Working together key in fight against fatal equine obesity

  • This week's National Equine Forum webinar covered the major welfare issue of equine obesity. H&H finds out what the challenges are in successful weight loss, and how to overcome them

    EDUCATION, awareness and working together on an individually tailored approach to weight loss are the key to winning the war against equine obesity.

    This was the consensus of experts at a webinar run as part of the 2021 National Equine Forum (NEF), on 27 January. Titled

    “The great weight debate (equine)”, the session looked at different perspectives on managing horses’ weight.

    Chairing the discussion, NEF vice-chairman Pat Harris said it is thought some 30% of UK equids are obese, and the figure could be 70% for native breeds.

    Giving a horse vet’s view, British Equine Veterinary Association president Lucy Grieve said a big issue is the lack of understanding and awareness of equine obesity and its impact on welfare.

    “I had to learn the hard way, like some owners,” she said. “That was all too palpable when euthanising otherwise healthy horses because of their fat, which had slowly poisoned their bodies.

    “I felt sick at the realisation of how preventable these deaths were. But trying to warn owners of the risks was often difficult and ineffective.”

    Ms Grieve said some owners do not see excess weight, or that it is a problem. Others know it is a problem, but do not know how to remedy it.

    “I had my work cut out trying to get owners to recognise obesity, accept it without taking offence, understand the horrific consequences if nothing was done, and empowering them to do something and stick to it,” she said.

    Ms Grieve said a big challenge is the vet-owner relationship; vets risk upsetting clients or losing them to other practices, so some vets will “shy away” from the subject.

    “If we’re honest with ourselves, this is neglect,” she said.

    “I doubt many vets would walk away from an emaciated horse, or an infected wound, so why are we so willing to walk away from these ticking time bombs?”

    Ms Grieve said vets must keep their knowledge up to date and be proactive in disseminating appropriate knowledge. She wants to see more vet-owner engagement, adding that perhaps a “brutal” campaign highlighting the painful deaths suffered by horses with laminitis may help owners who do not want to engage, and said this is an opportunity for vets to work with other professionals to tailor individual plans for each horse and owner, taking all factors into account.

    “If we’re to save that horse’s life, we must find a solution that works for horse and owner, and support the owner every step of the way,” she said.

    As the owner of a “good doer”, Helen Gale spoke of issues such as some owners’ inability to distinguish between fat and muscle, horses on yards spending more time stabled in winter, with hay, often over-rugged.

    “Do we really know how many calories we’re feeding, are we using too many rugs and do our horses do enough work for the food they get?” she asked, adding that opportunities to exercise horses can also be limited in winter.

    She spoke of owners’ asking questions on weight or feed on social media, instead of consulting experts, and getting hundreds of responses, and of the peer pressure on yards when an owner is trying to rug or feed a horse less.

    “Be truthful when assessing your horse and beware of ‘experts’ on social media,” she said. “Feed what your horse needs and monitor his weight with body condition scoring and weigh tapes. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional advice.”

    Yard owner Beth Maloney said it can be hard to balance owners’ expectations with their horses’ nutritional needs, such as convincing owners that reducing their horses’ feed is for their benefit. She added that she has seen a growing number of owners who are happy to have horses carrying more weight, but that a nutritionist visits her yard frequently to weigh and condition-score the horses, so any trends are clear.

    She said trust, communication and transparency are vital, as is seeking advice from the vet and nutritionist.

    A discussion covered topics such as owners’ helping each other; putting hay in at different times to spread out an obese horse’s food, for example, and spreading positive messages or attempts to promote a healthy body shape on their own social media.

    Nutritionist Liz Bullock pointed out that although many owners know exactly the composition of their hard feed, grass and hay or haylage contributes far more calories, and better understanding of this is important.

    Showing Council chairman David Ingle said “a lot of work” has been carried out in showing on the issue, with more to come.

    He said the council could put a page on its website signposting riders to the right information, and that it would talk about adding the topic to member bodies’ agendas, including helping judges have difficult conversations.

    “I’m sure by talking about this, we’ll be able to come up with a much better way forward,” he said, adding that the council has a big part to play in disseminating helpful information to help those riders who need it.

    World Horse Welfare field officer Penny Baker said what is commonly seen as the right weight is “causing problems”, adding that society does not judge owners of fat horses in the same way emaciated horses’ owners are seen.

    She said overweight and over-rugged horses are often seen as well loved, and that far fewer overweight horses are reported to the charity than thin ones, although it takes far longer to rehabilitate the former than the latter, if there are no other major issues.

    Ms Baker said some owners may know the issue is there but cannot admit it, that lifestyles and facilities often need to be changed, which is challenging. Other owners believe horses are not overweight, “conditioned by what has become the norm”.

    World Horse Welfare has had success with human behaviour change techniques, in which staff are trained, to have an impact on horse welfare. Citing the success of groups in human weight loss, Ms Baker asked whether equine weight loss groups on social media could help.

    Researcher Tamzin Furtardo said key is empowering owners to make change, rather than “telling them a horse has an issue and expecting them to do something”, along with teamwork and better communication.

    Ms Grieve said key in developing a weight loss plan is listening to the owner and taking into account all the elements of a horse and owner’s situation.

    “I’d like owners to see this as an exciting challenge; a positive thing they can do for their horses,” she said.

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