The Pony and Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Three overweight ponies

Ponies are at a High Risk of Insulin Resistance, Laminitis, and Cushing’s Disease

Ponies are generally considered to be less than 14 hands tall at the withers. Although energy requirements vary between ponies, most are easy keepers with low caloric requirements and seem to gain weight from the air they breathe! The ancestors of today’s ponies endured harsh conditions and barren environments. Ponies became genetically “wired” to survive with little food. With today’s pastures and plentiful hay, the incidence of obesity and the subsequent health issues are commonplace.

Why Ponies Are Prone to Obesity

In the evolution of the wild pony, he/she instinctively consumed sufficient forage to gain additional weight during the Summer and Fall to prepare for the harsher winter months. The added fat was burned as needed to help maintain metabolic functions through the winter. The wild Pony would utilize the excess fat by spring, emerging lean but healthy, and the cycle began again.

The domesticated pony goes through the same cycle, but human interference has interrupted this natural process by providing a rich diet throughout the year. The pony goes into winter fat, continues receiving the same rich diet, and the stored fat is never expended. When Spring arrives, the pony is not only overweight but also has additional access to sugar-rich spring grazing. This dietary routine leads to chronic obesity and impacts the metabolic health of the pony.

The Overweight Pony and Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Overweight Pony with EMS

A diet too rich in calories and the resulting obesity is the leading contributor to the development of Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). Obesity continues to be on the rise for ponies in the United States. Some studies show that around 72% of the pony population is overweight. Obese ponies are at a high risk of metabolic issues such as:

Insulin Resistance

Obesity affects how the pony utilizes insulin. The abdomen is the largest fat storage compartment for adipose tissue (fat). Mammals store most of their fat in their abdomen. Abdominal fat storage is called omental, or visceral fat. The visceral fat helps regulate several body processes that support the wild pony’s survival through winter. One of these functions of adipose tissue is the production of an insulin resistance factor to allow the pony to maintain slightly higher levels of blood glucose, or energy, through the harshness of winter. It is nature’s intention that this mild state of insulin resistance is to gradually reverse as the pony burns the visceral fat for winter energy.

However, the overfed domesticated pony does not need to utilize this fat; therefore, there is a continuance of insulin resistance. In Spring, this insulin resistant pony has access to forage high in sugar, leading to further weight gain and increasing insulin resistance, predisposing the pony to metabolic issues and laminitis.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome

A horse is commonly labeled as affected by Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) if he/she has high blood insulin levels (insulin dysregulation), concurrent obesity, and a history of laminitis, or at least a likely candidate of laminitis. EMS usually begins appearing in ponies between the ages of 5 to 15 years of age. There are common signs of EMS that pony owners can look for.

  • Obesity
  • Bouts of Laminitis
  • Frequent Urination
  • Unwillingness to Move or Perform
  • Cresty Neck and Regional Fatty Deposits
  • Easy Keeper that Gains Weight Easily
  • Constant Appetite
  • Infertility in Mares
  • Poor Hoof Quality

Preventing Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Prevention is vital when it comes to EMS. Pony owners must maintain a healthy body condition score through a balanced diet. Here are a few tips for establishing a healthy diet for your Pony.

  • Feed a “basic diet” of pasture grass and hay.
  • Avoid complete feeds, sweet feeds, and sweet treats.
  • Utilize a quality hay and pasture balancer.
  • Provide plenty of water and free choice white salt.

Exercise is also essential in maintaining the pony’s body condition. Regular exercise will help burn off excess visceral fat that has been deposited. Active ponies are also less likely to develop EMS. If the pony has not been conditioned for exercise, start slowly to allow the pony to adjust. Ponies that compete or perform regular work and are not obese may need additional calories for energy. In this case, extra calories may be added to the feeding program in the form of oats, beet pulp, or copra. 

A quality hoof supplement, such as Farrier’s Formula®, may also be added to maintain hoof health.

Feeding the Obese Pony to Address EMS

Feeding Ponies with EMS

Our first goal in addressing an obese pony with EMS is to help him/her establish a healthy body condition score. Control calorie intake by removing all complete feeds, sweet feeds, and treats from the feeding program and transition the pony to the “basic diet” of hay and pasture. As mentioned earlier, a regular exercise program is also important.  

Life Data® research has been instrumental in the development of effective nutritional products to help the metabolic horse. These new products are formulated to address specific metabolic issues.

For Ponies with Insulin Resistance:

Life Data® Insulin R Formula supports insulin resistant ponies by supplying active ingredients to assist with glucose metabolism, fat metabolism, insulin action, and help reduce inflammation. Life Data® Insulin R Formula also supports proper metabolism to encourage weight control and general health. This is recommended for ponies diagnosed with the following:

  • Insulin Resistance
  • Insulin Resistance + Cushing’s Disease/PPID
  • Insulin Resistance + Laminitis
  • Insulin Resistance + Cushing’s Disease + Laminitis

For Ponies with Cushing’s Disease

Life Data® Adrenal Formula provides active ingredients that can benefit horses with PPID, or Cushing’s Disease. The active ingredients may help improve glucose metabolism, regulate adrenal and thyroid hormones, and improve metabolism. Life Data® Adrenal Formula is recommended for ponies diagnosed with the following:

  • Cushing’s Disease/PPID
  • Cushing’s Disease + Laminitis

For Ponies with Laminitis

Life Data® Lamina Formula is a laminae support supplement for ponies with acute or chronic laminitis.  Life Data® Lamina Formula ingredients assist in laminitis recovery, reduce inflammation, support the maintenance of blood flow in the inner hoof wall, and help protect from or reduce the incidence of future bouts of laminitis.

Life Data® Insulin R Formula, Life Data® Adrenal Formula, and Life Data® Lamina Formula should not be combined or provided together. Ponies with insulin resistance, PPID, and/or laminitis are prone to hoof issues, so for best results, we also recommend feeding Farrier’s Formula®.

If your horse has EMS or other health issues, advise your veterinarian and farrier. If you have questions regarding feeding and supplementing your pony or the information in this blog article, feel free to contact us.