Is a “Healthy” Horse Really Healthy?

Find out why equine obesity has risen over the years.

Studies show that most owners don't realize their horse is obese.

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How do you broach the topic of the elephant in the barn?

When I was in college, my best friend and I went to a hockey game and bumped into some old frenemies who looked us up and down and finally decided to greet us with, “Well, you look healthy!”

Insert unamused emoji here.

That phrase (and unfortunate memory) comes to my mind all too frequently these days when examining patients. Despite several studies suggesting that only 30 to 50 percent of domesticated horses are either overweight or obese (i.e., a body condition score of 6 or greater on the Henneke Scale), that number is way too high for many equine experts’ liking.

The Equine Pudge Problem

At the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners annual convention, one of the sunrise sessions focused on feeding the senior horse. During her presentation, Mary Beth Gordon, PhD, director of Equine Research and New Product Development at Purina Animal Nutrition said, “There is no such thing as a fat healthy horse.”

Some of the many known detriments of extra weight in horses include the following:

  • Overweight adult horses are prone to exercise intolerance, have impaired thermoregulation, often suffer from osteoarthritis and are more likely to develop insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis;
  • Overweight pregnant mares can potentially develop a condition similar to gestational diabetes mellitus in humans; and,
  • Young horses are at risk of developmental orthopedic disorders such as osteochondrosis.

According to the American Horse Publications’ Equine Industry Surveys published over the past few years, the majority of horse owners are directly responsible for feeding their horses. This meansthat the majority of owners are therefore responsible for overfeeding their horses. There are a few potential explanations for this phenomenon:

1. Science is (ironically) partially to blame for equine obesity.

Compared to the first eight decades of the 20th century, a flurry of studies and books has been published to address the dietary needs of modern, domesticated horses. In an interesting review article titled, “Developments in Equine Nutrition: Comparing the Beginning and End of This Century” author Patricia Harris compared the basic nutrient composition of feedstuffs in 1908 and again in 1989 based on the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses. Back in 1908, feed composition was described using words such as “flesh making,” “bone making,” and “woody fiber” whereas at the end of the century the terms “crude protein,” “nonstructural carbohydrates,” and “crude fiber” are commonly used.

Together with the explosion of research into equine nutrition and the impressive growth of knowledge relating to the equine gastrointestinal tract, microbiome and the impact of diet on overall health came the internet and good ol’ Dr. Google. Although a godsend in many ways, the internet also makes it easy for owners to access scientifically unsound materials or incorrectly apply information obtained from the internet.

2. Owners are unaware of what a healthy horse looks like. 

The 9-point Henneke body condition score (BCS) chart was originally described in the 1980s to help owners critically evaluate their horses’ condition on a regular basis without the need for weight tapes and expensive weigh scales. That BCS chart is widely available for free online yet many owners will need help putting that chart to work and shedding their rose-colored glasses.

Sam Chubbock, BSc (Hons), Right Weight manager at World Horse Welfare in Norfolk, U.K. agrees, stating, “Overweight horses are so common now that this has become ‘normal,’ making it very difficult for owners to know what the correct condition for their horse really is. Most people readily recognize a thin horse and assume it is ill or has health risks, but not so many owners are aware of the health risks associated with fat in horses.”

Several studies report that owners routinely underestimate their horse’s weight or BCS. For example, Mottet et al., authors of the article, “Revisiting the Henneke body condition scoring system: 25 years later” noted that 36 percent of owners of 144 obese horses inaccurately reported their horse as not obese. Similarly, a group of Australian researchers reported that owner-reported means on the body condition scale were significantly different (p<0.0001) than the researchers’ assessments. More specifically, 48 percent of owners underestimated their horse’s condition by at least 10 percent on the body condition scale used in the study.

Owners can use weight tapes and online apps such as the “Healthy Horse” app available online for Android and Apple operation systems. The app requires breed type, height, girth circumference, body length and neck circumference.

3. Lack of Veterinary Intervention

Yes, equine veterinarians are also partly responsible for our patients’ adiposity. Considering the health consequences associated with excess body weight, failing to mention that a horse or pony is overweight could be compared to not mentioning a broken leg. There are myriad client information sheets available online from various equine extension specialists and the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Many of those have excellent practical tips and techniques, as well as contact information for equine nutritionists.

In addition to ensuring clients are armed with the appropriate tools and knowledge to assess BCS or body weight, give them the green light to exercise their horses. As longs as a horse or pony isn’t suffering from a musculoskeletal injury (e.g., a bout of chronic laminitis) or other medical condition precluding it from exercise (e.g., a heaves flare up), encourage owners to find activities they can enjoy together like longing, long lining, hand walking with or without a rider, hill work, sprints, etc. Even turning their horses out for several hours a day instead of stabling them is exercise. Of course, the use of dry lots or grazing muzzles will likely be required.

Finally, encourage owners to seek the assistance of an equine nutritionist to select quality feeds with high fiber but low energy. Alternative feedstuffs or soaking/steaming hay to decrease the nonstructural carbohydrate content might be indicated, particularly in horses with insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome. The nutritionist will analyze all aspects of the diet, including treats and supplements, to tailor the diet to each individual client. Using a dedicated professional nutritionist may spur more owners into action and provide the necessary encouragement to stick with their horse’s weight management regime to maximize the longevity and quality of their horse’s life.  

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