Feeding Ponies

It might seem cruel to strap a muzzle over their noses and deprive ponies of the pleasure of free grazing on lush grass, but muzzling them is actually loving them. The fact is, ponies are simply not built for that kind of gastronomical luxury. In order to prevent obesity-related diseases, feed your lovely pony the way Nature intended.

Do you remember the adorable black little pony from that tragic, awful “Gone With the Wind” scene? The one that Rhett Butler’s daughter and Scarlett O’Hara ride. Slender, athletic body; gorgeous, sleek black coat; and a flowing mane and tail? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was always wondering one thing: What kind of pony is that? Because all of the ones I saw were fuzzy, round , and stout.

Ponies are easy keepers – they put on and keep weight so easily, so the expectation that ponies be plump has developed over the decades. However, modern-day researchers say that the cute stout-and-round look really isn’t in our ponies’ best health interest.

These scientists are saying that overweight ponies are at greater risk of developing conditions such as insulin resistance, laminitis, and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). So maybe we should all be aiming for the “Gone With the Wind” pony look.

Obesity-related conditions might affect up to one-third of all ponies. There’s only one real solution to reduce the risk of this happening: Feed ponies properly. Feed them off a pony menu, with appropriate exercise, monitoring, and restrictions.

Pony History, Genetics, & Metabolism

Most modern pony breeds (14.2 hands and shorter) are descendants of ancient horses living in harsh climates—primarily the rough, cold lands of northern Europe, including Iceland, the British Isles, and Scandinavia. The ponies had adapted to low-quality forage in low quantities and glacial temperatures. The sparse grasses they found were often bitter and tough.

The evolutionary adaptation of ponies occurred over hundreds of thousands of years. Accordingly, it shouldn’t be taken as surprise that ponies still haven’t adapted their metabolism to a “new” world of plentiful and rich foods.

One research group has been investigating breed-based metabolic differences in ponies and horses. Up untill now, they’ve found that ponies – as well as certain horse breeds such as Andalusians, Morgans, and some Warmbloods – more easily gain and maintain weight when compared to other breeds. It’s simply because that’s in their genetic nature. Their latest research results also indicate that these same horse breeds and ponies are frequently prone to insulin resistance.

Thus, there is an increased risk of ponies developing other metabolism-related health concerns, as well—namely EMS, which can lead to laminitis, and obesity, which can lead to reduced performance, navicular syndrome, arthritis, and joint inflammation. Obese ponies also have a problem with sweating well, which can make it harder for them to cool their bodies appropriately.

Sugars, Starches, & Insulin

Obesity doesn’t necessarily fuel high insulin levels and cause insulin resistance, even though it might seem counterintuitive. Just the opposite can be true. Insulin is a hormone that usually signals liver, muscle, and fat cells to clear glucose from the bloodstream and store it as glycogen.

Insulin resistance is a decreased sensitivity to this hormone. This causes more insulin to be produced by the animal. In the short term, this can be effective in maintaining blood sugar levels. But, in the long term it leads to excessive weight gain or fat storage.

However, recent studies have found differences in insulin resistance between types and breeds even in the nonobese state. This supports the idea that certain types of horses and ponies have subtle genetic differences which manifest as metabolic differences.

How to know if your pony is insulin-resistant? If your little equid is an easy keeper and tends to develop obesity and a cresty neck, that could mean that they could also be producing a lot of insulin. It can be very difficult to tell because even some thin ponies can be insulin-resistant as well.

Insulin checks are an inexpensive addition to a basic annual wellness exam and they should be standard protocol for your beloved ponies. For instance, a baseline insulin blood test at Cornell University costs $17.

Did You Know?

Ponies use about 10% less protein than horses.
Ponies burn about 50% more calories chewing than horses.
Ponies take longer than horses to eat the same amount of food.
Ponies burn about 15% fewer calories than horses at maintenance.
Ponies are more efficient at digesting forage, getting more energy out of it.

Ponies are Easy Keeper? Not Exactly

It’s not necessarily true that ponies are easier to care for just because they are labeled as easy keepers. With ponies the challenge is keeping the weight off, while with some horses it might be keeping the weight on.

For that, you’ll need a weight tape and some body condition score knowledge. However, even a simple tape measure will do. You can just measure their girth … to see if they’re staying the same, losing, or gaining – depending on what your little equid needs.

Feeding Ponies

In general, it’s essential that owners understand what’s a healthy look for a pony. This evaluation isn’t so genuine, given owners’ expectations for the “Thelwell” look among their pony charges. In fact, some Australian pony owners misjudged their animals’ body condition frequently. When their ponies were obese, the owners tended to think their ponies’ body condition was moderate or good, because that’s just what people are used to seeing.

Research groups agree, the industry standard of what ponies should look like needs to change. In the breeding world, in the show ring, they’re being rewarded for having that ‘roly-poly’ look. Owners keep their ponies a little overweight because this rewarding system is encouraging them to do so.

After you recognize what appearance and weight to aim for with your pony, feed him to support that goal and monitor his food intake. Don’t forget, typical daily ration is roughly 2% of body weight.

When you consider an ideal weight for your pony, 2% (for a 600-pound pony that’s 12 pounds) doesn’t seem like a lot of food. Many of these little equids fare better on a smaller percentage, and ponies on restricted calorie intake might need to eat even less. Even though proportionally the rations are right, most people feel bad about giving them so little.

However, when you’re encouraging weight loss, don’t forget to respect the limits and not rush the process. It is very important not to be starving your pony. Don’t go below 1.25%, because if you do so, your pony won’t be getting the nutrition he needs, and you’ll most likely start seeing some stereotypic behaviors (like stall walking, weaving, etc.). Hyperlipidemia (high fat concentrations in the blood) can also be caused by rapid weight loss. It can cause kidney and liver damage.

High-Sugar Hay: Not for Ponies

Buying the richest hay might not actually be doing your pony a favor given ponies’ evolutionary history grazing on sparse, bitter grasses. Usually, you can request low-sugar hay for your little equids. It’s best to aim for hay that’s around 10% in nonstructural carbohydrates (simple sugars, starches, fructans). You can have your hay analyzed if you’re unsure about the content. (To find out where, visit Foragetesting.org).

On the hay analysis sheet you can calculate the WSC (water-soluble carbohydrates) plus starch fractions to get the NSC rate. This will tell you whether your hay is just right or too rich. If the only choice you have is high-sugar hay, soak it in water for about an hour. This will dissolve and remove many of the WSCs, which will make the hay more appropriate for pony metabolism.

Better to Balance than Concentrate

Most ponies get along very well without concentrate feeds. But, hay alone might not be enough to satisfy all their nutritional needs. To provide sufficient minerals and vitamins you might need to supplement with a balancer (instead of feed), depending on the hay’s nutritional content.

When ponies are on a weight-loss diet, providing those nutrients is particularly tough. Cutting calories without cutting the other things – minerals and vitamins – is really challenging.

If the pony is in heavy work – especially a competitive sport pony – you might need to add calories. It’s recommended to offer feeds that incorporate some oil (like flax oil) instead of purely starch-based concentrate feeds if it’s an insulin-resistant pony. Even though it offers calories, oil won’t affect the insulin levels in the same way. “super fibers” like beet pulp are other low-sugar alternatives for increasing calories.

Love Him, Muzzle Him

For many owners it’s a heartless joke to strap a muzzle over pony’s nose and deprive him of the pleasure of free grazing on lush grass. Something like taping our mouths shut while we’re swimming in a sea of chocolate. But, our sources say, muzzling our ponies is indeed loving them. It’s simple, they’re not built for that kind of gastronomical luxury.

What’s even worse, ponies tend to be greedy. They can eat up to 5% of their body weight during the day. That pony might pout from behind his grazing muzzle at your decision. However, you need to know that you’re likely doing right by him. That’s especially true during spring, when pastures are highest in carbohydrates. A far greater welfare issue than muzzling a pony is having him develop laminitis.

There are some alternatives to muzzling. If you have sparse pastures you can turn ponies out onto them, or in drylots. It’s even worth considering to plant pony-safe grasses in your pastures. An interest in developing low-sugar pastures for ponies surely exists.

With or without muzzle, ponies have tendency to gorge when they get on pasture, so introducing grazing time gradually is important, especially in spring. A half-hour increments a day is usually sufficient. This can spare them both insulin peaks and gas colic which is caused by rapid fermentation of rich grasses.


It goes without saying, a fat pony is an adorable pony. But a fat pony is also at risk for developing serious diseases. Learning to monitor your pony’s nutritional needs and weight, and feeding him like a pony, rather than a horse can help him enjoy a healthy future. And those interventions could make his risks of developing obesity, laminitis and EMS “gone with the wind.”

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