Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Obesity in horses - Top Tips!

Over the last few years I have noticed an increase in warning stories about horse obesity.  Managing the weight of any pet can be difficult but we owe it to them to help them be as healthy as possible.  I have had struggles with both Fidget and Chesney's weight over the years so am well aware of the problems.

If a horse is overweight it is at increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, lung problems, laminitis and hyperlipaemia (fat in the blood stream).  These problems are life threatening and so managing weight is a good way to prevent them occurring.

What causes a horse to be overweight?

The obvious answer is that they are eating too much - but it is not actually that simple.  Horses and ponies have evolved to eat grass (see my Ancestry blog) but grass in the wild is not as rich as the grass in our paddocks.  Horses had to travel to find the best grass thus using energy and using up the food they were taking in.  They would eat large amounts in the summer when the grass was plentiful and this would be stored as fat but then when the grass was poor and sparse in the winter they would use all these reserves and be relatively thin come the spring.  The cycle would start again.

We prevent our horses losing much weight in the winter by feeding them extra forage and hard feed.  We put rugs on them to keep them warm (thus also preventing them losing weight to keep warm).  We also often overfeed concentrates (hard feed).  Many horses and ponies do not do enough work to need hard feed but we are constantly 'sold' these feeds by the feed companies.  

Why is fat dangerous?

Body fat (adipose tissue) has now been shown to be an active tissue.  It secretes hormones and inflammatory proteins which affect equine health.  The hormones affect the energy balance of the horse and affect their feelings of being full!  The inflammatory proteins are also thought to damage tissue and affect metabolism.

Top Tips for controlling your horse's weight.

  • Fence off part of the paddock or field - thus reducing the grass available. (This never worked with Chesney as he would just jump the fence!) 
  • Use a grazing muzzle - this still allows the horse or pony to graze, and so behave naturally and trickle feed, but limits the amount they are able to consume. 

  • Stable part of the day - your horse will still need some forage during the day to ensure his digestive system continues to work and prevent him getting colic.  
  • Use a haylage net - these have small holes and so the horse can only take small amounts at a time and the hay will last longer.  Alternatively, double net the hay ie: put one haynet inside another, and this will have a similar effect. 
  • Soak the hay - after several hours the energy in the hay will have disappeared, leaving the fibre. 
  • Be realistic about his energy needs - do not overestimate the exercise your horse gets and therefore do not overestimate the amount of food he needs. (See my blog) 
  • Use a weight tape and body condition score your horse on a regular basis.

Body Condition Scoring

This is a 6 point system in the U.K.  It goes from a score of 0 = Emaciated to 5 = Obese.

0 = Emaciated

  • No fatty tissue, skin is tight over the bones 
  • Shape of individual bones are visible 
  • Marked ewe-neck 
  • Very prominent backbone and pelvis 
  • Very sunken rump 
  • Deep cavity under tail 
  • Large gap between thighs

1 = Very thin

  • Barely any fatty tissue, shape of bones visible 
  • Narrow ewe neck 
  • Ribs easily visible 
  • Prominent backbone, croup and tail head 
  • Sunken rump 
  • Cavity under tail 
  • Gap between thighs

2 = Very lean
  • Very thin layer of fat under the skin 
  • Narrow neck - muscles sharply defined 
  • Backbone covered but still protruding 
  • Withers, shoulders and neck accentuated 
  • Ribs just visible 
  • Hip bones easily visible but rounded 
  • Rump sloping from back bone to point of hips, only rounded if very fit

3 = Healthy weight
  • Thin layer of fat under the skin 
  • Muscles on neck less defined 
  • Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body 
  • Back is flat or forms only a slight ridge 
  • Ribs not visible but easily felt 
  • Rump beginning to appear rounded 
  • Hip bones just visible

4 = Fat
  • Muscles hard to determine 
  • Spongy fat developing on crest 
  • Fat behind shoulders 
  • Ribs and pelvis difficult to feel 
  • Rump well rounded - apple shaped from behind 
  • Spongy fat around tail head 
  • Gutter along back

5 = Obese
  • Blocky, bloated appearance 
  • Muscles not visible 
  • Pronounced crest with hard fat 
  • Pads of fat, ribs cannot be felt 
  • Deep gutter along back and rump 
  • Lumps of fat around tail head 
  • Very bulging apple shaped rump 
  • Inner thighs pressing together

When scoring look at 3 separate sections;
  • the neck and shoulders 
  • the middle 
  • the quarters
Horses carry their fat unevenly on their bodies, so score each area and then take the average.  Chesney has always looked ribby but he carries his weight on his quarters and his neck and shoulders.

An individual horse's confirmation can also make this more tricky!

Top Tips to help you reduce your horses weight.

This must be done gradually, allow time because if a horse loses weight too quickly it can cause other health problems.
  • Reduce hard feed gradually (by no more than 10% in a 10 day period)- it may not be needed at all, 
  • Gradually increase exercise, 
  • Feed away from other horses so that he is not able to steal another horses food, 
  • Weigh the food, 
  • Gradually change to a lower energy feed, 
  • Use the tips above on controlling weight!

Several years ago Chesney became overweight and the main way I found to tackle it was by increasing his exercise.  He was already having minimal feed and limited grass intake.  I lunged him before work and rode after work - it took time but he did lose the weight and I was careful to make sure he did not put that much weight on again!

Look out tomorrow for this weeks video. Horse Life and Love
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Until next time!

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