It’s not just humans who face obesity crisis

Unfortunately many horses are kept overweight because owners like to see horses 'well covered' with a glossy coat. Picture: Neil Hanna
Unfortunately many horses are kept overweight because owners like to see horses 'well covered' with a glossy coat. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Improved welfare vital to ward off diseases, says Gillian McKnight

With the human obesity epidemic reaching crisis proportions around the world, it should perhaps come as no surprise that many of our companion animals suffer a similar fate and similar ill effects. Workshops organised by Scotland’s Rural College in partnership with the British Horse Society (BHS) Scotland, have been highlighting the risks of obesity in horses and helping owners resist the urge to over-feed or over-protect and encourage more natural exercise to keep their horses fit and healthy.

Unfortunately many horses, including many show horses, are kept overweight because owners and indeed some show judges like to see horses in “good condition” and “well covered” with a glossy coat. This is an unnatural condition. In fact there has, in recent years, been a prosecution for negligence for keeping a horse perpetually overweight, suffering illness and pain.

Nowadays most horses do relatively light work, while companion horses do none. They graze through a long growing season, for up to 16 hours a day, on unsuitable agricultural grasses, which are high in sugars. Furthermore, they get little exercise.

Renowned equine vet Professor Derek Knottenbelt, Chairman of BHS Scotland, has contrasted this lifestyle to both the natural behaviour of wild or feral horses that live in harsh climates on sparse forage, and to the demanding workload and meagre diet of horses in rural areas of developing countries. He describes the diet of many of our leisure and companion horses as “rocket fuel”.

Obesity in horses is a huge concern. Just like humans, it makes them more susceptible to diseases such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome where they become insulin resistant, somewhat akin to human Type 2 diabetes. This underlying metabolic disease increases the risk of laminitis, a painful inflammation within the hoof which hinders the horse’s ability to walk or even stand comfortably. Another risk is PPID or Cushing’s disease, which affects the pituitary gland.

So what is the ideal weight of a horse and how does an owner achieve this? There are several ways to condition score a horse: using weigh tapes; or by feeling the neck, ribs, shoulders, top of the tail and hips; and by comparing the horse’s frame to diagrams. By weighing a horse in this optimum condition, or by measuring around the girth, an owner can identify weight gain or loss.

Weight gain by late summer and weight loss by late winter is natural but should be within 5-7% of this optimum weight. In contrast, fat deposits on the crest of the neck, top of the tail and around the sheath are dangerous signs of obesity.

BHS Scotland produced “The Scottish Government code of practice for the welfare of equidae”, which specifies the responsibilities and duty of care owners and managers have to their animals. It is based on the “five freedoms”, one of which is a suitable diet, as defined in the Animal Health & Welfare Act.

Natalie Waran, Professor of Animal Welfare Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is an expert on the natural behaviour of horses. She describes a trend towards “equine naturalisation” by providing horses with a more natural, healthy lifestyle through encouraging more movement, foraging and natural herd behaviours which are better for the mental and physical well-being of the horse.

Horses have evolved to live off sparse, natural grassland high in fibre and low in energy, and travel miles each day in search of vegetation. They maintain a level of fitness by searching for food, running from predators and behaving as part of a herd. Any excess weight gained in the summer is burned off during the winters when food is scarce.

To replicate this at home the concept of a “track”, as described in Paddock Paradise by Jaime Jackson, has become a 
well-established management system. A track, established around any field but with less grass, more hay, enriched browsing and other features, mimics natural ranging behaviour.

It is not easy to maintain a horse’s natural weight in an unnatural environment without feeling that the horse is being treated harshly or deprived of food or warmth. However allowing horses to suffer the painful consequences of the diseases associated with obesity is negligent.

The workshops were funded through the Scottish Government as part of the Scottish Funding Council knowledge transfer and exchange progamme.

Gillian McKnight is an SRUC consultant.