Why Are Our Horses Getting Fatter?
Equine obesity is at an all time high, with rates as high as 70% for some populations of the horse world. Research suggests that owners now see an overweight horse as ‘normal’, making it difficult for an individual to objectively assess their own horse.
So who is to blame?
On a Horse First Aid Course a few weeks ago, this topic was discussed, with one lady stating quite passionately that she felt that feed companies are to blame. She cited the wide range of feed products available, marketing in magazines and social media and presence at large shows and events. She felt that feed companies were selling owners products that their horses didn’t need to order to make a profit. Was she right?
She certainly has a point that there is an extensive range of products available to feed your horse, and some do seem to make some impressive claims. This can certainly be confusing for horse owners but is this solely to root of equine obesity? Or does blame lie with rug companies or show judges? Should we wait for our vet to tell us that our horse is fat before we do something about it?
Are chocolate manufacturers to blame for human obesity?
Let’s not forget that horses are unable to shop for feedstuffs themselves, and it is us the owners who make the purchasing decisions, decide when to ride and how to manage our horses.
Here are my thoughts on why horses are getting fatter
1. Too many calories
Weight loss can be simplified to calories in versus calories expended, we simply need to provide less calories than the horse uses to encourage weight loss. Many horses are fed small fibre based ‘meals’ but then are then given access to sugary licks and treats. Grazing is often rich and lush, and horses, particularly ponies, can consume a great deal of grass in a short space of time.
If your horse is stabled at livery decisions on which field your horse is given, and the forage chosen may be out of your control. Consequently your horse maybe consuming more calories than you realise.
You can read more about what to feed your horse here
2. Not knowing what you are feeding
To help control your horse’s weight it is essential to understand exactly what you are feeding your horse in terms of content and quantity, and this can be compared to what they actually need.
Have you ever weighed out your horse’s haynet? If not I really recommend that you do. You can purchase a spring balance (these are not expensive) and hang the haynet off this. Many owners feed hay by the ‘slice’ or a small/ large haynet full.
Having your forage analysed can be extremely useful, this will give you a much better idea about what you are actually feeding your horse and if you need to take steps to alter the nutritional content by soaking or steaming the hay. Hay can have a sugar content of 20%, and it would be more appropriate to provide your horse with hay containing 10-12% water soluble carbohydrates.
3. Lack of exercise
The modern leisure horse simply doesn’t work hard, and owners tend to greatly overestimate the amount of work their horse does. With working, family life, short days in the winter months, and a variety of other commitments it can be a real challenge to find time to ride. Add in busier roads, over crowded arenas and a lack of winter turnout and our horses are pretty inactive. When this limited exercise is combined with advances in equine nutrition meaning that feedstuffs are much more digestible, energy dense and palatable it is easy to see how this weight gain is occurring across the equine population.
4. No seasonal weight loss
Be honest how does your horse actually look at the end of Winter? Thinner? Leaner? The same? Fatter?
For the vast majority of horses allowing them to lose weight over the winter months would be a very positive action. Nature has designed the horse to gain weight in the Spring and Summer months, and then lose this in the Winter, in readiness for the following Spring. In reality we expect our horses to look exactly the same all year round, and many would be concerned about experiencing criticism for allowing their horse to lose weight. A significant number of horses are over-rugged, and this together with limited exercise and turnout, and inappropriate diet means that winter weight loss is not achieved.
5. Killing with kindness
The biggest reason for equine obesity has got to be that we are ‘killing with kindness’. As horse owners with limited time to ride and groom for our horses we give our horses treats to compensate. We buy fancy rugs and swaddle our horses from tail to ears, despite the fact that horses can cope very well unrugged. We stress about them having ‘condition’ and ‘looking well’ without realising that a healthy body condition score, and faintly seeing your horse’s ribs is much more important.
So what is the answer?
Take responsibility and take action.
Hosting National Laminitis Awareness Day on 10th July really highlighted to me how many owners had unintentionally allowed their horse to gain weight. There were so many reasons for this; horse out on loan, owner had a baby, horse and/or owner had an injury, travelling more with work, horse moved yards, horse on full livery, but one way or another the weight had crept on. Consequently most owners didn’t take action until they reached a crisis point, like their horse suffering from laminitis.
I received so many lovely success stories from owners and we shared lots of fantastic #fathorseslim photos. Weight loss is possible (my website and Facebook page are full of great suggestions), so please look at your horse with fresh eyes and start them on a weight loss journey if needed.