Obesity, insulin and laminitis: How exercise can help

Horse being exercised

It has been known for some time that equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), is linked to the development of laminitis in horses and ponies. With a current lack of effective treatments for laminitis, attention has turned to preventative measures to halt the onset of this debilitating disease. A recent study conducted by University of Melbourne researchers in conjunction with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition have examined this approach, by investigating whether low-intensity exercise when combined with dietary restriction improves the outcome for obese horses with promising results. 

Led by Dr Nicholas Bamford from the Melbourne Veterinary School, 24 obese horses and ponies (Standardbreds, Andalusians, and mixed-breed ponies) were studied over a period of 12-weeks. During this time, all animals were fed a reduced hay ration (1.25 per cent of their body weight on a dry matter basis per day) and were kept on dry lots. In addition to this dietary restriction, half of the participants began a low-intensity exercise program (15 minutes of trotting on a horse walker, beginning and ending with five minutes of walking). These exercises were performed once a day, five days a week.

While all horses and ponies showed relatively similar weight loss and improved body condition, the exercised animals reported improved insulin sensitivity (or glucose tolerance) at the end of the study period. These results suggest that regular low‐intensity exercise provides additional health benefits when combined with dietary restriction, more than a program of dietary restriction alone.  

In application of these results Dr Bamford has suggested that “a suitable management plan must include strict dietary modification as well as increasing exercise, if possible. The aim is to reduce both the total calorie as well as the sugar and starch intake of the diet, using strategies such as reducing or eliminating pasture access, using grazing muzzles, and soaking hay.  A ration balancer to ensure adequate protein, vitamin, and mineral intake could also be important, especially when feeding soaked forage or forage in reduced amounts.”

For further details on this valuable research, visit the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine or see a recent feature of the study in the equine publication The Horse.

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