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The Obesity Epidemic Affects More Than Humans

Weight is an important factor that plays into the health of your horse. Nutritional management and meaningful exercise are key to maintaining your horse at ideal body condition. It is important to distinguish between fit and fat, because weight gain can be confused with muscle conditioning and roundness. To further complicate matters a degree of obesity is often judged to advantage in the show ring, acceptable even desirable.

Obesity is a developing problem in the equine population that contributes to a number of serious illness. Contemporary horse-keeping practices are characterized by provision of energy-rich rations to physically inactive horses. Owners expend considerable financial resources following the wooing of attractive advertising/marketing for refined, energy-dense rations which far exceed the animal s protein and energy requirements. Horses have evolved eating grasses and shrubbery that contain much more fibre and much less sugar than present-day diets.

A horse s natural habitat is free-choice browsing and grazing of native savannah environments. The lush improved grass fields of the modern pasture contain forages relatively high in sugars and starches, and designed to promote weight gain, growth and lactation in food animals. This is a very different nutritional repertoire from which horses have been genetically adapted.

Obesity forebodes illness. Many of the health risks associated with obesity pertain to chronic diseases and the connection of obesity to illness is often disregarded. Excessive weight and its accomplice, overnutrition, strains every body system in every age group of horses.

Laminitis/founder, endocrine and metabolic dysfunctions like insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome, and developmental bone diseases share this common offender. Excess weight taxes hooves, joints, limbs, and soft tissue, creating, accelerating and compounding arthritis. Horses carrying fat stores on the outside of their bodies must also carry fat deposits within and around internal organs like the liver and kidneys, interfering with proper functioning.

Body condition scoring

Body condition scoring (BCS) is a valuable tool equine owners and professionals use to evaluate ideal body weight. The nine-point scoring system is based on a system that uses visual appraisal and touch to assess the degree of fleshing/fat cover over six key conformation points. These key areas include the neck, withers, crease of the back, the tail-head, ribs, and behind the shoulder at the girth. Horses that score in the moderate (5) to moderately fleshy (6) are generally considered to be in healthy body condition carrying a comfortable body weight. Their ribs cannot readily be seen yet are easily felt with slight pressure and the top line of their back is level, with neither a crease or a ridge.

Recognizing your horse is overweight is key. If your horse is overweight it did not occur suddenly nor will weight reduction occur suddenly. Changes in diet, exercise and living conditions are best made gradually. Be patient, for weight reduction is a slow, steady process that will not stress you or your horse. Initially change the type and amount of feed 10 per cent a day over a 10-day period.

Quality mature grass hays will be the mainstay of all equine diets. Consider limiting pasture access and grazing your horse in the early morning when the pasture sugars are low. It can be as simple as limiting available calories. Ensure access to clean, fresh water, salt, and free-choice minerals.

Measure feeds by weight rather than volume to determine rations and adjust the horse s diet according to age and activity level. A sacrifice area where your horse has freedom to move yet does not have access to grass can be useful. Spread hay out in multiple locations or place horses in an area designed to make them move for food and water.

Simple turnout on a dry lot or depleted pasture is helpful but not enough. Exercise increases metabolism and mobilizes fat stores. Bringing more movement or exercise into your horse s life, respecting its fitness level, is vital. Consistent exercise will continue to be a key component in keeping horses healthy.

In nature, a horse s weight fluctuates with the seasons. Under human care horses are fed generously year round, negating the seasonal influence that allows them the opportunity to lose weight. Supervised pawing on well-stocked winter pastures can benefit many horses for the weather washes out the sugars of standing forages and the daily exercise accompanying foraging is of great value to the horse. The winter season presents a favorable period to reduce a horse s weight as it is in concert with nature at a time when it is most natural to shed pounds.

Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian specializing in equine practice at Westlock, Alberta.


Excessive weight and its accomplice, overnutrition, strains every body system in every age group of horses.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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