The Dangers of Horse Obesity

Obesity amongst horses is on the rise. During the late 1990s, the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) estimated that only 5% of the horse population was obese. However, a 2008 Scottish study found that 45% of 319 riding horses were considered fat, with 10% categorised as obese.

What causes obesity?

There are many factors for the rise of obesity in horses; one of the factors is overfeeding. Whether it’s the quality of feed or if you have rich pastures for your horse to graze freely, horses will often over eat when given the opportunity.  Another factor is lack of education on equine nutrition. Most horse owners generate most of their equine nutrition knowledge from feed dealers or fellow horse lovers rather than from trained nutritionists or veterinarians. Another concern is lack of exercise. Not only is exercising beneficial in reducing weight gain, it circulates your horses’ blood flow to help with regular movement. Horses that are confined to stalls for long periods of time are at risk of edema (swelling caused by build up of liquid).

Health issues associated with horse obesity

Weight gain in your horse can lead to severe and debilitating symptoms. From an increased risk of arthritis, heart disease, and lung issues, these diseases put your horse at greater risk for contracting more severe symptoms such as laminitis and lipomas.

Laminitis is the inflammation of multiple blood vessels within the horse’s hoof. Not only is this a very painful condition but it can also be fatal. Equine obesity increases the risk of laminitis, and can affect your horse’s other systems. While fatty tumours known as lipomas (usually found in obese or older horses) can wrap along the small fold of the stomach near the small intestine causing direct blockage or strangulation which can result in colic.

In addition to conditions such as laminitis and lipomas, obesity can negatively affect your horse’s heat tolerance. Horse’s who are more over weight than others will struggle to keep them selves cool in hotter weather or during exercise as they have much more fatty tissue insulating their body. This will result in heavier sweating and the horse will therefore loose more liquid than a healthy horse who does not need to sweat as much.

How to tell if your horse is overweight

It can be very difficult to know what your horse’s ideal weight should be. However, there are several tools that you can use. A great tool in determining your horse’s weight is a weighbridge, also known as a scale. If you are unable to use a weighbridge, a weigh-tape is a vital tool to keep in your tack box. Not only are they inexpensive to buy, when used regularly it will help you monitor your horse’s weight gain and loss. This will help you become more accurate with feeding and potential medication that your horse may need.

Another practical method for assessing your horse’s weight is body scoring. If done correctly, body scoring can help you maintain your horse’s healthy weight. The best way to be accurate is feeling your horse for fat cover over their neck and shoulders, back and bottom. Using just the appearance to body score can be misleading as it may feel completely different.

Where to look for fat 

There are several areas on the horse that fatty tissue usually sits:

  • The neck, especially the ‘crest’ located under the mane
  • The withers and backbone along either side
  • The shoulder blades
  • The ribs
  • The bony points of the pelvis and croup (point of hip and tail head)
  • The view of the rump from behind

How to lose the weight

In order for your horse to lose weight, it is important to feed them the right diet and ensure they have regular, suitable exercise. Reducing your horse’s weight should be a slow and steady process as losing weight too quickly can lead to major health risks. Make sure your horse is consuming a lot of water to rid the body of waste and to ensure its digestive system is running efficiently. To make the most of your horse’s weight loss regime, make sure you continue to feed your horse with the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Once you have your horse at its ideal weight, continue to make sure that it’s receiving proper exercise and a balanced diet.

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