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Keeping your horse healthy, fit and trim 

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Obesity in horses and ponies is a growing welfare problem and many are being allowed to become overweight to the point where they are susceptible to painful medical problems such as laminitis.

Ponies in particular have evolved to survive on a fibre-based diet on rough plains and usually do not need the volume of feed we offer.

No two horses are exactly alike in shape, size and type. Their breeding, history and recent general management all influence their body condition, no matter how easily or not they tend to gain weight. The perfect weight is best gauged by considering the horse’s overall fitness and body condition.

All horses and ponies should be managed with a combination of the appropriate type and quantity of feed, good general health management and regular, suitable exercise (even if they are not in ridden work). This is particularly important for those horses and ponies that are “good doers”, that is those that put on weight rapidly regardless of how meagre the grazing or feed ration appears to be.

Assessing weight and condition

It is a good idea to use a weigh-tape weekly (measured around the horse’s girth, where a roller or surcingle would normally fit). Record the weight so that the diet can be adjusted accordingly. While weigh-tapes are not always accurate at assessing the exact weight, and may differ between brands, if the same tape is used each time then any weight loss or gain will be comparable with previous records. After all, it is the changes in weight gain and weight loss that are important, combined with the horse’s physical health, well-being and body condition.

It is essential a horse’s physical body condition be monitored weekly. Check the animal’s crest and, if it is large and hard, there is a problem and the diet needs to be looked at immediately. Also, take the horse off the grass until it softens. Check the loins as they should be no more than level across the spine. If looked at from behind, the horse should be rounded but should not have a dip or “W” shape across the pelvis; the ribs should be easily felt.

A condition score can be given to different places on the horse’s body to help monitor weight. These are usually the pelvis, loins, ribs and neck. Scores run on a scale from one to five. One is “emaciated”, three is in “good condition” and five is “obese”. Half points can be used to help with accuracy.

Gradual weight loss programme

Excess body condition is unnecessary and undesirable, raising concerns for the long-term health and well-being of the individual, particularly if the animal is subject to excessive fluctuations in weight or remains in a fat condition long term. It can take several months to return to a normal weight and good body condition. Fat deposits laid down for some time, and those which are hard to the touch are the most difficult to shift.

Weight gain is often exacerbated in “resting” horses (companions, retired or otherwise out of work) as a result of the lack of appropriate exercise (which is not adequately provided by free-ranging on good pasture) combined with an ad hoc intake of forage required for maintenance. Also, remember that seasonal changes in pasture conditions can occur ahead of a change in management practices.

All weight loss programmes should be undertaken in conjunction with veterinary advice and be appropriate to an individual horse. Any possible underlying conditions for unexplained weight gain should be considered and ruled out before commencing a programme. Horses suffering from laminitis should be treated and managed under veterinary supervision.

Information courtesy of Blue Cross animal charity, UK.