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Health concerns for the overweight horse

Jan. 2, 2014 | 0 comments


Human or horse, chubby is not a good thing.

Maintaining an optimal weight is critical for a horse’s overall health and well-being. However, while many horse owners understand the issues that can arise when a horse is too thin, Dr. Colleen Brady believes few understand the health concerns when a horse is overweight.

Speaking during eXtension’s December MyHorseUniversity webcast, the Extension specialist at Purdue University said that a horse being “too fat” is commonly ignored, even though it is more likely to be the case.

The timing of the presentation was intentional, Brady noted, since many horse owners ride and exercise their horses less in the colder months.

“I always find it a little ironic that we’re so concerned about people being overweight and we don’t seem to think there are too many health concerns with being too skinny, and we do the reverse with our animals, including our cats and dogs,” she said.

Health Issues

Getting heavier reduces a horse’s ability to perform by causing exercise intolerance, and the stress of bearing additional weight can cause pain and discomfort in his legs and joints, Brady said. A fatter horse doesn’t want to work, he overheats when he does, and he doesn’t have the stamina he should.

Being overweight can also spark Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), a combination of issues including insulin resistance, increased occurrence of laminitis and founder, and obesity and regional adiposity (fat spots). Horses that are “easy keepers” are most likely to have challenges with EMS.

Insulin resistance is similar to pre-diabetes, Brady said. The horse’s body rejects the insulin signal to uptake energy, so more and more insulin is produced. It can lead to laminitis.

Laminitis and founder are also caused by gastrointestinal upsets sparked by a high grain diet, lush pasture and overeating. It causes severe pain in the hoof, lameness and may result in permanent injury. In mild cases, a horse may have a touch of sore footedness and recover completely, while severe cases can lead to the horse's demise.

To prevent laminitis, do not make any sudden changes in a horse’s diet, limit the amount of concentrate in each meal and lock up the feed. Most horses on a maintenance diet (ridden a few times a week) will do quite well on just a good quality hay, Brady said. 

It’s also important to limit access to green pasture in the spring. “If you have a sensitive horse, wait until later in the day to let them out because it actually decreases the sugars in the grass”, she advised.

If EMS is suspected, call in a professional for diagnosis and treatment. “Your veterinarian is definitely your best guide for working with your individual case,” Brady said.

To tell if a horse is obese or at risk of EMS, start by weighing him. However, most horse owners do not have access to a large enough scale and weight tapes are better for telling if a horse is getting bigger or smaller.

Body Condition Scoring, which is an assessment of how much fat a horse has on its body, is a very useful tool, although Brady cautioned that it is not an assessment of overall health. A score of 4.5-5.5 is ideal for most horses, although the level of physical fitness must also be taken into consideration. An Olympic athlete will not have much fat on its body, Brady noted, but it is certainly healthy.

If a horse scores more than 7 or less than 3, it raises concerns for its well-being.

New App Coming

On Jan. 1, a new app will be made available through ITunes to help horse owners learn how to do Body Condition Scoring. Developed through University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, it will allow calculation and tracking of an individual horse’s condition.

The app takes a horse’s body by sections, such as ribs, tailhead and withers, and provides both pictures and descriptions to help owners know what to feel for and correctly score their horse.  “What I think is unique about this app is that you can not only go in and learn, but you can then put your own horse in,” Brady said. The program calculates the horse’s overall score and stores the scores.

There is a computer version as well as an app for androids. Ipads have full functionality, allowing a photograph of each horse to be taken, scored and recorded. The app will date the photograph and, depending on the tool, GPS-stamp it.

“We think this app will be really useful for people to help manage their horses,” Brady said.

Reduction Plan

To reduce a horse’s weight, its best to switch to a high forage (grass), low or no concentrate diet. “As much as some of these horses try to tell you they absolutely cannot survive without concentrates, the reality is they can,” Brady said.

Feed 1.5-2 percent of body weight, as calculated with the “Healthy as a Horse” app and weigh the feed. Hay can be highly variable, she noted.

Exercise by hand-walking, lunging or riding. Turn-out is not enough, Brady said, since the extent of exercise many horses get in the winter is walking out to the round bale feeder and back to the barn. In between, they stand with their head in the groceries.

Take care when beginning an exercise program. “Just like with people trying to control their weight, if the horse has been in a situation where he has not been getting exercise, you need to start gradually,” Brady said. “Do purposeful exercise.”

The “Healthy As A Horse” app is currently available through ITunes. Developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota, it uses standard measurements to calculate the weight of a horse. “It is much more accurate than a weight tape,” Brady said.

The app is unique in that it splits horses out by breed/body type. After selecting the appropriate category, the horse’s measurements for height, body length, girth and body circumference are taken and entered. “This is where your weight tapes, with their inch measurements, can come in handy,” Brady noted.

The app provides information on where and how to take the correct measurements. Once measurements are entered, the app estimates the horse’s weight. It also provides the estimated ideal body weight and where the horse fits into the percentile of its approximate size and structure.

“This can be super helpful when we’re in a situation where we want to control intake,” Brady explained. “Instead of just throwing in a flake of hay, you weigh the hay and, basically, use portion control.”

The app is also really useful for medications and deworming, which are both done by weight. The direct link is:www1.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/apps/.

Brady recommended combining nutrition and exercise to optimize a horse’s weight, and to accurately know how much is being fed.  Regularly body condition score or weight estimate each horse. It is a lot easier, she noted, to make small adjustments than large ones.

In the winter, especially, it is easy for a horse’s weight to creep up. In group situations, a dominant horse may be taking more than his fair share by stealing food from other horses. “In some situations, you may need to look at separate horses to make sure each one gets what he needs,” Brady noted.

There are other techniques to moderate a horse’s intake. For instance, horses on summer pasture can be let out during the night, but restricted to a dry lot during the day. Grazing muzzles can be used to limit access or puzzle feeders to slow down consumption rates and help alleviate boredom and associated problems, like cribbing and chewing the walls up.

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