Managing obesity in horses

Obesity in horses and ponies is a problem many horse owners find themselves dealing with.  Horses and ponies are becoming overweight to the point where they are susceptible to medical problems such as laminitis.  

What can we do to help manage our horses weight more effectively?  We have pulled together a few things horse owners might find useful when managing their horses weight.

Weight and condition

No two horses are exactly alike in shape, size and type. Breeding, history and recent general management all influence their body condition. The perfect weight is best gauged by considering the horse’s overall fitness and body condition.   

Like humans horses and ponies should be managed with consideration for a combination of calories consumed and calories burnt.  

Assessing weight and condition

It is a good idea to use a weigh-tape weekly if you can (measured around the horse’s girth, where a roller or surcingle would normally fit). Record the weight so that the diet can be adjusted accordingly and you can keep a track of weight gain or loss. While weigh-tapes are not always accurate at assessing the exact weight, and may differ between brands, if the same tape is used each time then any weight loss or gain will be comparable with previous records. After all, it is the changes in weight gain and weight loss that are important, combined with the horse’s physical health, well-being and body condition.

Get in the habit of reviewing your horses conditiion each week, check the crest and, if it is large and hard, consider that there is a problem and the diet needs to be looked.  Check the loins as they should be no more than level across the spine. If looked at from behind, the horse should be rounded but should not have a dip or “W” shape across the pelvis; the ribs should also be easily felt.

A condition score can be given to different places on the horse’s body to help monitor weight. These are usually the pelvis, loins, ribs and neck. Scores run on a scale from one to five. One is “emaciated”, three is in “good condition” and five is “obese”. 

Weight loss programme

Excess body condition is unnecessary and undesirable, raising concerns for the long-term health and well-being, particularly if the animal is subject to excessive fluctuations in weight or remains in a fat condition long term. It can take several months to return to a normal weight and good body condition. Fat deposits laid down for some time, and those which are hard to the touch are the most difficult to shift.

Weight gain is often exacerbated in “resting” horses (companions, retired or otherwise out of work) as a result of the lack of appropriate exercise (which is not adequately provided by free-ranging on good pasture) combined with an ad hoc intake of forage required for maintenance.

Also, remember that seasonal changes in pasture conditions can occur ahead of a change in management practices. 

Managing food intake

Weight gain occurs if a horse’s nutritional intake is greater than the physical energy demand.  Just like in humans. Therefore, in order to lose weight, the nutritional intake must reduce and/or the physical energy demands increase. 

Weight loss must be gradual as serious health risks can arise from weight loss that is incorrectly managed. 

Exercise and increasing physical activity

Appropriate exercise is essential for all horses and ponies, but levels of activity must increase gradually without stressing an unfit horse. For a sound and otherwise healthy horse, exercise is one of the best means of assisting weight loss and improving physical health and fitness. If the horse is physically capable of working, then regular exercise should form an active part of the weight loss programme.

Preventing future weight gain

Once a horse has returned to a good, healthy condition, it essential to take measures to ensure that the desired weight and condition are maintained and future weight gain avoided. Adopt a sensible management regime that ensures a horse has a suitable balanced diet with plenty of fibre and appropriate exercise.

Prevention is better than cure, and the aim of management should be to prevent weight gain at its first signs by adapting the management regime rather than having to take more dramatic action once an animal has reached an excessive weight.