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Feeding Horses
First Posted: Mar 28, 2011
Mar 28, 2011

Easy Keeper/Horse

Ponies are classic easy keepers

What is an easy keeper? An easy keeper, easy doer or (British English) good doer is a livestock animal that can live on relatively little food. The opposite of an easy keeper is a hard keeper (poor doer), an animal that is prone to be too thin and has difficulty maintaining adequate weight.

Easy keepers tend to be found most often in breeds originally developed to survive under harsh conditions. Most pony breeds are easy keepers, and smaller, hardy horse breeds such as the Arabian or Mustang have many representatives with this trait. Many draft horse breeds, such as the Percheron are also easy keepers, as are most mules and donkeys. If overfed with a too rich modern diet, the easy keeper is prone to obesity and other health problems, including laminitis and metabolic disorders.

Easy keepers may be confused with a mare that is pregnant. However, an easy keeper tends to gain weight all over its body, not just in the belly. Easy keepers are not always easy to distinguish from a normal horse that is too fat from simple overfeeding. However, an easy keeper will gain weight quicker and lose weight slower than an ordinary horse, and when fed a standard diet geared toward an average horse, will gain, rather than maintain, weight.

While it is not a problem to keep enough weight on an easy keeper, modern animal husbandry practices are often a challenge to such animals, as a modern diet can lead to a number of health problems, including obesity and, in some cases, laminitis. Some easy keepers may be prone to insulin resistance, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), and possibly are more likely to develop Cushing's disease later in life. Easy keepers with a susceptibility to various metabolic problems are also more prone to develop a "cresty" neck, and to not lose weight in that area, even when placed on a diet.

While easy keepers often thrive in the wild and can survive where other horses might starve, domesticated horses require strict monitoring of their diet. In particular, easy keepers require very limited amounts of fructan and other non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). NSCs are found in higher concentrations in fresh spring grass, cool-season grasses, whole grains, late fall grass that has been exposed to a light but not killing frost, and drought-stressed pastures. NSCs are lower in healthy summer pastures, warm-season grasses, and in pelleted feeds.

Proper nutrition for an easy keeper involves restricting the diet to mostly a low-NSC hay or very time-limited amounts of grazing on healthy pastures. Any grain or other concentrated feed is only required in very small quantities, if at all, even for a horse that is getting regular work. However, an easy keeper may occasionally require vitamin or mineral supplements. When this is the case, a separate commercial supplement added to a very small quantity of feed that is not premixed with supplements is preferred to a premixed "complete" feed that has supplements added. A complete feed has to be fed at a certain quantity for the animal to obtain proper amounts of the added supplements, which is often more food than an easy keeper requires.

If a complete feed is needed because the horse is used for intense physical activity with high energy requirements, or as a supplement due to a hay shortage or when there are very high prices for fodder that make a complete feed a cost-effective option, there are specialized complete feeds designed for ponies and easy keepers. These mixes are low in calories and NSC, but with necessary nutrition. In the United Kingdom, these feeds are sometimes called "pony nuts." In the United States, there is no special term, though such feeds are often labeled as "Lite" feeds, or marketed as a pony mix.

Management of an easy keeper requires not only monitoring of diet but also regular exercise, ideally aerobic exercise obtained by riding or driving the animal on a regular basis.

The following article, "April Showers Bring May Flowers, and Grass!", appeared in the Virginia Tech/College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/MARE Center News, March/April 2011, Volume 2, Issue 2

"...The grass is coming, and while we all like to see happy horses grazing on fields of green, we know that some of our horses will not stay healthy if they have unlimited access to lush grass. Here are a few reminders if you have a pony or an "easy keeper", a horse that gains weight quickly and easily. First, do your best to make sure they are at a correct body condition score (BCS) going into spring. Body condition scoring is a way to estimate fatness in the horse. It evaluates body fat over the crest of the neck, behind the shoulder blade, over the withers, across the ribs, along the topline, and over the tailhead. The BCS scale ranges from 1-9, where a 1 represents a very undernourished animal and a 9 represents one that's highly obese. The goal is to have the horse at a 5, or moderate body condition. At this score, a horse's back will be level, the ribs will be covered but easily felt, the withers appear rounded, the neck and shoulder blend smoothly with the body, and the fat over the tailhead is beginning to feel slightly spongy. Second, prepare a sacrifice area. This is an area where you are intentionally not growing grass. The footing should be firm, not muddy, and the area should have access to water and shelter. Provide hay while the horse is in this area and use it to limit their access to grass while still allowing them space to move around. Finally, consider using a grazing muzzle. These allow you to turn your horse out with others but will restrict their ability to graze. The design of the muzzle and the size of the openings will limit their grass consumption. They can still drink water, though. In the end, it's up to you to do the right thing. Call your county extension office if you have any questions about equine grazing management!"

For More Information:

Obesity In Horses
Weighty Issues
Trimming the Fat: Weight Loss Strategies for the Overweight Horse Extension/A comprehensive article.
Obesity in Horses-The Horse
What Horses Need in Their Diet
Feeding Horses
Horse Weight Calculation
Horse Weight Problems? Possible Causes.
Laminitis Horses
Equine Cushing's Disease

Feeding Horses