Fat Horses
By Eleanor Blazer
       Babe is fat. It's up to me to save her life!

       Does she have Cushing's?  Does she have equine metabolic syndrome?  Is she insulin resistant?  Are they all the same thing?  If she has one, does she have the others?  Is there any help for her?

       Research has discovered equine Cushing's is caused by the degeneration of neurons (a cell that transmits information) in the hypothalamus.  The hypothalamus is called the "brain" within the brain.  One of the functions of the hypothalamus is to regulate hormones secreted by the pituitary gland.

       So the proper name for Cushing's in horses is pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID).  But it's easier to call it Cushing's.

       The disruption of the hormones secreted by the pituitary gland affects the horse's ability to regulate body temperature, control appetite, thirst, fight infections and maintain sleep patterns.  These problems result in symptoms of heavy coat that does not shed, sweating, weight gain or loss, excessive drinking, excessive urination, laminitis and fatigue.

       Cushing's usually does not appear in horses until they are older - over the average age of 18.

       Babe has none of these symptoms and she is only 11.  If she did, I would consult a veterinarian and we would decide what steps to take.  Tests can tell if the pituitary gland is functioning properly. There is no cure.

        For more information about Cushing's disease in horses, please visit

       Horses with Cushing's may also have equine metabolic syndrome.

       Some horses are genetically better at utilizing feed than others.  These horses have Equine Metabolic Syndrome (peripheral Cushing's syndrome).  EMS horses get fat when fed the same amount thin horses may be receiving.  They have slower metabolism and is what horse people call "easy keepers".  But if allowed to get fat and remain fat, health problems will result.

       The locations of fat deposits tend to be consistent in horses with equine metabolic syndrome.  The areas are: along the crest of the neck, around the tail head, behind the shoulders, sometimes above the eyes and males will have fat deposits in the sheath area. 

       Calories must be decreased; feeds high in starch and sugar must be eliminated from the diet.  No grain! No treats! No free choice high quality forage.  Exercise should be introduced to the fat horse's routine gradually.

        The average age of a horse exhibiting symptoms of equine metabolic syndrome is between eight and 18.

        Babe fits this profile. 

        Horses with equine metabolic syndrome may or may not have Cushing's disease. 

        If the horse is allowed to remain fat insulin resistance is going to become a problem.

       Horse's with Cushing's disease may also be insulin resistant and horses with equine metabolic syndrome may become insulin resistant - if not already.

       Basically insulin helps the body utilize carbohydrates and fat, and helps regulate blood glucose.  Insulin resistance allows blood glucose to rise, resulting in health problems.

       The most detrimental health risk to horses with insulin resistance is laminitis.  Laminitis is the inflammation of the connective tissue between the hoof wall and the coffin bone.  It is a very painful and life threatening condition.  Severe laminitis will lead to rotation of the coffin bone, which is called "founder".

        Many IR horses suffer from chronic laminitis.

        In addition to laminitis the insulin resistant horse may show signs of muscle loss, a cresty neck and fat deposits similar to equine metabolic syndrome cases.

       There are tests your veterinarian can run to detect insulin resistance. But there are drawbacks to each test. Consult your veterinarian for more information.

       Management for horses with Cushing's, equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance is very similar.  

        The first step is to limit non-structural carbohydrates, starch and sugar in the diet.  This means no feed that contains soluble carbohydrates and providing forage that is low in non-structural carbohydrates.

        There are also supplements on the market that provide minerals and vitamins which can help control insulin resistance.

        Regular exercise helps lower blood glucose levels and will aid in weight loss.

        Be careful of severely restricting calories.  Horses with equine metabolic syndrome will react by feeding cells with high amounts of stored fat.  This could lead to damaged organs.  Starving the fat horse is not the answer - providing a balanced diet based on feeds containing low non-structural carbohydrates is.

        The bottom line for Babe is she needs to lose weight.  She does not yet have Cushing's, but she is approaching the critical age.  She has not had a case of laminitis, but unless she changes her ways, she will.

       I've put her on a ration balancer that meets her vitamin and mineral requirements without adding calories.  I have located hay with a low non-structural carbohydrate level.  I am feeding her according to what she needs based on her target body weight (1,000 pounds) - not her current weight (1,300 pounds).

      Now, I must be firm and tell her "no" when she is begging for treats.


       For information about horse care take the online courses " Stable Management " and " Nutrition for Maximum Performance " taught by Eleanor Blazer.  Earn certification or work toward a Bachelor of Science degree in equine studies.

Go to
www.horsecoursesonline.com for more information

Eleanor Blazer

Is This Your Horse?

• Chronic sore feet

• Rotation on X-ray

• Can't be on pasture

• Cresty neck

• On Cushing's meds but still foot sore

• Stays large on little food

• Painful on hard or frozen ground

• Founder history

* Helps fight laminar injury and foot pain to get your horse back on pasture faster

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