As the public becomes increasingly aware of America’s human obesity concerns, so should horse owners take note of their horses’ body indexes.
While obesity in horses has not received much research or hype as equine risk factors, it is known that people and horses suffer from similar health dangers. Several excellent articles have been written about horse obesity, but not much research into the inherent dangers to horses – such as heart disease and diabetes – has been undertaken across the United States.
In the late 1990s, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health Monitoring System estimated that around 5% of America’s horse population was obese. Since then, a few studies were done on nearly 400 horses in Scotland, Virginia and North Carolina that determined obese horses were on a steep increase. These studies found “fat” horses ranging from 45%, 51% and 48%, respectively. Many of these horse owners did not consider their horses obese at all and were actually defensive about the subject.
Perhaps one of the concerns is the horse caretaker’s lack of knowledge about horse nutrition. This is probably due to getting much of the feed knowledge from feed dealers and their representatives instead of from independent horse nutritionists or even veterinarians. For example, a feed dealer might suggest a special feed, but a nutritionist may recommend a high-quality hay be fed with regular grain or no grain at all. Some feeds are promoted to improve health or performance, and horse caretakers might overfeed the product.
The amount of exercise given to horses often impacts weight gain as well. Riders often misjudge the amount of exercise given to their horses and underrate the actual exercise given. Horses given low-intensity conditioning can work for hours at a time so it is understandable that a pleasure ride or a quick workout in the ring amounts to little exercise benefit to horses in the long run.
The medical profession and the general public consider human obesity as harmful, yet horse owners like their horses to look well fed. Often, a horse owner views “healthy weight” on the horse as too thin and feeds more.
Philip Johnson, a professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri, agrees that there is a similarity between humans and horses regarding obesity since problems are strikingly alike.
When a horse becomes fat or obese, the increased weight may present endocrine problems, including insulin resistance. Frequently a horse that suffers insulin resistance can become more susceptible to laminitis.
Added weight in obese horses “forces the connective tissue to tear and the bone breaks through the nail-like texture of the hooves.”
“Horses need to be exercised daily in meaningful ways,” Johnson says. “When exercising horses, owners should push their horses for a more strenuous exercise. It’s not enough to ride your horse twice a week for 20 minutes.”
Ultimately, humans want to put extra bloom on horses and, as a result, might overfeed. With modern time constraints, the right amount of exercise might not be given to horses.
Weight management is actually quite simple. It is the same for humans and horses. The mantra is well known to all of us: Eat less, exercise more, and lose weight.