Watch Stallion's Waistline

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17th December 2005

Watch stallion’s waistline
by Heather Smith Thomas

Just as in people, diet and exercise are keys to managing a stallion’s weight.

PROPER BODY CONDITION is important for the health, longevity, and breeding performance of stallions. An obese stallion is less likely to have a robust libido and more likely to develop health problems. An underweight stallion may not have the energy and endurance to hold up through the breeding season.

Equine nutritionist Stephen Duren, M.S., Ph.D., said stallion managers now are paying more attention to proper body weight.

"Twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school at University of Kentucky, it was common to see stallions very overweight," Duren said. "They’d made a name for themselves on the racetrack and had come back to the farm. And once they recovered from any racing injuries, they were on good feed, good pasture, with plenty of grain, and often became overweight."

Many overweight stallions developed laminitis, and a significant number had heart problems, dying of what appeared to be heart attacks. Those stallions had difficulty covering mares, so libido also was a problem.

"Most young stallions will exercise themselves; they’ll run up and down the fence and stay physically fit," Duren said. "But many mature stallions that have been breeding quite a while are more laid back."

To solve this problem, many farms have developed some kind of forced exercise program for stallions, which varies from longeing and round-pen work to placing the stallion on an automatic walker or a freestyle walker that does not require the horse to be tethered to it.

"A few farms, like Three Chimneys [Farm], have an exercise track, and someone rides their stallions regularly," said Duren. Photographs of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew being excercised at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky, helped popularize the practice of exercising stallions.

Importance of weighing

"A stallion’s feed requirements are similar to those of a performance horse in light to moderate exercise, according to [National Research Council] recommendations," Duren said. "If you feed some stallions at that level, however, they gain weight."

According to Duren, managers must customize the diet to fit each individual.

The easiest part of the diet to regulate is caloric intake, Duren said. Too many calories will make him fat; too few will cause him to lose weight. A simple evaluation 1of body weight and condition will show whether the horse’s caloric intake is correct.

Many farms weigh their stallions once a month or at least before and after breeding season. If a horse weighed 1,200 pounds before last year’s breeding season and now weighs 1,275 pounds, the weight gain could be an indication that he is getting too much feed or not enough exercise.

"While working at Three Chimneys Farm, we weighed stallions every month," Duren said. "If any of them started gaining weight, their grain intake was adjusted appropriately and their exercise and turnout was adjusted, as well."

Three Chimneys Stallion Manager Sandy Hatfield said the stallions are still weighed once a month.

"Our feed company, McCauley Bros., has someone bring a portable scale," Hatfield said. "A good horseman can look at a horse and tell whether he’s gaining or losing weight, but the scale is a tool that gives an exact measurement. If someone looks at the horse and thinks he’s putting on a lot of weight or has dropped off, the scale may reveal that the horse has only lost 12 pounds, for instance.

"If you are trying to keep weight on a horse, a feed with beet pulp in it can give extra calories, or you can add beet pulp by itself," Hatfield continued. "For the horses whose weight we are trying to keep down, we use a pelleted supplement called M30, a low-calorie concentrate that has all the needed vitamins and minerals."

Exercise programs

Conditioning a stallion is just like conditioning any equine athlete. After a veterinarian or stallion manager determines the soundness and level of fitness of the stallion, the horse can begin an exercise program that gradually increases the length and speed of workouts.

Depending on the activity of the stallion, his personality, and what he does to exercise himself in the paddock, a forced exercise program may be minimal or intense.

"Someone asked me if you could get weight off a stallion by hand walking," Hatfield said. "It would take all our crew all day walking a horse to get weight off him. And for most stallions, paddock exercise alone is not enough to take weight off, because in our paddocks most of the time they have their heads down grazing, rather than exercising."

The exercise program should be designed so fitness can be achieved with the facilities the farm has and without aggravating the stallion’s old injuries or causing new ones. Many farms use treadmills and round-pen exercise, and some now have freestyle walkers such as the Equiciser or EuroCiser.

These freestyle, automatic walkers allow six horses to exercise untethered between panels in individual compartments. The operator sets the speed--walk, trot, or canter--and can stop the walker to reverse its direction to allow the horses to exercise their muscles symmetrically. Some of these walkers have a large diameter, so stress on legs from traveling in a circle is minimized.

"With an Equiciser, for instance, the horse can be moving around without the weight of a jockey, or having to gallop, or the inherent risk that riding involves," said Hatfield. "This is a great way to exercise the horses you can’t ride."

At Three Chimneys, most stallions are ridden to keep them fit and to avoid the problems associated with obesity.

"We ride them six days a week, weather permitting,"Hatfield said. "If the ground is frozen or the footing is bad or we’re having a thunderstorm, we may not ride that day, and there are some stallions we don’t ride for physical reasons."

The rider may walk, trot, or gallop the horse. Some horses want to canter more than others.

"A forced exercise program is great, and riding is wonderful because the stallions love it," Hatfield said. "We ride them a mile and a quarter to a mile and three-quarters, depending on the horse. Some of the older horses I just take out three times a week. But even for the ones with arthritis, the best thing is exercise. If you can get out there and ride them, it really helps.

"Humans that are heavy tend to develop joint problems," she added. "It’s the same with horses, especially stallions that are rearing up and mounting mares."
The purpose of Three Chimneys’ exercise program is more to keep the stallions fit and happy than to manage their weight, but it does keep their weight at optimum level in the process.

Unable to exercise

When soundness problems do not allow a horse to get regular exercise, the stallion manager must make more adjustments in diet to keep him from becoming overweight.

"It’s common for horses that have turnout time in lush pastures to put on too much weight," Duren said.

Limiting turnout time or allowing exercise only in a paddock without much grass is ideal because the stallion still can exercise himself, but he will not pile on calories from grazing.

The stallions at Three Chimneys are turned out on pasture daily from 2 p.m. until 7 a.m.
"Unless you keep them up or put a muzzle on them, they’re grazing all night--and stallions don’t like to wear a muzzle," Hatfield said. "We have a couple of horses that are a little overweight because we can’t exercise them. With one stallion last year, we didn’t turn him out until 7 p.m. Keeping him off the grass the additional five hours helped."

Switching from traditional grain concentrates to pelleted supplements also helps to control the stallion’s weight. These items provide the needed protein, vitamins, and minerals for a balanced diet, but with fewer calories.

"All the feed companies have versions of this type of pellet--the type you see in sweet feed," Duren said. "They sell these separately as a low-calorie vitamin and mineral pellet.

"If a stallion is overweight," Duren added, "he should still have the hay portion of the diet, but instead of getting five or six pounds of textured sweet feed or some other high-calorie feed, he may only need a pound and a half of the vitamin and mineral supplement."

Stallion managers can change from mixed hay to grass hay to reduce calories. Feeding grass hay allows the horse to have the volume of hay he needs for proper digestion and to make him feel satisfied so he does not develop a stall vice--without the extra calories.

When to begin

Farm managers want their stallions to be healthy and fit well ahead of the breeding season. According to Duren, adjustments in diet can be made in late fall to assure the stallion is at optimum weight by breeding season. If a stallion is not already on an exercise program, he should begin one in November.

"If you will be breeding mares in February, you need to make sure everything is right with the stallion in November and December," said Duren. "Also, many breeders want stallions looking their best during the November sales when people come to the farms and want to look at the stallions.

"Many of the automatic exercise facilities have a roof over them, so you don’t have to worry about exercising on frozen ground or bad footing."

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho, specializing in veterinary and breeding topics