Horses, like their human counterparts, come in all shapes and sizes and some are more prone to putting on weight than others. However, obesity is becoming a problem in the horse world, increasing the risk of the following:
- Bone and joint injuries due to extra stress placed on the legs.
- Laminitis, a painful and potentially crippling disease that requires immediate veterinary attention.
- Developing arthritis.
- Increased stress on the cardiovascular system.
- Overheating in the hot summer months. Fat is deposited underneath the skin and impairs cooling, resulting in higher heart and respiratory rates.
A visual inspection of various conformation points will give you an idea of how much weight your horse is carrying. The body condition scoring system is based on how much fat is covering these areas, with scores ranging from one for an emaciated horse to nine for a horse who is obese. A horse in perfect condition will look smooth with well-defined muscles and will score five or six, with dressage and show horses more likely to score a six. Endurance and racehorses should be slightly lighter as excess weight would put them at a disadvantage.
How to tell if your horse is too fat
You should be able to easily feel, but not see, the ribs.
- A fat horse may have a hard crest along the top of the neck (which is different to a stallion crest).
- There could be a distinct dip along the spine or the back might be flat.
- Obese horses will develop pads of fat on either side of the dock.
- The haunches are ‘apple cheeked’.
- The overall look will be of a rounded animal with little muscle definition and possibly a distended belly
Most horse owners and veterinarians agree that leaner animals live longer and healthier lives, particularly if there is a problem with the joints or tendons. Obviously, you don’t want your horse to be too thin either. In some cases, carrying a little extra weight might be beneficial, giving older horses a buffer during the winter months and times of illness, and heavier brood mares have slightly higher conception rates.
How did my horse get like this and what can I do about it?
Genetics, personal preference, lack of exercise and over-rugging (rugged horses use less energy to keep warm) are all contributory factors to overweight horses. It is also possible that thyroid dysfunction may be at the root of the problem, but by far the most common cause of obesity is overfeeding, particularly in relation to activity levels. It’s easy to overestimate the amount of energy your horse requires. If you are hacking out a couple of times a week, your horse would need far fewer calories than if you were working him hard and competing on a regular basis.
Should your horse need to slim down, the process needs to be gradual and carefully managed. A sudden change in diet could result in colic, as would long periods without food, so think months rather than weeks in helping your horse achieve his ideal weight. Look to change to a concentrate with a lower protein component and make sure he is getting the right amount of vitamins, minerals and protein so that he loses fat, not muscle. Grass, in some form, should form the main component of his diet but does not provide sufficient nutrients on its own.
At the same time, increase the amount of exercise he gets. Start with one extra session a week, either lunging or riding, or adjust the intensity or duration of the exercise you are already doing. Over time he will become more athletic as muscle mass increases and his metabolism improves.
You could also make small changes such as:
- Using a hay net with smaller holes.
- Stop feeding treats.
- Removing rugs except in very chilly weather.
- Allowing more time in the paddock.
The first step to helping your horse reach his ideal weight is recognising when there is a problem and adjusting his diet and exercise programme accordingly. What is considered an ideal weight will always vary between breeds and disciplines, but owners need to feel confident that they are doing the right thing when putting their overweight horses on diet. It is difficult to stick to the programme if the other horses in your yard are being pampered with thick rugs and loads of treats, but remember that a lower body condition score is a positive thing and a leaner horse is a healthier horse.
Text: Jan Tucker