Obesity in the equine population reflects that of childhood obesity.
Dr Teresa Hollands, BSc (Hons) MSc (Nutrition) PhD, R.Nutr
Dodson & Horrell Ltd Nutritionist touches on a potentially sensitive but life threatening problem in our client’s horses and ponies
The latest statistics suggest that over one third of children are either overweight or obese. Recent studies (Right Weight Roadshow, Fit for the Future Championship and fat scoring at the NPS Championships) show that 30-32% of horses and ponies weighed are carrying too much fat.
Studies started in 1994 by D&H and Warwickshire College indicate a gradual increase in fat score in horses and ponies. In 1994, the mean fat score was 3.0 (n=3000) with less than 10% being overweight; 2007 mean fat score is 3.5 (n=150) with 30% being overweight
The government and the NHS are actively campaigning to reduce the incidence of obesity in children, should we as a profession be doing the same for the equine population and the answer, of course, has to be yes!!
Farriers, nutritionists, show judges, vets, trainers all have a responsibility to encourage owners to objectively fat score their horses, to weigh them on a regular basis and to help them appreciate the implications of long term fat cover on their horses.
We all have a responsibility to provide owners and riders with up to date information on the risks of high fat scores in their horses and ponies. If this information is imparted at a young age, it is likely to become ‘something we always do’.
Controversial and personal!
Regardless of whether you are a horse, dog or human, ‘sizeism’ matters; not only does it matter but it is controversial and open to a variety of personal opinions.
It is a well documented fact that we as horse owners, (assuming we reflect the general horse population) are gaining weight; so much so that government sponsored billboards have appeared suggesting that the pension crisis will be solved as many of our overweight children will be dead before they reach pensionable age.
In addition, there has been a lot of debate in the country’s leading horse weekly…..are horses fat, are show horses particularly fat or is the horse world just succumbing to ‘the fat police?’
Lifestyles have changed, no longer do children hack 10miles to shows or Pony Club Working rallies, (I did); we don’t hack to the Blacksmith’s forge and back every 6 weeks, (I did), we expect the farrier to come to us; we cannot let our children out on their ponies at 10 o’clock in the morning with a pack lunch and not expect to see them till teatime, (I did).
In other words the energy or calories that our leisure horses are using has decreased. More leisure horses and ponies now fall into the ‘light work’ category.
It is a scientific fact that on ‘average grazing’, horses and ponies in light work will ALWAYS eat more calories than they need. They will become overweight over a period of time unless management steps are taken.
Why aren’t your clients recognising weight increases in their horses?
If you look at what effects our perception of our own weight, the same influences may affect the way we perceive our horse’s body shape.
We can all recognise obesity and thinness in both ourselves and our horses as they are the extreme. But when size zero is accepted by magazines and designers as being the ideal size to promote clothing on the catwalk then we put girls under pressure to conform to what might be seen as ‘normal’. In turn normal becomes ‘fat’. Yet if we see starving children on the TV, we are appalled; what is the difference from a health perspective? As one famous actress was reported to say ‘you can never be thin or rich enough’. Yet only 120yrs ago wealth was associated with being curvy and cuddly and only poor people who couldn’t afford food were thin.
When weight increase is gradual, it is difficult to pick up the changes and then the changes become ‘normal’
What is good condition?
It is all too common to read about horses being in good condition…that word condition means different things to different people. A show judge will stand back and look at the overall shape and confirmation of the horse or pony; an eventer will be looking for a different shape and many horse owners might describe young 2yr old racehorses as being too thin!
What are we looking at?
A show horse can look big and bulky but I might fat score them as 2! Why because the bulk is due to muscle not fat. In the same vein I am likely to score a fit racehorse as a 2. But the horses are very different in their overall body shape. Racehorses will be lean and mean like a greyhound or a human 100m runner. A show horse on the other hand will be built more like a bull or a human weight builder. What differentiates their shape is muscle NOT fat!
Both these horses have a fat score of 3 on their bottoms; showing the classical upside down ‘C’ shape of a horse which has ideal fat cover in this area.
The distinction in the overall shape of their hind quarters is due to differential muscle development.
The Chestnut is a fit eventer, the bay an out winter, unexercised leisure horse.
As horse owners we are influenced by the shape and weight of horses around us, as it is only natural to compare your own horse with others.
Encouraging owner to keeping their horses in good condition
‘Condition’ should be as a result of good muscle development. Muscles develop due to work; fat develops due to excess calories. Sadly we cannot change one into the other. They are completely different tissues. Work and exercises means horses burn off fat as they use more calories than they are eating. Specific exercise also helps them build up muscles and because this happens simultaneously we often think we are converting one to the other. This misconception is common with personal trainers in gyms throughout the country!
Feeding to maintain healthy horses
Horses as we all know evolved to eat 18 out of 24hrs. Their brain and digestive systems are designed to need an almost continuous intake of food. When horses put on fat, they need either less calories or more exercise.
Feeding tips for healthy horses
• Grass often contains more calories than horses in light work need.But studies we have done and that have been published in scientific proceedings show that grass will be deficient in vital minerals needed for health
• Do not add more calories, simply use a feed or supplement that provides a very small amount of calories but has the vitamins and minerals your horse needs.
• Make sure you do not reduce your horse’s feed. Restricting feed will result in increased chances of your horse developing stereotypies, colic, and gastric ulcers. ? Remember feed includes hay, grass, chaff, vitamins and minerals not just what you put in his bucket!!!
• Keep his bulk feed intake up but reduce his calories. Soak hay for 24hrs, put more horses out in the field, so there is less grass, use oat or barley straw instead of hay.
• Use the fat scoring system and keep a record on a fortnightly basis
• Use a scientifically validated weightape once a fortnight, in the same place on the body, at the same time of day
• Any weight changes whether gain or loss should be done over a 6-12mth period not in matter of weeks.
Many of your clients own horses which are carrying the right amount of fat, however this fat is creeping up a bit; let’s do our bit before it becomes a real problem in the future