Obesity – The Curse of Horse Domestication

Offering help to the owners of fat horses and ponies…

Deben Valley Equine can only help you diet overweight horses and ponies only if you accept, they are too fat in the first place! We have a weighbridge at the clinic for complete accuracy.  However, we can provide you with a weightage so that you can monitor trends in bodyweight at home. We can also teach you how to body condition score (BCS) your horse / pony by feeling your pony’s neck, back and bottom.  Here is the link to a brilliant video on how to BCS your pony by Theresa Hollands for Redwings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zih1jT_pUgQ

Obese horse (BSC 5/5)Obese horse (BSC 5/5).

I hope that we can teach you to realise how important avoiding obesity is for your horses’ good health; fat horses and ponies frequently suffer from laminitis which is a crippling, painful condition and should be avoided at all costs. You may not realise this, but horses and ponies that have fat visible on the outside of their bodies will have just as much fat on the inside of the bodies. This internal fat is wrapped around their organs and affects how these organs will function, as well as how well their metabolism works, or not!  Lipomas (fatty internal lumps) and hyperlipidaemia are both commoner in overweight horses. Being overweight puts additional strain on limbs, joints, feet, ligaments and tendons, i.e., obesity makes arthritis worse.

Horses recovering from injury or those with arthritis will recover faster and are less likely to re-injure if they are kept at body condition score 3.5/5 or below.

Thin horse (BSC 1/5)

Thin horse (BSC 1/5).

In 2019, we keep horses in a heavily domesticated fashion and as such there is no natural starvation period doing the winter, followed by a gorging through the summer. Instead our horses and ponies seem to be very good at the gluttonous summer phase all year round! Responsible ownership of horses and ponies means fighting the bulge on their behalf; it is your willpower that is required for your horse to lose weight. Read Lord Dusky’s inspirational story for ideas here https://www.debenvalleyvet.co.uk/news-summary/the-story-of-lord-dusky/

Body condition scoring (BCS) is easiest based on a scale from 0 to 5

BCS is a physical assessment involving feeling for fat all over the horse’s bony skeleton and scoring it in a subjective way.

It is easier to score the horse or pony in three parts: –

  1. Neck – feel for fat above nuchal ligament and over the shoulder blade. Please note there is no muscle above the nuchal ligament only fat.
  2. Back and ribs – feel for fat overlying ribs and also how prominent the backbone is. What is more prominent, the backbone or muscle/fat either side of the backbone? Worse, is there a dip along the backbone due to bulge either side of it?
  3. Rump – feel for the bony pelvis underlying the flesh.

It is perfectly possible that a horse could have a BCS of 4 on its neck and BCS 3 on its’ body and rump, for example, or any other combination.

Ponies suffering from EMS or PPID (Cushing’s disease) often have abnormal fat distribution.

Sites for fat deposition.

Obesity is a disease, but you as the owner of the horse can control this disease. Obesity is caused by too much feed or forage intake and inadequate energy used by the horses’ body. Growth, exercise & normal bodily functions use up energy.


Ideas on How to Decrease Feed Intake

Reduce hard feed – most ponies and many horses will only require a small balanced ration to provide minerals and vitamins e.g. Bailey’s lo Cal balancer or Saracen essential balancer etc

Reduce time grazing – housing for a significant time on limited forage; use of a muzzle (see our info sheet on muzzling here; https://www.debenvalleyvet.co.uk/information-summary/grazing-muzzles/

use poorer quality grazing; smaller paddocks or strip grazing can be effective if managed correctly.  Please take note, that in the spring, the richness of the grass (in terms of dry matter equivalent) contains more energy than the same weight of pony nuts –would you ever allow a pony ad-lib access to pony nuts? Yet, often we allow ad-lib grazing.

Limiting the forage – Soaking hay for up to 12 hours can reduce energy intake. Having smaller hay nets plus weighing hay accurately (we use a fishing digital scale). Using double nets or small holed hay nets can be effective in slowing horses down, but must be combined with cutting down the total forage given in 24 hours for weight loss. However, I dislike hay nets and ideally all horses should really be fed from the floor. Haybars, forage balls or blocks, and hay boxes can be useful floor alternatives.  Not suitable for all, but another alternative is to gradually feed less hay and slowly introduce up to 50% barley straw.

There is no point in reducing grazing and then providing ad-lib forage in the stable!

Increasing exercise in a sound horse.

This can be ridden, lunging, leading from another horse, in hand, horse walker or starting a new discipline.  Any of these, alone or in combination, can help enormously.

Build tracks/runways around paddocks so ponies have to move around more to graze.

Other ways to encourage weight loss include not rugging or clipping the horse and using less rugs.

Exercise - any form
Exercise – any form.

The Bigger Picture

Unfortunately, as caring owners we like to feed our horses; it also makes them easier to catch and they appear more loving.

Frequently we hear phrases, such as “he’s a good doer” or “he’s in show condition”, as if these phrases make obesity in horses acceptable, they do not. 

Obesity is not restricted to native ponies and cobs; dressage horses are frequently obese too.

Some showing competitions / judges, in my opinion, actively promote obesity as a sign of good health by placing obese horses higher in the line-up than slim horses.

Laminitis can be costly to treat, but also has serious welfare implications – no one wants a pony in agony and laminitis can prove fatal.

Ponies at grass in the summer can eat up to 4.6% of their body weight in 24 hours!

If you genuinely want your horse or pony to be healthier; less prone to injury and less likely to develop laminitis we can help you reverse obesity.

Other resources:

‘Fat horse slim’ campaign by the Blue Cross.

‘Right weight’ by World Horse Welfare.

Body condition scoring charts and videos on Redwings website.

We have a limited number of free weigh tapes, please phone the clinic to arrange the collection of yours – 01728 685 123