Why attitudes to overweight horses must change to save lives *H&H Plus*


  • Horse & Hound news editor Eleanor Jones shares her views on the British Equine Veterinary Association’s new pilot scheme designed to combat the life-threating risk that obesity holds for too many horses through the UK

    Equine obesity is a big issue. Vets have said they put down more horses from related conditions than any other, but it is a preventable disease – and it’s man-made. Whether it’s down to the way they are kept, and possibly the stigma associated with owning a skinny horse, the problem is not getting any better.


    Horses evolved to lose weight in winter, when temperatures dropped and food became scarcer, and put it on in spring and summer, in preparation for the next cold season.

    But thanks to the way many are kept now, on grass that’s been compared to being “like sweets” by one vet, often over-rugged, over-fed and under-exercised, our animals are getting fatter and fatter.

    There has been a huge amount of great work done on this, by vets and welfare charities, but vets are not seeing fewer obese horses, hence the new initiative, which is taking a different angle.

    As has been pointed out, it is not that owners intend to mistreat their horses, it’s in most cases entirely the opposite.

    A major part of the problem is anthropomorphism. When the weather is bad, the natural inclination is to want them in, “tucked up and cosy”, nice and warm in a thick rug, with plenty to eat. We’ve all been guilty of thinking, if subconsciously, that we’re cold so surely the horse must be too, and chucking a thicker rug on than may be needed.

    But this is a case of doing, with the best intentions, what we think will make a horse happy, rather than what they actually want and need. Many people have reported that if horses are turned out in a field with a shelter, they don’t use it in the rain and wind when we think they’d want to be in the dry; they’ll only seek the shade out on hot summer days.

    Horses have a wider thermo-neutral zone than we do – the range of temperature at which they feel neither too hot nor too cold (link) – and food keeps them warm. They use a lot of energy to maintain their temperature in winter, and if they don’t need to, if they’re too warm, weight gain can be the result.

    But how do you change underlying behaviour and attitude? In general, you’ll be far more likely to get stick on a livery yard if your horse is a bit thin rather than overweight, the very language we use; “he looks well” for a well-covered animal, does not help, and because we love our horses, we want to look after them, to keep them warm and well-fed, even if we could be killing them with kindness.

    It seems there is reluctance to say a horse is carrying excess weight, and offence taken if someone does point it out. Why? You can’t fat-shame a horse, he won’t take it to heart if someone says he’s carrying a few extra pounds, so why are people insulted if they’re warned, in good time, that their horse’s health could be at risk so they’ve got a chance to do something about it?

    Now is the time to act, as it is easier to prevent weight gain than to get it off once it’s there. Winter is the ideal time, to take advantage of conditions and put your horse in a position where it can go into spring carrying less weight, ready for when the grass comes through. Hopefully, this BEVA scheme, which is on a six-month pilot, will make it possible to start the conversations and begin to change attitudes.

    As another leading vet said, no horse ever died from being a bit lean in February. The same can’t be said for the other end of the scale.

    What do you think is the key reason vets are not seeing a reduction in the number of obese horses? Let us know your views by emailing hhletters@ti-media.com with your name and nearest town for the chance to be featured in the letters page a future issue of Horse & Hound magazine…

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