Obesity can sometimes be a difficult area to discuss. No one likes to hear that the animal they care for is overweight or obese, and as I used to own a 43kg labrador I know how easy it is to not see! Part of the problem is that an overweight animal is not always easy to identify, horses and ponies especially are very good at storing their fat subtly, spreading it out across their ribs, crest, rump and shoulder. They don’t just end up with a ‘bread basket’.
A growing population?
So is the current situation something to be concerned about? Surely there can’t be that many horses falling into this category? Well recent studies have shown that almost half of all equines in the UK are overweight and around 33% are obese. These figures have been rising for some time and indeed correlate with the trend in human waistlines too! The groups most at risk come as little surprise; native breeds, cobs and ponies are overrepresented in these populations compared with breeds such as thoroughbreds. These ‘good doers’ generally need less energy dense feed, and any excess consumed will be deposited as fat stores.
But is it a problem if my pony is overweight?
In a word, yes. Obesity is a risk factor for a number of conditions and all of them can be very serious, compromising an animal’s well being and in some cases even resulting in euthanasia on welfare grounds.
The most widespread complication of being overweight is the development is insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas to stop glucose levels in the blood from rising too high, as this can have negative consequences. Horses with access to more simple sugars and starches in their diet need to produce more insulin as a response to this. High insulin levels are associated with laminitis, and in fact approximately 90% of cases of laminitis are due to endocrine diseases.Obesity also predisposes to developing hyperlipaema. This condition occurs when overweight animals go through a period of ‘negative energy balance’ i.e. they’re using more energy than they are consuming so must break down fat to meet the deficit. Examples of this are late pregnancy and anorexia due to unwellness. Increased body condition is associated with reduced fertility in mares and with dystocia at parturition which can have dire consequences for mare and foal. Also carrying all that excess weight puts greater forces through the joints and so contributes to the development of osteoarthritis (OA) and may exacerbate any existing OA.
So what can I do at home?
The best way to first identify whether your animal is overweight is to body condition score them. There are many different scales/methods for doing this, one of them is the Heneke scoring system. This method works for horses of any breed, sex or body type. It is based on a visual and hands-on assessment of various parts of your horse’s body. The table below contains detailed guidelines on how to interpret the findings:
Another less specific and more crude way of monitoring your horse’s weight is to use a weigh tape, or girth measurement. This is useful for monitoring any change in condition but it must be pointed out that here there is no distinction between fat and muscle.
Remember that it can be difficult to interpret the findings of a condition score and it is easy to be misled. The above horse has visible ribs so you may think it likely to have low body condition score. In fact it is clinically obese due to the fat pads above its tail head and shoulder and also its cresty neck. Horses with localised fat deposition such as this are likely to have an underlying endocrine issue.
In our next blog in this series we will post some videos on what to look out for when condition scoring your horse. If you feel your horse is either overweight or underweight, or would like any advice on their condition or nutrition then simply phone the practice on 01913859696.