The showing season is now well underway and I am very much looking forward to being part of the veterinary team at the Great Yorkshire Show with my long standing colleague Julian Rishworth MRCVS. The Great Yorkshire Show has been working with the Horse Trust for a number of years trying to raise awareness of obesity in showing and I offered to assist them by handing out rosettes to any horses in in-hand classes that had ideal body condition score 3/5. I have since passed this important role to my fellow Minster vet Katherine Hall MRCVS who will be again in the Ridings Ring and White Rose Ring next week presenting The Horse Trust Body Condition Award rosettes. It is commonly thought that horses should be fatter if they are used for showing than for other disciplines but the Great Yorkshire Show has always tried to lead the way in Equine Welfare and ensure that it remains paramount at their event by encouraging horses to be presented at their correct weight.

Obesity in horses is now considered to be one of the biggest welfare concerns in the UK and I feel it is our responsibility as vets to try to help owners learn about the health risks associated with weight gain and how it can be best managed at home. Rates of obesity are likely to be 30-50% in the general horse population and as high as 70% in native pony breeds. This silent illness is now so commonplace that it is seen by many as ‘normal’ despite the poor welfare implications.

In my opinion it requires a collective effort from vets, owners, feed companies, breed societies and showing societies to ensure that horses are fed the correct amount in the correct way relative to the amount of exercise they are getting. I believe owners try to do their best for their horses but as obesity remains so prevalent we must all change what we are all doing to try to overcome this important issue.

I would welcome feedback and discussion from owners to determine how vets can best help them to manage their horse’s weight without judgement. We have historically provided free events aiming to educate horse owners about obesity related topics, including laminitis, Cushing’s disease and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). We very rarely discuss the practicalities of owning horses of native breeds, some of which seem to have a genetic predisposition for weight gain. In such breeds it can be very difficult to maintain them at body condition score 3/5 without help from friends or vets. We don’t discuss other common problems associated with obesity often enough. These include:

  • Orthopaedic disease including arthritis or suspensory ligament desmitis due to the excess weight and force being placed on these structures.
  • Infertility and altered breeding cycles
  • Orthopaedic disease in foals born to obese mares
  • Poor performance including respiratory compromise
  • Susceptibility to certain types of colic due to increased internal body fat.

It is important to understand how dangerous obesity is to our horses so that the appropriate effort is made to rectify this issue. The following is a few simple tips that I advise owners on how to reduce weight in horses:

  • Do not excessively feed your horse. They should be fed relative to their body condition; if they are overweight feed less, if they are too slim feed more.
  • Horses should be fed a low calorie balancer to make sure that they are obtaining all protein, vitamins and minerals required for normal body function. This is particularly important when they are dieting and fed soaked hay.
  • An overweight horse should receive 1.5% of its body weight in hay in 24 hours. This is 7.5KG (16.5lbs) of hay within a 24 hours period for a 500kg horse.
  • Soak hay with warm water especially in winter as it is more efficient at reducing sugar content in hay.
  • Treats such as apples and carrots should be completely removed from the diet of an overweight horse.
  • In the spring/summer sugar accumulates in the grass during the day and is gradually reduced overnight. Sugar levels in grass are therefore lowest at the end of the night and early morning.
  • Therefore it is best to graze overweight horses from late evening to early morning.
  • Strip grazing or grazing muzzles may be an alternative solution to reducing intake in your horse during summer.
  • Horses should not be rugged in winter. Many native breeds are genetically designed to live in harsh winter conditions.
  • Horses should ‘live out’ as much as possible during the winter and not be stabled.
  • A horse should be exercised to increase its heart rate for 30 minutes five times weekly; this can include lunging if you do not have time to ride. Alternatively 5 minutes walking either side of 15 minutes trot work may also be adequate. Exercise must always be done in association with diet restriction.
  • Measure your horse’s ‘belly girth’. This is the easiest and most accurate method of measuring weight loss after management changes have taken place.
  • If all the above do not work then there are medications available to help your horse lose weight, including metformin and levothyroxine. Both medications are ‘off label’ medications (meaning that they are not licensed for use in horses for weight loss), are expensive and are not a long term solution.

Fighting the fat is certainly a difficult but not impossible task. It is as a long term investment that cannot be done without a high level of effort from all of us to improve horse welfare. Tackling obesity at home requires a strict programme that is constantly monitored throughout the horse’s life. Tackling obesity on a greater scale requires horse owners and the showing industry to make a stand. The obese horse has been commonplace in showing for many years and this has misled competitiors as to how a horse should look. It is difficult to change perception about obesity if we are accepting this as the norm and judges continue to place obese horses as winners. We should all remember that the social licence we hold for using horses in sport and leisure should not be taken for granted. It remains our collective responsibility to help protect horse welfare so that we can continue to enjoy working with them, in whatever form, for many more years to come.

Written by Gemma Dransfield MA VetMB CertEP MRCVS, Clinical Director and Veterinary Surgeon at The Minster Equine Veterinary Practice.

References

Furtado T, Perkins E, Pinchbeck G, McGowan C, Watkins F, Christley R. Exploring horse owners’ understanding of obese body condition and weight management in UK leisure horses. Equine Vet J. 2020;00:1– 11

Rendle D, McGregor A, Bowen M, Carslake H, German A, Harris P, Knowles E, Menzies-Gow N, Morgan R. Equine Obesity Current Perspective Roundtable. UK-Vet Equine 2018; 2 (suppl 5).