Pot bellies can afflict virtually any horse, not just ponies or senior pasture pets. When your gelding is looking more and more like he’s pregnant your first inclination may be to cut back his feed to encourage him to shed a few pounds.
But it’s a myth that reducing feed is the best remedy, or even a necessary one, for a pot bellied horse. A pot belly isn’t a fat problem, it’s actually a conditioning issue.
The Real Reason Horses Get “Pot-Bellied”
“Pot belly” is a commonly used term among horse people for a horse that looks bloated and full through the bottom half of its barrel. It makes the horse look a bit pear-shaped: narrow on top and wide underneath.
But when a horse starts to gain too much weight, fat is typically deposited along the crest of the neck, behind the shoulders, over the ribs, and around the tail-head and croup – not its underline.
A pot belly is not a sign of excess fat. Rather, it occurs as a result of two contributing factors:
- Lack of condition, particularly along the top line.
- A diet with lots of forage.
Because high-fiber forage like grass and hay is fermented in the horse’s hindgut for several days, a diet high in those may cause the horse’s belly to expand and look pot-bellied. This is not necessarily a bad thing! As we have discussed ad nauseum, a high-fiber diet is ideal for digestive health, nutrition, and overall health in horses. A pot belly is NOT a reason to cut back on a horse’s hay or pasture time.
However, when a horse lacks muscle tone, especially along its topline, it then loses the necessary strength to support the lower belly. A pot belly actually reflects a lack of muscle conditioning in the horse.
That’s why you tend to see pot bellies in very young horses or mature out-of-work horses – but rarely in racehorses (and other high performance horses) who are in top condition yet consume much larger diets.
Exercise to Reduce a Horse’s Pot Belly
While a pot belly is primarily cosmetic, it signals a lack of muscle conditioning along a horse’s topline that could lead to other health and lameness issues. The best way to get rid of a pot belly is good old fashioned exercise.
Here are a few ways to concentrate on strengthening a horse’s topline in particular:
- walking and trotting up hills
- working over ground poles, flat and elevated
- transitions, transitions, transitions
- encourage your horse to move forward, engaging the hind end, and lifting the belly
- doing belly lifting exercises by pressing gently upward under the belly
Keep in mind that if you are still concerned about your horse’s weight and digestive health, it’s almost always a good policy to reduce grain-based feeds and maximize forage. And of course, support your horse’s total gut health with SUCCEED.
In conclusion, a pot belly on a horse doesn’t reflect a weight issue, it represents a lack of conditioning. Before cutting back on your horse’s feed, get him into a regular exercise program to strengthen the topline muscles and support the belly.
Flickr Creative Commons Photo Credit: radsaq