HORSES are facing disability and life-threatening illnesses in an equine obesity epidemic mirroring the expanding waistlines of humans in affluent nations.
Experts at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have blamed a tendency for inexperienced keepers to “mollycoddle” the animals, giving them too much high-quality feed, too much comfort and too little exercise.
Recent studies show up to half of horses and ponies in Scotland are overweight.
Being overweight is one of the most serious problems a horse can have, experts say. As well as increasing the risk of arthritis, heart disease and lung problems, it can lead to hormonal dysfunction, crippling hoof disease and the equine equivalent of type 2 diabetes.
Gillian McKnight, a conservation consultant from the SRUC, said: “The reasons for the problem are multiple. One is that there are more horses and more owners, with an increase in the number of smallholdings and many farmers diversifying into keeping horses.
“But many people nowadays treat their animals like babies. They mollycoddle them.
“They don’t like them out in the rain and put rugs on them. And they don’t like thinking they’re hungry so they overfeed them. Another contributing factor is people don’t exercise them enough.
“But obesity is about as negligent or cruel as starvation.”
Horses in the wild will eat large amounts of grass during summer when food is plentiful, and convert this to fat to help them survive in winter.
They have evolved to become efficient converters of low- nutrition foods, which is how hardy native breeds such as Scotland’s Shetland, Eriskay and Highland ponies survive well in barren, desolate landscapes and severe weather.
But domesticated horses do not lose much weight in winter, so there are fat horses entering winter with bodies prepared for starvation, yet the lean period never comes.
Feeding and rugging means animals often continue gaining weight when they would naturally be losing it.
Professor Nat Waran, of the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, said: “There is no doubt the majority of owners want to provide the best for their animals, but sometimes too much misplaced love can lead to welfare problems because it may not be what their horse needs.
“Owners need to be better educated so that they can understand the nature of their pets, recognising that the horse is a different species to a human, shaped by its evolutionary history and as such has its own requirements and motivations.
“There is no compelling evidence to suggest horses lost any of their natural behaviour as a result of domestication.”
McKnight added: “Horses need to be able to express their nature – they’re very playful, they live in herds. But often they’re kept isolated, given stables and turned out for just an hour a day, and they’re fed too much of the wrong kind of food.”