“Fat On Fresh Air” Obesity In Equines – A Growing Problem

“I am not fat I am in show condition”, this statement is commonly seen on t-shirts and sweatshirts being worn freely amongst equestrian enthusiasts nationwide. The statement itself speaks volumes and joking aside it is a fact that obesity in equines is most definitely on the increase.

Public opinion would guess that the majority of cruelty cases we see each year are purely related to starvation and under nourishment; sadly for some equines this is very much the case but it is now becoming clear that we are now dealing with a problem that is at the other end of the scale, that is equine obesity.

Many owners do not like to admit that their horse is too fat. Many overweight horses are simply overlooked and regarded as being “in show condition” often prolific winners in the show ring putting pressure on fellow competitors to increase top line with a desire to produce a fuller, rounder horse for the next competition. Many horses are being overfed in order to compensate. Sadly, other equines are obese due to lack of care and attention, and some belong to individuals and families that have insufficient knowledge and experience.

Care must be taken to ensure that your horse does not become obese; overweight horses are at a much greater risk in the short term from tendon injuries and in the long term arthritis. Overweight horses will have a much increased body mass and will require more oxygen during exercise putting extra strain on the heart and lungs.

With an increased layer of fat, horses find it more difficult to regulate their body temperature during the hot summer months and can be prone to overheating. Obesity can decrease the immune system making some horses susceptible to certain diseases and can be a contributory factor for Peripheral Cushing’s Disease or Obesity-related Metabolic Syndrome.

Horses are designed to be trickle feeders, native ponies in particular are equipped to store extra fat during the summer months. Those living wild are allowed to roam and forage on the mountains and hills such as Exmoor and Dartmoor. These fat reserves are called upon to cope in the harsh winters that follow. Domesticated equines have the luxury of devoted owners who provide all dietary requirements in plenty; any owner will recognise these as “good-doers” the ones that remain fat despite a sparse diet and wage a constant battle to exercise and keep trim. These ponies are at risk and susceptible from developing laminitis, a condition associated from consuming too many carbohydrates. Strong evidence suggests a definite link between laminitis and obesity and knowledgeable owners will appreciate and should recognise that a fat, under exercised pony, is a strong candidate.

To avoid obesity problems

  • Ensure that your horses’ weight is kept under control
  • Feed according to weight and specific work load
  • Be aware that a single episode of obesity can have drastic consequences for your horse
  • Knowing your horses’ actual body weight will ensure that you are not overfeeding. The most practical way to calculate body weight is to use a weight tape; these are readily available from all reputable saddlers for under £10 and give an estimated weight depending on certain factors including breed, conformation and fitness. The measurement is taken with the horse standing square. Measure around the horses’ girth area making sure that the tape passes over the lowest point of the withers just behind the elbow. An average weight will be estimated.

Condition Score

0. Very Poor: – Ewe neck very narrow, skin tight over ribs, sharp and prominent backbone, angular pelvis, skin tight and sunken over rump with a deep cavity under tail.

1. Poor: – Equine extremely emaciated, shoulder and neck easily visible bone structure of withers visible, ribs easily visible, backbone covered but spine can be felt, tailhead projecting prominently,. Belly tucked up no fatty tissue can be felt.

2. Moderate: – Some muscle overlying bones covering shoulder and neck, ribs not visible but can be felt, poor muscle development either side of midline over back and loins, hip bones felt with ease.

3. Ideal: – Good muscle development, bones felt under light cover of muscle/fat, good cover over dorsal spine and withers flow smoothly into back, muscle coverage either side of midline over back and loins, hindquarters and hipbones rounded in appearance but can be felt with light pressure.

4. Fat: – Neck hard and firm with wide crest, shoulder covered in even layer of fat, withers broad bone felt under firm pressure, dorsal ribs felt under firm pressure, ventral ribs may be felt more easily, overdeveloped belly, spine can be felt with firm pressure with a slight increase along midline, hindquarters rounded, bones felt only under firm pressure, fat deposits evenly placed.

5. Obese: – Neck thick bulging crest with fat falling mainly to one side, shoulder rounded with bulging fat, withers broad unable to feel bone, large uneven fat deposits covering ribs, ribs not able to be felt through fat, large belly in depth and width, broad back unable to feel spine, deep crease along midline bulging fat either side, hipbones covered in fat may overhang each side of the tailhead, fat uneven and bulging with the appearance of an apple bottom.

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Tips to Aid Weight Loss

  • Ensure that weight is lost gradually.
  • Ensure that adequate quantities of fibre are always available (hay, haylage).
  • Maximise the time taken to consume a given amount of hay/haylage by offering it in a double haynet to keep your horse occupied for longer.
  • Restrict horse/pony access to pasture, strip graze using electric fencing.
  • Remember when making changes to your horse/pony’s diet do it gradually over 5-7 days.
  • Wear a properly fitted muzzle for short periods; care should be taken as these have been known to rub. Increase the amount of exercise and workload gradually.
  • Consider not to rug an unclipped horse in winter or choose a lightweight rug.
  • Talk to your Veterinary Surgeon for support and advice during a weightless programme.
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