Officially a pony is a small horse that measures less than 14 hands with different conformation and temperament when compared to horses. Horses and ponies are generally lumped together in regard to feeding and nutrition and it is true that they indeed belong to the same species and have the same digestive system. However, the pony evolved under conditions that were less favorable. In response, ponies adapted to their environment by developing different traits, such as the ability to withstand extreme hardship. Therefore, it is easier to maintain body condition in ponies than most horses. For example diets that would starve a horse may keep a pony round and energetic. Even ponies that compete regularly or are active with their riders in organizations such as pony clubs typically require fewer calories than horses doing the same amount of work.
The main component of any horse or pony diet is forage in form of hay or pasture. In horses, the diet is typically supplemented with grain and/or oils (fat) to provide additional calories as the work load increases due to exercise and competition. For ponies, the transition to grain diets or fat supplemented diets does not occur as rapidly as with horses. For most ponies, good quality hay and pasture can usually provide all the energy and protein that they require. If additional calories are required to maintain weight or to fuel exercise, calories should be provided from better quality forage sources such as in form of sugar beet pulp. Micronized sugar beet pulp, such as HYGAIN® MICRBEET® has the outstanding feature of providing digestible energy ranging between that of good quality hay and grains in the form of soluble fibre as opposed to sourcing energy from starches and sugars. Therefore, feeding soaked HYGAIN® MICRBEET® instead of grains will minimize the sugar content of the diet and help control hyper behavior. Alternatively, supplementing your horses diet with HYGAIN® RBO® – Equine Performance Oil® will elevate the calorie intake and provides a safer energy source than soluble carbohydrates found in grains. Ponies tend to be quite sensitive to sugar and starch found in cereal grains since they can result in the development of colic, metabolic syndrome or laminitis in ponies. A common mistake made with feeding ponies is to assume since they do not need extra calories from grain they also do not need additional vitamins or minerals. Ponies, like horses, require vitamins and minerals to support immune function and repair tissues (bone and muscle) from the rigors of training and competition. An excellent means to provide these essential nutrients without providing excess calories is to feed a low intake vitamin and mineral supplement such as HYGAIN® BALANCED®. This product will help ponies meet their nutrient needs without making them fat.
Assessing your ponies body condition
Ponies become fat very easily, therefore their diet needs to be managed very carefully. The calorie content of the diet is the only factor that adequacy can be determined from looking at the animal. If you feed your pony too many calories they become fat. If you do not feed enough calories they become thin. We utilize a system called body condition scoring (BCS) to visually determine if the animal is fat or thin. This system utilizes a 1-9 scoring system where the low numbers are thin animals and the high numbers are fat animals. Please see chart inside. Ponies should be kept at a body condition of 5 to 6. While overall body fatness is important, regional fat depositions like on the crest of a pony’s neck is also an important indicator of potential metabolic diseases.
Points to consider when implementing any condition scoring system are that horse owners should be trained by someone with experience at scoring animals i.e. your HYGAIN® feed representative or equine nutritionist. Also, the same person should be assessing the pony each time to be consistent and account for variation between people. Perhaps taking a monthly photograph of your pony in the same position each time (best in front of a blank wall) would help assess increases or decreases in your pony’s condition. This system can provide critical information to pony owners so they can proactively manage their ponies to reduce the risk of them contracting these devastating diseases.
Ponies at risk
When feeding ponies with a BCS of 6 or higher we must be cautious of feeding diets high in sugar and starch as these may increase any underlying risks for metabolic disease. If your pony is overweight immediate steps must be taken to reduce their body fatness:
- Remove grain and other concentrated sources of calories from diet
- Forage should be the primary, if not sole energy providing component of the ration
- Limit the amount of access to grass per day to 1–3 hours and turn ponies out late at night (after 8:00pm) or early in the morning, removing them from pasture by midmorning at the latest (before 10:00am), because NSC levels are at a minimum.
- Alternatively, limit the size of the available pasture by use of temporary fencing to create small paddocks or use a grazing muzzle.
- Cease feeding of “treats” (i.e. apples, carrots)
- Increase the exercise program
As a guide, an effective weight loss regimen for a mature pony (approx. 250kg) should result in the loss of approximately 12 – 15 kg over a 4 to 6 week period. This decrease in bodyweight may be accompanied by the loss of about 1 unit of BCS. Body weight (scale or by use of a weight tape) and body condition should be assessed regularly e.g. every 2 to 4 weeks during the weight reduction program so that progress can be monitored and the program amended as required. As mentioned previously, taking photographs of the pony and comparing before and after shots can also help assess visual condition.
HYGAIN® offers some ideal feed choices for ponies that are at risk of contracting metabolic disorders such as Laminitis, Cushings, Chronic Obesity, Insulin Resistance and Tying Up. For ponies currently suffering from these conditions, HYGAIN® ZERO® is ideal as it is a scientifically formulated high fibre, low starch, low GI fortified pellet with less than 1.5% starch and no cereal grains. HYGAIN® ICE® is designed for ponies in work prone to metabolic related disorders, maximizing performance while keeping them calm and cool. HYGAIN® BALANCED® is recommended to supplement deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that exist in most hays and pasture.
Remember that horses and ponies are individuals and vary greatly in their requirements for energy. Some ponies become overweight when fed according to the feed manufacturer guidelines while others lose weight. Therefore, monitor each individual pony’s condition regularly and feed each one accordingly. Working with a nutritionist is recommended to make sure your pony is provided with exactly the right nutrients to maintain optimal health.