Is your horse overweight?
Managing your horse’s weight can be difficult, especially during the summer when there is often an abundance of fresh grass. However, it is important that you pay particular attention to this area of your horse’s health to prevent problems occurring when you get to an event.
Vet Sarah Hunter from Clevedale Vets in North Yorkshire explains how to manage your eventer’s weight.
Risks of equine obesity
Being overweight can pose a significant risk for eventing and can be a serious welfare concern.
- Obesity can cause poor performance as the horse will usually not be fit enough to perform the activity asked of them.
- In some cases, this can lead to exhaustion, especially in warm weather.
- Overweight horses can be at a higher risk of developing heat stroke when exercising. The extra fat under the skin acts as insulation, making it more difficult for them to keep themselves cool through sweating.
- A horse that is overweight and not properly prepared for an event could also suffer from exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying-up) or delayed onset muscle soreness, both of which are very painful for the horse and veterinary treatment may be required to help them recover.
All of these serious conditions can be prevented or reduced by ensuring that your horse is fit enough to perform the activity that you ask of them. Using an appropriate training plan for your horse is recommended and should be discussed with your trainer.
Feeding plan to manage weight
Your horse should always be fed a balanced diet that takes into account their energy requirements and the activities being performed. If your horse is overweight, all that is required to be fed alongside hay or grass is a good quality balancer and, even though it may seem like a small amount of food, remember that there will be a lot of energy stored up in the fat that the horse is carrying and this needs to be used.
If your horse has 24-hour access to grass, it could result in significant weight gain unless managed appropriately. Measures that you can take to reduce the amount of grass consumed include:
- Using a grazing muzzle
- Strip grazing
- Letting sheep graze the paddock first.
- Stabling your horse for part of the day will help to reduce the amount of food that is consumed, but he should have access to hay, which can be soaked in water before feeding so that the sugar content is reduced.
For more comprehensive dietary advice specific to your horse, a consultation with an equine nutritionist is advised.
How to weigh your horse
The most accurate way to check your horse’s weight is to use a weighbridge. As most owners don’t have access to this, using a weigh-tape is a more convenient way of getting an approximate weight.
Measuring their weight is important for accurately dosing with worming treatment and calculating the amount of food that should be given. However, it doesn’t tell you if your horse is the correct weight and therefore should be combined with body condition scoring.
When performing body condition scoring, different areas of the body are assessed, providing a grade for the horse depending on how much fat they are carrying. It is useful to perform this scoring regularly and record it in a diary because it can be difficult to notice a change when you are seeing your horse every day.
Body condition scoring guides and weigh-tapes are available from the major feed companies. Your vet will be happy to discuss how to measure the weight and assess the body condition score of your horse if you are unsure. An ideal body condition score would be four or five out of nine – if your horse falls outside of this range, then speak to your vet who can advise you on the steps to take to ensure that a healthy condition is reached.
It can be difficult to spot weight increases when you see your horse often, but make sure you are measuring it regularly and accurately and make any necessary adjustments to your horse’s diet.
They’ll thank you for it next time you’re on the cross country course!
Tackling obesity with BEVA
The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) has launched a pilot project to tackle equine obesity. The scheme uses a traffic light colour system of vaccination reminder stickers, which vets can place on the front of passports at each vaccination appointment. Pending the success of the six-month pilot, the initiative will be rolled out across the UK in the summer.
The idea is to utilise the routine annual or six-monthly vaccination visit as a time to assess a horse’s body condition.
A green sticker indicates a ‘healthy’ body condition.
Amber means the horse is carrying too much fat tissue and needs moderate changes to diet, exercise, management, rugging and clipping regimes.
Red implies that the horse is carrying excessive amounts of fat tissue, which is placing the horse in morbid danger.
The aim of the colour-coded stickers is to instigate a conversation about the horse’s weight, the potential impact on the horse’s health and how any issues can be addressed. If there is insufficient time to discuss the matter in full during the appointment, the sticker includes a colour-specific QR code that the owner can use to access additional information via their smartphone in their own time. One of three short, colour-specific videos will explain the reason their horse has been designated the colour of sticker on their passport, leading to a link to advice on what the owner needs to do.
The owner can then discuss the various management options with their vet at a convenient time. Taking into account individual circumstances, together they can come to a joint decision on what is the most suitable weight-loss programme for them and their horse.
Vets can find out more by visiting www.beva.org.uk