Is your horse overweight

Is your horse overweight

Obesity in horses is a very modern problem and one of the most common issues affecting equines today. So, what are the equine health issues associated with obesity? What are the signs? And how should you tackle it?

A disease is sweeping silently through the UK’s equine population. It’s directly linked to laminitis, reduces athletic performance and can cause joint problems due to excessive loading of the limbs. Luckily, obesity in horses is an entirely preventable issue.

Leading experts believe that half of all horses and ponies in this country are overweight. Furthermore, a recent study that looked specifically at ponies aged seven years or older and kept within 50 miles of the Royal Veterinary College in London, found that a staggering 72% were obese (Menzies-Gow, 2017).

Vet David Rendle from the British Equine Veterinary Association has been at the forefront of researching and highlighting this big issue. He says that because fat horses are often considered the norm, many owners no longer recognise what a healthy horse looks like.

How to tell if your horse is overweight

Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley lists the following tell-tale signs:

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

To monitor your horse’s waistline, Gil advises owners to learn how to body condition score, as well as use a weigh tape or take 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.

What are the consequences?

  • Equine metabolic syndrome

    This condition 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.’

  • Laminitis

    A potentially devastating consequence of obesity, laminitis is one of the most common conditions seen by vets treating pleasure horses and is a common reason for euthanasia.

  • Increased loading on limbs

    Obesity is a key driver for all sorts of lameness. ‘There are lots of unsoundness problems that can be exacerbated by being overweight, including joint disease, ligament and tendon injuries, and various foot problems,’ says Gil. ‘Compared to other animals, horses have relatively thin, spindly legs, designed for athletic performance. They’re simply not designed to carry excess pounds.’

  • What can owners do to tackle weight loss?

    A multi-faceted plan of attack is necessary to get a horse to lose weight fast.

  • Reduce food intake

    ‘If a horse takes on more calories than he burns, he 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 his ideal bodyweight per day. So, if you have an overweight pony weighing 440kg and you want to get him down to 400kg, he should be eating no more than 6kg in total in 24 hours.’

  • Feed bulk, not calories

    ‘Most horses and ponies don’t need to be on a supplementary feed – grass or forage should be plenty,’ advises Gil. ‘If a horse needs to be stabled, give a reduced-energy feed like light chaff, as this provides bulk without calories.’

    Soaking hay to reduce calorie intake and using haynets with smaller holes are also useful management techniques.

  • Restrict grazing

    It’s generally better for a horse to be turned out and moving around, but there are ways to limit his grass intake. ‘You can strip graze, fence off the perimeter of the field so the horse has to walk around, use a grazing muzzle or turn out on a surface and feed hay,’ says Gil.

  • Increase exercise

    ‘Exercise promotes muscle development and muscle is the hungriest mass,’ points out Gil. ‘A horse in hard work has to tap into its fat reserves to feed the muscles. Without exercise, calories consumed are simply stored as fat, which accumulates.’

  • Try not to over-rug

    Left to its own devices, an animal will use its own heat and burn calories to keep warm. If an obese horse is rugged too much, it will prevent him from losing weight.

    ‘Essentially, we’re hurting them with kindness,’ says Gil.

Why is the problem getting worse?

Before horses were domesticated, they were constantly on the move, using vast amounts of energy to keep up with the herd, dodge predators and reproduce. They consumed large quantities of grass in the summer months, which they stored as fat to see them through the harsh winter months, when their weight dropped and they needed the extra calories to survive.

The horse’s carefully evolved metabolism has not changed over the years, yet modern regimes and our expectations now don’t allow for these annual fluctuations. As winter approaches, horses’ bodies are preparing for starvation, yet this period never arrives. We supplement grass with hay and hard feed and tuck them up in stables, swaddling them in thick rugs. In many cases, they continue putting on weight at a time when their bodies are designed to be losing it.

Native pony breeds that are built to thrive in challenging environments, older horses and horses that have sustained an injury are most likely to be overweight. And although horses used for pleasure rather than competing are more susceptible to piling on the pounds, the problem isn’t restricted to these types. A study of 331 horses and ponies competing at a national unaffiliated championship found that 41% were overweight and 21% were obese, with show and dressage horses being the worst offenders (Harker et al, 2011).