Many horses and ponies in Ireland are good- doers, or what some people would describe as easy keepers. These horses and ponies will find their weight creeps up during the spring, summer and autumn seasons despite receiving little to no hard feed. For these types of equines, the winter can be used in their benefit, to lose some excess weight. In the wild, horses weight would naturally fluctuate from summer to winter. The harsh winter weather conditions and little grass mean horses would naturally lose weight, and then the lush spring grass would work well to rectify that. When domesticated horses are given large quantities of feed throughout the winter to maintain their condition, when the spring grass comes along then the horse owner is facing an upwards battle to prevent the good-doer from gaining more weight.
When feeding a mix of horses and ponies who require varying different nutritious diets, it can often be difficult to bypass a hungry looking fat pony. Often out of sympathy these ponies get given a feed, just so they don’t feel left out. The winter is an ideal time to kickstart their diet, so that you have a head start before the spring arrives. Try to resist the temptation to give them some hard feed, just to keep them quiet. It is important that these sort of ponies don’t get fed a mix or cube designed for horses in work. Even if a good doer pony is ridden a couple of times a week, he is unlikely to require a hard feed. Ponies that are fully clipped and in hard work (ie hunting ponies, jumping ponies in competition) will require extra nutrition, but in reality most ponies would be in what is considered light work. Ponies at rest or in light work will at most require a small amount of balancer to give some nutrients that may not be provided in their hay.
Winter is a good time for weight loss, but that does not mean that you want your ponies stomach to be empty for long periods, risking them developing painful gastric ulcers. For all equines it is generally considered that forage (hay or haylage) should be offered on an ad-lib basis, and ensuring that at least 1.5–2% of their bodyweight is being eaten as fibre. For the good doer, late cut meadow hay is ideal. For the overweight pony, this hay should be soaked to reduce the sugar intake. Studies have shown that the more water that is used when soaking hay, the more sugar that is removed from it.
Opinion is often divided on the rationing of hay and haylage. For the overweight pony, ad-lib haylage is probably not a good idea. Greedy ponies are not so good at self-regulating their forage intake. Many owners of a greedy pony may decide that their pony simply cannot be offered unlimited quantities of hay, and the hay needs to be rationed. A number of small hay feeds per day will ensure that the pony gets a more regularised intake to hay. A greedy pony will very quickly eat their ration of hav, so using a small holed haynet, or double netting your hay is a great way to slow down your ponies eating and to make smaller quantities of forage last longer. There are also a selection of slow feeders on the market, and DIY ideas for making your own slow feeders.