Heavy Horses Need Help

Mar 17, 2014 / General Care / Horses

Obesity in horses in a common problem, and owners should know how to evaluate and manage their horse’s weight.

Is your horse too fat? Just as snug-fitting clothing or becoming winded after going up a flight of stairs might be an indication to people that they’ve gained some extra weight, so a horse owner might notice that Star’s saddle no longer fits or Beauty has become intolerant of exercise.

According to Dr. Scott Austin, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, obesity in horses in a common problem, and owners should know how to evaluate and manage their horse’s weight.

The health risks are real. Equine obesity has been linked to insulin resistance and sub-acute or chronic laminitis. Laminitis is a painful inflammatory condition of the tissues (laminae) that bond the hoof wall to the pedal bone in a horse’s hoof, and this may lead to chronic lameness. Horses with laminitis are prone to founder, the sinking of the horse’s foot when the laminar bond fails.

Dr. Austin points out that half of the pleasure horses in the U.S. are overweight, and many of these horses are obese. Veterinarians use a “body condition score” to help determine if an animal is at a healthy weight. The score ranges from 1, indicating that the animal is emaciated, to 9, meaning the animal is extremely fat. An obese horse is defined as having a body condition score of 7 or above on this scale.

Overfeeding, genetics, and owners feeding grain unnecessarily are among the most common reasons for obesity in horses.

“Some breeds, such as Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians, and ponies, are predisposed to obesity,” says Dr. Austin. “These breeds tend to maintain weight even when consuming fewer calories than a horse without genetic predisposition.”

Also contributing to obesity is that pastures today are high quality, which means that a horse doesn’t need to walk very far to consume all of their daily nutritional requirements. Dr. Austin suggests trying a grazing muzzle to restrict food intake and increase activity for horses on pasture.

Dr. Austin recommends that a horse owner learn how to do a body condition score. Areas where overweight and obese horses tend to have extra fat are in the neck, in the tail head, and over the ribs. If a horse is at a healthy weight, you should be able to feel the ribs but not see them, and the horse should not have a big crest in its neck.

Dr. Austin says the best diet for maintaining a resting horse at a healthy weight is to feed forage only. These horses should not be fed grain, as grain is only necessary for working horses. Overweight horses may even need to be restricted on the amount of forage intake.

“Overweight horses should eat no more than about 1.5 percent of its body weight per day, and this should be roughage,” advises Dr. Austin.

If a proper change in diet and exercise doesn’t appear to be improving a horse’s weight, Dr. Austin recommends consulting with a veterinarian in order to ensure overall wellness and prevent the serious health problems associated with obesity.

For more information about obesity in horses, contact your equine veterinarian.

By Sarah Netherton