Ponies and horses have different nutritional requirements and need to be fed in different ways.

The feeding program you use for your horse may not work for your pony, even if you adjust feeding rates to match body weight.

Ponies are more prone to metabolic issues including obesity, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and Cushing’s disease (PPID).

They gain weight easily on rich pasture or energy-dense hay. Ponies should also not be fed grains or concentrates as these feeds are high in sugar and starch.

If your pony becomes overweight, they will be at higher risk of developing laminitis and joint problems which can reduce longevity and comfort.

Follow this article to help develop an appropriate feeding plan for your pony. You can also submit your pony’s information online and our nutritionists will help you create a diet specifically for your pony.

What Makes Ponies Different?

It’s important to create a diet plan specific to your pony’s needs. Ponies are not just small horses.

While a defining feature of ponies is their smaller stature, these animals also evolved to survive in much harsher conditions with lower nutrient availability.

Ponies are much more metabolically efficient compared to horses. Breeds such as Shetland, Mountain, and Welsh ponies are adapted to survive on harsh mountainous terrain and moorlands with sparse food sources.

Research shows that pony breeds are also less sensitive to the effects of the hormone insulin. [14] This makes them more adapted to storing fat when they consume a high-glycemic diet, potentially resulting in excess body condition.

Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin is produced by the pancreas when blood glucose (sugar) levels are high. This hormone acts on various tissues to help move glucose out of the blood and regulate blood sugar concentrations.

Horses and ponies that are insulin resistant do not respond well to insulin, resulting in more of this hormone being secreted and released into the blood.

High levels of insulin in the blood (hyperinsulinemia) are a risk factor for laminitis and hyperlipidemia.

It is well-known that obesity and insulin resistance are closely linked. Higher levels of insulin lead to horses storing more calories as body fat (adipose tissue).

However, breed also plays a role in insulin resistance and laminitis risk. Even when comparing ponies and horses of the same body condition, ponies are less insulin sensitive than horses. [6]

Weight Issues

This partly explains why ponies are more prone to becoming overweight and developing lamintis.

Ponies should therefore be fed and managed to minimize the negative consequences of their easy keeper metabolism.

Weight loss should also be carefully managed in ponies. Insulin resistance puts them at higher risk of becoming hyperlipidemic when they are fed a low-calorie diet. [15]

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8 Steps to Feeding your Pony

Below are some steps to follow when planning a feeding program for your pony to help keep them healthy and at an appropriate body condition.

1) Identify Health Conditions

Before creating a feeding plan, it is important to determine your pony’s current health status. Speak to your veterinarian to get an appropriate diagnosis if you suspect EMS, PPID or any other health issues.

Some common signs of metabolic dysfunction in ponies include:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Overweight/obese body condition
  • Cresty neck
  • Laminitis
  • Delayed shedding
  • Change in appetite

Determining your pony’s body condition score will help you understand whether their diet is meeting their current energy demands.

Consult the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale for instructions on how to score your horse. [1] If your pony is a 6 or above on the 9-point scale, they are considered to be overweight.

If your pony is overweight, it is important to reduce their calorie intake or increase their energy expenditure (calorie burn) by exercising them regularly. Making these changes will support weight loss and metabolic health.

Dental Care

Particular attention should be paid to your pony’s teeth and ability to chew. Dental issues can have several negative impacts on a pony’s health and nutrition.

Have a trained professional check your pony’s teeth at least once per year. Chewing forages can cause their teeth to wear unevenly, often leading to sharp edges and hooks.

If this isn’t managed, problems including inflammation, abrasions and even abscesses can arise.

Forage that is not chewed properly can result in gut issues including indigestion, colic, or choke. Poor chewing also inhibits nutrient absorption from feed and forages.

Tooth pain can also lead to loss of appetite and weight loss. If your pony has dental issues, a nutritionist can help you formulate a diet for their needs.

2) Start with Forage

A pony’s diet should be based primarily on fibre-rich forage. Ponies should have access to forage for the majority of the day with limited time between feedings. [2]

This near-constant feed intake helps to prevent several health issues including colic, gastric ulcers and constipation. [2]

However, not all hay is equal. Most ponies can be maintained on low-quality forages, meaning hay that is low in protein, sugars and digestible energy.

Follow this guide on how to select hay for your pony and send a sample of your hay for analysis.

3) Extend the Time Spent Feeding

As the basis of the diet, ponies should be consuming 1% – 2% of their bodyweight in forages per day. This may not seem like enough if your pony tends to consume hay quickly. [4]

If the hay isn’t lasting long enough to provide a constant source of food, gastric ulcers can occur. Additionally, behaviour problems can develop due to boredom.

The techniques below can help increase the amount of time your pony spends eating without changing the amount of forage they consume.

  • Feeding small meals more often can reduce boredom and improve gastrointestinal health.
  • Using a slow feeder hay net will increase the time spent eating without oversupplying hay. Make sure the hay net is hung at a comfortable level for a pony to reach, usually lower than for a horse.
  • Use a pony-specific grazing muzzle to reduce grass intake if your horse is on pasture. Follow appropriate pasture management strategies as well.

4) Reduce Calorie Intake

Ponies should not be fed concentrates such as grains or sweet feeds. These feeds tend to be high in energy and provide excess calories leading to obesity.

High amounts of concentrate feed have also been shown to reduce fibre digestibility in ponies. This can lead to a higher incidence of colic and gastric ulcers. [3]

Some ponies may continue to gain weight even while on a forage-based diet. This may be due to the quality of the forage or amount that they are eating, especially if forage is offered at free choice.

Always choose hay that is low in starch and sugars (non-structural carbohydrates). It is recommended to submit a hay sample for analysis to accurately assess your hay quality.

Below are two methods to reduce the excess calories in hay:

  • Soaking hay will reduce sugar content and energy supply. Hay should be soaked for at least 30 minutes (warm water) or an hour (cold water) to reduce NSC content while minimizing nutrient loss and changes in palatability.
  • Dilute high-quality hay with straw, which has a very low nutritional value. Chopped straw can account for up to 25% of the forage supply of the diet.

When feeding straw, ensure that it smells fresh (ie. no mould growth) and that it is free of seedheads. Feeding straw will likely necessitate more protein and mineral supplementation.

5) Limit Pasture Access

Fresh pasture is typically very high in digestible energy, protein and sugars. Controlling your pony’s access to pasture is necessary for healthy weight management.

There are several precautions you can take to limit access to pasture.

Whenever possible, keep your pony on a dry dirt lot with access to appropriately selected hay. Completely avoiding pasture reduces the risk of overconsumption, weight gain and laminitis.

If the hay is blowing out of the paddock or it is being consumed too quickly, consider a slow feeder. There are plenty of options including slow feeding round bale nets, balls, and tubs.

If a dirt lot isn’t accessible or avoiding pasture isn’t an option, a grazing muzzle will help reduce the amount of fresh forage the pony consumes.

In a study of overweight ponies with free access to grass pasture, wearing a grazing muzzle for 10 hours du