Not just laminitis: vets warn of performance-related issues caused by excess equine weight

  • Many vets are seeing more fat horses and ponies than usual this year, and not just laminitics. H&H looks into the host of other negative effects excess equine weight can have

    EXCESS equine weight can cause a host of performance-related and soundness issues as well as risk of dangerous illness, riders are reminded, as the number of fat horses seen by vets is on the up.

    This summer’s combination of high rainfall and warm temperatures has meant an “explosion” of grass, and many horses and ponies are showing the effects.

    And while H&H has frequently reported on the dangers of obesity-related illnesses, carrying excess pounds can have many more impacts.

    “We talk so much about laminitis, maybe we get distracted and don’t think about the other issues,” British Equine Veterinary Association president Lucy Grieve told H&H. “I have had a lot of owners saying a horse has never had laminitis; maybe he’s one of the lucky ones but it doesn’t mean being overweight is OK. There are so many other reasons.”

    Ms Grieve said that on a basic level, extra weight will put more strain on everything, from organs to joints. Overweight horses may be lethargic and less willing to work at their usual level.

    “As someone put it, you wouldn’t strap a 50kg bag of feed to your horse before you rode it,” she said. “That’s massively detrimental, then to ask it to go cross-country or showjump; that’s pretty harsh, isn’t it?”

    Ms Grieve mentioned the small size of horses’ legs and feet compared to their bodies; if these are then taking the extra pressure from more weight, it will mean more strain on bones, soft tissue and the hooves themselves. Foot conformation can also be affected; they can be encouraged to spread by the extra pressure but respond better to remedial farriery when the horse loses weight.

    “I’ve seen a few horses where their abdomens are so big, and I get the impression their hind legs can’t move normally because of the sheer volume in front, and when they lose weight, they seem to trot normally. Hind leg action could be impeded by a distended abdomen,” she added.

    Excess weight can affect saddle fit; Ms Grieve said she often sees poor fit and saddle movement on “roly-poly” horses as the fat changes where the saddle should go, or displacement of the girth, all of which can affect equine comfort, movement and performance. Excess weight will put more pressure on arthritic joints, causing pain and making them deteriorate more quickly, and also affect respiration so even horses in full work will be out of breath more easily.

    “Carrying extra weight means the spine will sag, so things like kissing spine, or even horses with close spinal processes, will be more likely to develop pain and pathology,” she said, adding that being overweight can also affect horses’ mentality and willingness to work.

    “And youngsters; I came across a two-year-old warmblood recently who was very fat and had been struggling with OCD [osteochondritis dissecans]; excessive calorie intake in growing horses increases the risk of OCD, which can cause quite severe joint pathology that can prevent an athletic career or mean they have to be put to sleep. Being a fit and healthy bodyweight early in life will set up for a much healthier future.”

    Vet and chiropractor Laura Tollitt agreed there are “a lot of fat horses” about, often not laminitic but “starting to get a bit pottery”.

    “It definitely affects them; they get more shuffly,” she told H&H. “Excess weight won’t do the joints any good, and it will change saddle fit.

    “I’m desperately trying to lose weight myself and I hadn’t realised how much I was struggling, almost waddling round. Now I’ve lost a stone and a half the difference is amazing, and it’s the same for horses.

    “If they’ve got extra fat pockets round the shoulders, for example, it will restrict how they move, and how the scapula moves; if you’re asking for extended trot, the extra fat pockets will make it a lot more difficult physically to extend and flex the leg.”

    H&H vet Karen Coumbe said she has been seeing more overweight horses than normal; many are presented as lethargic, a bit short-striding or “pottery”, but this is a result of the excess weight.

    “You can understand why,” she said. “If you’re suddenly a size 16 when you were a 12, it will be the same.”

    Ms Grieve added though that although she is seeing more fat horses, she believes awareness of the issue is also on the up, which is key to tackling it.

    “I, and other vets, are definitely getting more owners saying, ‘I know what you’re going to say, he’s overweight’; the awareness is getting there, which is really refreshing,” she said.

    “Feedback from BEVA members recently has been the same; thanks to H&H and other publications, the issue is hitting headlines; what we’ve done so far has been really successful in bringing it into people’s minds, which is really good.”

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