Weight perception must change as equines live on laminitis ‘knife edge’

  • Obesity is seen by many vets as the number one welfare issue affecting British horses. H&H speaks to owners about the challenges they face, and vets for their expert opinion on the matter

    PERCEPTION of equine weight needs to change, vets have warned, as hundreds of equids could be existing on the knife-edge of potentially fatal laminitis.

    H&H has reported on the equine obesity epidemic in Britain, which is thought by leading vets to be one of the major welfare issues affecting the national herd.

    This week, two owners of laminitic ponies have shared their experiences and fears.

    Miranda Wallace, who shows Dartmoors, told H&H she had thought she was taking enough precautions to keep laminitis at bay and weight under control, such as strip-grazing, weighing hay and feeding minimal concentrates. Then last September, two of her ponies started showing symptoms. The younger pony recovered fast but the older, Honey, was hit hard.

    “We thought we were going to lose him,” she said. “I’d never seen a pony like that, and never want to again, it was horrific.”

    Thanks to an “exceptional” farrier and vet care, and a huge amount of effort on Miranda’s part, 21-year-old Honey pulled through and is now, after a long fight, coming back into work.

    Miranda said the incident has made her question how many other ponies are in a similar situation. She believes the trigger of the episodes was a batch of different hay.

    “[Vet] Dave Rendle told me they were probably borderline anyway, and the hay just tipped them over the edge,” she said. “How many other show ponies, and ponies in general, are ticking time bombs, literally living on a knife edge?

    “Dave said so many clients talk about ‘a bit of lami’, and that the pony ‘has it all the time’. I think they’re being blase and not giving it the respect it deserves.

    “For showing, they’re expected to look plump and rounded, but what effect is that having? We have to be on it; something needs to happen.”

    Natalie Reed’s 12-year-old Connemara mare, Abbey, is also recovering from laminitis, and Natalie said it has been hard work keeping her weight under control.

    She praised her “fantastic” yard owner, who has helped by allocating the pony a field on old pasture, and allowing a track system to be set up, but the former beef farm is mainly on rye grass, which is high in sugar.

    “It’s a constant battle,” she said. “We’re lucky to have year-round grazing, but really, Abbey should be on a mountain in Ireland.”

    Natalie added that although her yard staff have been very helpful, other people’s comments have been less supportive.

    “Last summer, she’d been on and off box rest since January, and I’d got her weight right down,” she said. “The vet said it was a good weight for her, but I had comments from other people. It’s very hard to hear a friend say, ‘I’m a bit worried and maybe you’ve gone too far.’

    “My horsey friends are lovely and it came from the right place but it’s hard when everyone wants to do the best by their horse and to hear that someone thinks you’re not really hurts.”

    Natalie believes people believe carrying excess weight is “how native ponies should look”, having been accustomed to seeing overweight animals, and so see those at a healthy weight as too lean.

    British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) president Lucy Grieve agrees that perception needs to change, and that well-meaning onlookers can sometimes hinder owners’ efforts.

    “We’ve been trying to get owners to leave rugs off overweight horses, and clip them, to help weight loss, then their friends are saying it’s cruel,” she told H&H. “Some people are so critical when others are trying to do right by their animal, just because it’s not what they do.”

    Ms Grieve said novice owners especially can fall victim to livery yard and online “experts”, and that the best advice for owners is always to seek help from professionals, such as vets and nutritionists.

    In terms of perception, she has moved away from body condition scoring, instead showing owners their horses’ fat pads, asking them to feel them, so they realise the excess weight is there, and can monitor its changes.

    “I’ve had owners asking me, in the last year, if there horses are too fat, so I’d like to think there’s slow behaviour change going on,” she said. “If there’s awareness and questioning, that’s amazing and we need to ride the crest of that wave, and keep putting the message out there.”

    BEVA health and medicines committee chairman Mr Rendle told H&H he has seen numerous clients who admit to keeping their ponies on the brink of laminitis in order to show them.

    “There’s a perception that that’s how horses are supposed to look, when they’re clearly not,” he said.

    “People always want to be slim but seem to want horses to be fat; we need to celebrate horses as athletes, and celebrate athleticism rather than roundness.

    “There’s plenty of evidence from paediatric and small-animal medicine that loving something equates to feeding, but we’re killing our horses with kindness.”