Obesity in Horses: A Link to Lameness

Aug 20, 2012 / General Care / Horses

About half of all pleasure horses in the United States are overweight.

As in people, dogs, and cats, obesity in horses is both common and commonly overlooked. And just as in other species, obesity in horses brings with it serious health complications.

About half of all pleasure horses in the United States are overweight, according to sources cited by Dr. Scott Austin, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, who delivers primary care services on farms.

“Recent studies have reported that between 49 percent and 54 percent of pleasure horses are overweight,” says Dr. Austin, “and one of these articles found that 20 percent of the overweight horses are classified as obese.”

Dr. Austin points to many causes of obesity, including genetic factors, overfeeding, and a more sedentary lifestyle. Certain breeds of horses and ponies seem to be predisposed to obesity or regional fat accumulation in the neck or rump. These “easy keepers” are able to maintain body weight while ingesting relatively fewer calories than herd-mates.

“When you combine genetic predisposition to obesity with lack of exercise and extra calories, either in the form of concentrates added to the forage or as unlimited access to lush pasture, the result is an obese horse,” says Dr. Austin, who is board certified in equine internal medicine.

Obesity has been associated with increased strain on bones and tendons and with exercise intolerance. Uncontrolled obesity can lead to metabolic disturbances such as insulin resistance, which plays a major role in pasture-associated laminitis. Laminitis is an extremely painful condition that causes damage to weight-supporting structures of the horse’s hoof and may result in chronic, debilitating lameness.

This triad of obesity or regional fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and laminitis is known as “equine metabolic syndrome.”

Horse owners should consult with their veterinarian to identify and manage overweight in horses. “Veterinarians can evaluate the horse’s body condition and estimate its body weight,” says Dr. Austin. “They can also detect and treat diseases associated with overweight, such as equine Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance, and sub-acute, or chronic, laminitis.”

For the optimal health of your horse, consult your equine veterinarian for a program of exercise, diet, and medical treatment tailored to the needs of your horse.