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Obesity In Horses - How To Tell If Your Horse Is Overweight & Help Them Lose The Pounds!

Yes, we know, obesity in horses and the health problems it can lead to have been talked about extensively in the horse community. Yet it is still a major problem, with many cases of connected ailments being reported every year. So why is it still an ongoing issue, and what can we do to prevent it? We delve into the world of obesity, looking at common causes, effects, and what you can do to help.

This pony's back has dipped due to lack of muscle and how overweight she is. Obesity can hugely effect c​onformation.
 

What are the dangers of having an overweight horse?

All horse owners know the word laminitis. A lot of people have had horses or ponies with laminitis, but it is very hard to comprehend how dangerous it really is until you’ve seen a particularly bad case. Laminitis is inflammation of the laminae in the foot, which can lead to instability in the other structures of the foot, in particular the pedal bone, which in severe cases can rotate. It is excruciatingly painful for the animal and once they’ve had it, they are more likely to suffer again in the future. Although there are other ways to contract laminitis, by far the most common is overfeeding and obesity. It can be really hard to keep a native pony the right weight, but it is our responsibility to ensure their well-being, and a fat horse is not a healthy one.

This pony arrived very overweight with a dipped back. She was supposed to come with her field companion but he came down with laminitis so couldn't join her.

Obesity can also lead to behavioural problems. A common question asked by behaviourists when assessing a horse is ‘what are you feeding him?’. The amount of energy consumed by the horse must be expended again, otherwise it will likely lead to misbehaviour. Another major problem is pressure on joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons which shouldn’t be there. The more weight a horse is carrying, the higher the likelihood of arthritis and other afflictions later in life. Obese horses are more likely to struggle with fitness and therefore will have lower athletic performance; they may even struggle to breathe properly doing high energy exercise.

This horse was worryingly overweight when she first arrived. She had lost a lot of it by this point, but you can see the fat deposits on her neck and shoulder. Note the bare patch of ground we put her on, with just scraps of hay and a hedgerow to forage.
 

So why is my horse overweight?

The answer to this is a fairly simple one - you’re feeding too much. Studies show that the majority of horse owners in today’s society do not know what a healthy horse should look like, and the most common reason for euthanasia is laminitis. The perception of an ‘ideal’ weight is above what it should be. Many people on livery yards are easily berated for having a ‘lean’ horse, even when that horse is at the peak of fitness. It is time to be more aware that our view of what a horse should be is often not quite right. Even a lot of the information about body scoring on the internet is punctuated by pictures of overweight horses! The best way to check whether your horse is a good weight is to chat to the vet; a lot of other people have a vested interest in your horse being slightly overweight. Try to ask for your vet’s objective opinion, rather than asking leading questions like “my horse isn’t too fat, right?” and don’t forget, different vets will have different opinions too, so looking out for certain signs yourself is important.

Naturally heavy breed, but he has visible fat deposits on his shoulders.
 

Signs that your horse may be overweight:

Fat deposits! These can look like unexplained swellings on your horse’s body.

Hard or large crest. The crest is the base of the mane. When a horse is overweight, this can go hard or lumpy instead of feeling like the rest of the horse. It can be useful to compare the feel of the crest to the feel of your horse’s bum.

Hampered movements. Laminitis is often described as the horse or pony being ‘pottery’ but more subtle lameness can be caused by the joints being unable to move as well. We have had several horses in who feel stiff through their shoulders and our chiropractor has confirmed that the problem is due to how overweight the horse is. The fat limits the shoulder and leg movement.

Blowing hard after a minute of gallop work. This is to do with fitness too, of course, but a lean and fit horse will have a much quicker recovery, and a fat horse cannot be fit, so this is an indication of both things.

Saddle no longer fits. Of course we should have our saddles fitted regularly, and they may need adjusting because horses change shape naturally. But if your horse’s saddle has started to become too tight, look at the body objectively to see if the problem could lie in them having put on weight.

Same horse, 3 months apart. On the left, he suffered with a very slight but still noticeable lameness; due to his shoulder movement being hampered, he couldn;t use his back, so his strides are very short and he's very 'upright' and above the vertical (over-bent). The right picture shows him moving more freely having dropped masses of weight.

A large number of horses will need no feed whatsoever, as long as they have enough roughage. If there isn’t enough grass in your field, feed adlib hay/haylage on top of this; if you have a native, this is much better than there being too much grass. If your horse is kept in, they should have constant access to hay, even if it needs to be triple netted to slow down their eating! If you’re worried your horse may be lacking in vitamins and minerals, a lick is an ideal way to give them access to what they may be lacking, or just a handful of chaff with a vitamin and mineral supplement. Getting your horse blood tested is an ideal way to find out whether they are lacking in essential nutrients. Feed companies are trying to help the obesity situation by creating a lot of laminitis friendly feeds, but the reality of the matter is that if your horse is overweight they do not need hard feed! Anything you put into your horse contains calories, even if it’s a low-calorie feed.

Same pony, months apart. This pony couldn't stretch across her back due to how overweight she was. She had months of arena work and hacked daily until she ended up like the second picture, flying clear around a BE80 with no time faults and energy to spare.

Lastly, exercise! If your horse doesn’t move around enough, it’s going to be so hard to keep that weight off. The best way to keep your horse fit is mileage, saddle up and ride as far as they are fit enough to do, then increase over time. Obviously, that isn’t always possible due to time restrictions, so mid-week you could try a couple of rigorous lunge sessions and some interval training. Riding and leading is a good way to get two horses exercised; better to go further with two horses than neither quite getting enough work. Maybe you could team up with a friend so one rides and one does yard chores, then swap later in the week. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Just remember, if your horse is lacking in energy, it is much more likely they are lacking in fitness than energy, so feeding a high energy feed will just make them more overweight and lead them to struggle further.

So… to summarise

If your horse is overweight, the best thing to do is feed less and exercise more. Reduce the quality of turnout by grazing it down with leaner horses or sheep before using it for the good-doers. Restricting grazing and feeding hay instead is a great idea for natives, you can even feed hay-nets on the ground if they are barefoot, or you could have some posts put in or hang from trees. If concerned about vitamins and minerals, use a lick, or a supplement in a handful of chaff. Try and do as many miles as possible and keep your horses as fit as you can. If in doubt, call the vet! They are professionals, and can give you the best advice to keep your horse or pony happy and healthy!

You can listen to our podcast on Equine Obesity on our website > www.hesteyrihorses.co.uk/podcasts

For more advice on equine weight management through restricting grazing, see 'The Pros And Cons Of Grazing Muzzles'.

For guidance on choosing some grazing companions to reduce the quality of your horse's turnout, see 'Want Some Grazing Companions For Your Horse? Options To Consider...'.

Hesteyri Horses
Horsemart Brand Ambassador
Published on 2020-10-09