Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Fat Fillies and Slothful Stallions: The Obesity Epidemic Hits Equine Companions


Pet Column for the week of November 6, 2006


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelyn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

The obesity trend is affecting every man, woman and child in America today. Unfortunately, pets are suffering the same overindulgences and are succumbing to this trend. Oftentimes we forget that many horses are companion animals as well and can suffer their own problems from obesity.

For the health of your companion, it is important to address weight issues in animals. The first step to addressing the problem is recognizing that your horse is overweight. It isn't necessary to be able to see ribs on your horse, but they should be easily felt beneath the skin. Another place to check for a horse's body condition is at the top of its neck. If a horse is overweight, it will accumulate fat along the ridge where its mane grows. If a horse has a "crest" on top of its neck, you should consider the fact that your horse could be overweight. Lastly, you should check for excess body fat is at the base of the tail. The area near the base of the tail should feel relatively bony; thickening around that area can be attributed to excess body weight.

In general, "most horses get fed too much for what they do," says Angela Yates a veterinarian who graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, Ill. Most family pets are middle-aged geldings, or castrated males, who get ridden once or twice a week. Most horses getting this limited amount of exercise do not require grain or pelleted feed because these feeds are high in calorie content. An athletic horse that is competing--a jumper or a barrel racer, for example--and is being ridden three to four times a week may require grain.

Horses can obtain a nutritious meal from eating good grass, hay and, of course, plenty of water. In fact, a horse will not get all of its essential nutrients from grain alone; horses need roughage. Grains and oats have the highest calorie content, followed by alfalfa hay and, lastly, simple grass hay.

Good grass hay is characterized by a lack of weeds, a fresh smell and is green on the inside. In the springtime, grass pasture can be added to a horse's diet. However, many animals can become obese simply from overindulging on grass pasture. For this reason it is important to be careful to introduce a horse slowly onto lush spring grass.

Many owners complain that their horses become too fat when allowed to graze on pasture. There are a few solutions to this problem. You can limit your horses' time on pasture, which can be difficult because many people let their horses out and come back later to let them back in. If you have unlimited resources, a pasture without grass--such as a riding ring--is a great alternative. A commercially-distributed device called a grazing muzzle could also be of assistance. When placed on a horse, they allow a horse to graze, but they significantly limit the amount that they can eat.

Because there are some medical reasons for obesity in horses, if you have tried reducing your horses' weight and can't seem to get it down you should consult a veterinarian.

"In general, ponies are predisposed to obesity," says Dr. Jonathan Foreman, an equine medicine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill.. "You also have to remember that if a pony is a third the size of a regular horse it must be fed a third the ration," he reminds.

Cushings disease, an excess in steroid produced by a horse's adrenal glands, can also cause obesity. There are a few other causes of medical obesity in horses, but diseases, like hypothyroidism, that cause fat accumulation in human beings simply don't exist in horses.

It is also important to consider that another very common cause of "horse enlargement," is pregnancy. This should be kept in mind when you are watching a newly-purchased mare getting bigger in the pasture.

However, most cases of obesity are simply due to overfeeding. There is the rare case when it is not and it is good to keep a few other causes in mind.

By sticking to some of these suggestions you can take some of the weight off of your equine companion. An in-shape horse will most likely live longer and have fewer medical problems than its obese counterpart. That means more years to spend with one of your best friends.

For more information about weight issues in horses, consult your local veterinarian.