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Tips for pony weight management through the winter and into Spring

Tips for Pony Weight Management.

Tips for native pony weight management and 'good doers' those that can maintain a good weight in the winter.

A ‘good doer’ is a pony or horse that can survive on fresh air, he is a survival expert, but with our modern management are we providing our good doers with a healthy environment or are we predisposing them to metabolic dysfunction?

'Good doers' possess alternative energy systems to help them survive in harsh environments, every now and again they need a harsh environment to re-establish or balance energy metabolism. What is a harsh environment? We may not like to see horses in a field, without a rug, with a hairy coat, very little grass, and only low-grade hay/straw to eat, but is this better for the native pony good doer than to have a lifetime of EMS leading to laminitis?

‘Cresty’ necks are unsightly lumps of fat found on the neck of an overweight or obese horse and there is a growing awareness amongst vets and horse owners that having a ‘cresty neck’ predisposes it to laminitis.

Some breeds are more prone to having a ‘cresty’ neck than others, native breeds such as the Welsh, Connemaras, Highlands and Shetland ponies are among the more susceptible as they require less food with lower sugar/starch than many of the other breeds, they also have a natural leaning towards insulin resistance because they have evolved from an environment where food supplies are often scarce and available nutrients change from season to season.

Susceptible ponies (and cross breeds) are called ‘good doers’ and they possess an insulin resistant genotype as a survival mechanism which makes them more likely to develop insulin resistance, a good thing as it helps them to survive their native harsh mountain/moorland environment. These ponies naturally have a higher level of insulin secretion and a slower glucose disposal rate which is a positive adaptation for sparse food rations.

During the harsh winter conditions when glucose is unavailable or scarce the ‘good doer’ will switch to an alternative energy system to ensure survival and as the available food changes from grass to shrubs/herbage such as gorse, tree bark and marsh grass the metabolism will also switch to a more conservative system of energy use and storage which prevents any ingested glucose from entering the muscle and adipose tissue. Deprived of glucose the tissues then start to use another energy supply (lipids/triglycerides) allowing the dwindling but precious sources of glucose to support vital organs. ‘Good doers’ have lower insulin sensitivity and higher insulin secretion plus high circulating levels of triglycerides. This tendency towards insulin resistance is a natural efficient adaptation which also involves the ‘pay it forward’ insulin system which exists in the gut.

The problems start when the ‘good doer’ clashes with the modern management system and change of environment, and switches to a diet containing too much sugar and starch from hard feed, high-quality hay and grass (perennial rye) designed by modern farming methods as suitable for high milk yielding cattle, with no drop in the quality of nutrients through the winter months. ‘Good doers’ are more predisposed to laminitis but any horse receiving more calories than required for work will store the excess as adipose tissue and fat pads will soon appear as ‘cresty necks’, tail pads, shoulders, sheath, etc, and has the potential to develop endocrinopathic laminitis.

A 'cresty neck' and fat pads on a native pony that is overweight (obese)

Cresty necks are stores of adipose tissue and adipocytes, these release pro-inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream predisposing the horse to endocrinopathic laminitis.

Don't over-rug and allow the 'good doer' to experience a drop in the quality of nutrients

A native 'good doer' will have inherited a microbiome from his dam which will contain specialist gut bacteria that are efficient at digesting and fermenting indigestible fibre such as cellulose and hemicellulose. These bacteria manufacture important nutrients called short-chain fatty acids that are highly beneficial to the health of the horse. An increase in dietary poor-quality high cellulose nutrients will help to increase the percentages of bacteria that digest this type of fibre.

Native Ponies Thrive on Surviving

Native breeds were designed to live and thrive in a harsh environment and the breed societies have done an amazing job to keep a gene pool (through the registration process and gene typing) which ensures ponies stay true to type. Because of this purity and selective breeding the metabolism of the native pony will also remain true to type and in a similar manner to his ancestors, the seasonal signaling hormones will continue to inform him that winter is on its way. From this month onwards (until December) the plasma insulin levels will rise to signal that an energy release from the adipose tissues is required to help him grow a thick winter double-layered coat and to subsidise the energy deficit from a drop in summer calories, and provide energy for the extra foraging he'll need to do to find enough food. If you rug him now and continue to feed good hay/feed rations he will be more prone to EMS and Insulin Resistance (more reports are coming in from ponies with higher insulin than normal because the weather is warmer than usual and the grass is still growing).

For his sake cut down the food rations, let him shiver and go hungry a bit before the sight is too much to bear or the fields become too waterlogged for comfort!!

If your pony is carrying too much weight then Phytolean (Phytorigins shop) can help, feed continuously through the winter months and into spring during the arrival of the lush grass.

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