Feeding Ponies – Some Science Finally

Willowtrail Farm PoniesWhen I took my first equine science class, as recently as 2004, a professor, in answer to a question, said that no research existed on feeding ponies.  Pony enthusiasts, of course, know that feeding ponies is indeed different than feeding other equines.  In the past few years, with increasing awareness of conditions like insulin resistance, Cushings, and equine metabolic syndrome, more attention has been paid to the nutritional requirements of ponies.  I loved one summary statement in a recent article on the subject:  “Just because ponies get labeled as easy keepers doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to care for.” (1)

The article goes on to say, “While the challenge with some horses might be keeping the weight on, with ponies it’s keeping the weight off.”  Indeed, I’ve spoken to numerous people who can’t imagine how they’d keep a pony happy in their management program because they lack a dry lot for managing food intake and they lack time to ensure the pony would be mentally stimulated.

Here are some of the interesting points from the article:

  • Up to one third of all ponies are at risk for obesity-related health problems.
  • In addition to ponies, Morgans, Andalusians, and some warmbloods are able to gain and retain weight and therefore are susceptible to insulin resistance. However, even individuals of normal weight can be insulin resistant.
  • Ponies that are obese have difficulty cooling their bodies because they can’t sweat well.
  • When cutting back on ponies’ calories to encourage weight loss, it’s important to make sure they still get adequate vitamins and minerals, which may not be available in hay alone.
  • Ponies can eat up to 5% of their body weight in a day but should only get 2% to maintain healthy weight.
  • Many ponies do well on less than the richest hay. Low-sugar hay is recommended, and tests are available to determine a hay’s sugar content.

A sidebar in the article stated these research findings:

  • “Ponies take longer than horses to eat the same amount of food.” It isn’t clear to me whether this could be because ponies have smaller mouths and teeth than horses or whether something else is at play.  I certainly see a difference in eating speed in my herd between small mouthed and big mouthed ponies.
  • “Ponies burn about 50% more calories chewing than horses.”
  • “Ponies are more efficient at digesting forage, getting more energy out of it.” No pony lover will find this surprising!  I wonder if it’s because they chew more thoroughly per the point above.
  • “Ponies burn about 15% fewer calories than horses at maintenance.” I assume that this is a pound-for-pound type of comparison rather than just based on differences in size.
  • “Ponies use about 10% less protein than horses.” (2) Again, I assume some sort of equivalence is being used in this comparison.

I’m intrigued by the points made in the sidebar, and I look forward to the translation of the source material that is forthcoming.

This attention to pony nutrition reminds me of the start I got with ponies courtesy of my friend Patricia Burge at Lost Creek Ranch.  Pat educated me about how caring for ponies differs from caring for horses, and I will always be thankful for that education.

I’m also thankful for some particular feed products that make caring for my ponies easier:

  • When hay isn’t enough, I rely on a low NSC feed that doesn’t have the challenges of grain.
  • I rely on a dry lot to manage my ponies, so a supplement that makes up for the difference between pasture and hay has been very beneficial.
  • Because many of my ponies do well on just hay (no supplemental feed), I appreciate vitamins and minerals that are formulated separate from feed products.
  • I value my ponies’ ability to do well on less. To maintain that ability, and to help in the event of an upset (like when one pony got into the duck food), I have found prebiotics to be very helpful in sustaining a healthy gut.

For more information on these helpful products, click here.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

  1. Lesté-Lasserre, Christa, “Feeding Ponies” at http://www.thehorse.com/articles/35122/feeding-ponies?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=nutrition&utm_campaign=01-05-2015
  2. Crandell, Kathleen, PhD, and William Martin-Rosset PhD, forthcoming translation of Martin-Rosset, Nutrition et Alimentation des Chevaux, 2012, as cited in article in #1.


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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