as they allow horses to eat slowly and keep busy.


Many horses enjoy the company of a radio voice. They often associate various DJs with certain times of day, such as afternoon feeds. The type of music can also make a difference: studies have shown that horses prefer classical music to chart music - so think about what your horse might really enjoy rather than keeping him up to date with the latest pop songs! And remember, if you have an older horse, he will be happy to sleep half the day, particularly once he gets over the age of 25. So turn the radio off for a couple of hours to give him some peace and quiet.


These are cheap and can help a horse feel like he has company when he sees himself (though some use them far more than others).


Horses enjoy physical contact, and would naturally groom each other in the wild or in the field, so this is an important part of your horse’s routine. If your horse doesn’t wear a rug in winter, you should avoid over-grooming as it removes some of the natural oils in his coat that help to keep it waterproof. If he does wear one, it is vital that you groom him at least once a day, preferably morning and night, to loosen and remove the dead hair, sweat and grease that build up under the rug. If you want to go the extra mile, you could even hire a massage machine or massage your horse yourself for a bit of extra TLC!


A haynet will slow down the pace of eating and keep your equine companion busy. You could even hide carrots in the middle as a surprise. Some people are wary of using these because they believe that a horse’s teeth and spine are more correctly aligned when eating from the floor. It’s up to you to decide what is best for your horse, and bring a haynet out as little or as often as you see fit.

A walk and a pick

Even going out for just 10 minutes morning and evening when you muck out will break the monotony of being stabled through the winter. You could also turn your horse out in a sand school for an hour, or at least while you muck out and make up the feeds - putting your horse in a different environment will stimulate him and break up the day.

The best thing of all, though, is to find a livery yard where your horse can be turned out. Veterans need to be turned out for a minimum of four hours a day to prevent stiffness, and all horses need lots of fresh air and regular exercise to keep them happy and healthy through the long winter months.

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