Is your horse overweight

Is your horse overweight?

The UK horse population is currently suffering from an obesity crisis, so we provide expert advice on the telltale signs that your horse is overweight and offer advice on helping them lose the extra pounds.

Obesity currently affects up to 70% of the UK horse population, and is a major cause of disease and even death. Being overweight not only adds unnecessary strain on a horse’s ligaments, tendons and joints, but excess fat can cause hormonal changes that have a negative impact on the horse’s metabolic systems. This can result in serious conditions such as laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

Why are horses becoming too fat?

‘Horses are designed to constantly travel long distances to find food and water, which uses up lots of energy,’ explains Lucy Grieve, equine vet and veterinary projects officer at the British Equine Veterinary Association. ‘In the summer, when food is abundant, horses store excess energy as fat to see them through the winter months when food is scarce. Their metabolism has evolved to cope with this weight-loss and weight-gain cycle.’

However, kept horses aren’t left to fend for themselves in winter and lose their summer weight. In fact, the opposite happens: we feed, rug and restrict movement in winter so that the natural weight loss doesn’t occur. Come spring, our horses are already carrying excess fat, and that is when health problems arise.

Dangers of obesity

There are a number of issues that can result from a horse being too fat, including:

Increased loading on limbs

‘Being overweight can cause lameness issues, including joint disease, ligament and tendon injuries, and various foot problems,’ says Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley. ‘Compared to other animals, horses have relatively thin, spindly legs, designed for athletic performance. They’re simply not designed to carry excess pounds.’


Equine metabolic syndrome has similarities with type 2 diabetes in humans, where obesity causes the normal relationship between insulin and glucose to become disrupted.

Gil explains: ‘The body’s cells no longer respond to insulin and they become what we call insulin resistant. This can trigger and actually cause laminitis.’


A potentially devastating consequence of obesity, this is one of the most common conditions seen by vets treating pleasure horses and is often the reason for euthanasia. Laminitis affects sensitive tissue in the foot called the laminae which support the pedal bone. It can cause the laminae to stretch, weaken and become damaged which can cause the pedal bone to move – and in severe cases rotate and/or drop – which is extremely painful.

Signs of obesity

One of the biggest challenges the horse industry faces is the perception of what a fat horse looks like. Many owners have become accustomed to seeing overweight horses as ‘normal’. The danger is that they don’t recognise their horse is at risk of health problems.

A good way to monitor whether your horse is carrying excess fat is by looking for fat pads. Most commonly, you’ll find them in the crest, shoulders and rump areas, as well as over the ribs and at the top of the tail.

In a healthy horse:

  • The ribs should be visible or easily palpable
  • There should be no, or minimal, crest fat
  • There should be no fat pads over the shoulder area or the ribs
  • There shouldn’t be a noticeable gully along the spine or on top of the horse’s hindquarters

How to fat score and monitor weight

A good way to assess the amount of fat a horse is carrying is by using body condition scoring (BCS), which, if carried out every fortnight, can help owners monitor weight gain or loss.

The BCS divides the horse into three sections: neck and shoulders; back and ribs; and hindquarters. Each of these sections is given a score between 0 and 5, where 0 = emaciated, 1 = poor, 2 = moderate, 3 = good, 4 = fat and 5 = obese.

These scores are given after both visually assessing the horse and by feeling for fat, which will feel spongy under your fingers (muscle by comparison is firmer and can be tensed or relaxed).

Dangerous crest fat will harden when it has been there for a while and often rocks from side to side when the horse walks.

To learn more about fat scoring, click here.

Alongside regular BCS, Gil also advises using a weigh tape and taking photographs on a weekly basis.

‘This will help you notice any changes promptly and allow you to take immediate steps to stop it getting out of hand,’ he says.

How to achieve weight loss

A multifaceted plan of attack is necessary to encourage a horse to lose weight fast.

Reduce food intake

‘If a horse takes on more calories than they burn, they will get fat,’ points out Gil. ‘It’s vital to accurately assess the weight of dry matter the animal is eating.

‘As a rule of thumb, you should feed a horse 1.5% of their ideal body weight per day. So, if you have an overweight pony weighing 440kg and you want to get them down to 400kg, they should be eating no more than 6kg in total in 24 hours.’

‘Feeding a balancer (a concentrated, pelleted feed containing the required vitamins, minerals, proteins and amino acids) will reduce calorie intake while ensuring your horse gets everything they need,’ adds Lucy.

Try splitting hay and feed rations into smaller amounts and slow down their intake by using trickle nets or hanging up multiple, small-holed nets.

Always make changes to a horse’s diet gradually, so the horse has time to adapt to their new regimen.

Restrict grazing

It’s generally better for a horse to be turned out and moving around, but there are ways to limit their grass intake. ‘You can strip graze, use a track system (fence off the perimeter of the field so the horse has to walk around), use a grazing muzzle, co-graze with other species such as sheep, turn out with other horses to encourage movement through play or turn out on an all-weather surface and feed netted hay,’ says Gil.

Increase exercise

‘Exercise promotes muscle development, and muscle is the hungriest tissue in the horse’s body,’ points out Gil. ‘Without exercise, calories are stored as fat, which accumulates.’

Exercise not only improves weight loss, but it also increases the metabolic rate and insulin sensitivity, which helps protect against metabolic conditions, and therefore laminitis.

Lucy advises plenty of long, slow hacking for weight loss. If you are lucky enough to have access to safe hacking, it’s a great, low-impact way to keep you and your horse mentally and physically stimulated.

‘Hacking doesn’t overload the joints like schooling or jumping,’ she says. ‘An hour or two with intervals of trot and steady canter is ideal.’

Track systems in the field can also help increase your horse’s steps.

Don’t over-rug

Naturally, a horse will use its own heat and burn calories to keep warm. If an obese horse is rugged too much, it will prevent them from losing weight.

‘Don’t be afraid to remove all the rugs, as long as your horse is healthy and has access to natural or man-made shelter,’ says Lucy. ‘If you want to keep your horse clean, use a thin, no-fill rain sheet to minimise grooming time.’

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