Health Concerns Related to Equine Obesity

Obese Horse

With all the starving horses out there, you would think equine obesity would not be such a problem. It is. Just as food is marketed to humans which are high in calories, much of the same can be said by some supplements sold for horses. Your Vet’s advice should always be sought before starting any new feed programs. ~ HfH

From: The Horse
By: Shannon Pratt-Phillips, MSc, PhD

Obese Horse

Obesity is a serious health condition, but, unfortunately, many horse owners still look at a fat pony and think how cute it is, or look at a fat horse and compliment its big bone.

Body condition, adiposity, and weight can affect a horse’s overall health status. Here’s we’ll discuss some of the specific health concerns for horses that are too fat (obese).

Obesity is a serious health condition, but, unfortunately, many horse owners still look at a fat pony and think how cute it is, or look at a fat horse and compliment its big bone. However, science has now shown that adipose tissue (body fat) is more than merely a storage organ for fat (and therefore calories). It is an active tissue that secretes hormones and inflammatory proteins that can greatly affect an animal’s health.

Incidence of Obesity in Horses

Obesity in our equine population is on the rise, similar to that in human, dog, and cat populations. In fact, in the late 1990s the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) of the USDA estimated that only 5% of the horse population was obese. Recently, several studies have examined the current incidence of obesity in horses. A Scottish study found that 45% of 319 riding horses were considered “fat” or “very fat,” with 10% of those horses in the “very fat” category (Wyse et al., 2008). A Virginia study examined 300 horses and found that 51% of them were overweight and 19% (of the 300 horses) considered obese (Thatcher et al., 2007). A similar North Carolina study examined 366 horses and found that 48% of the horses scored a 6 or higher on the Henneke scale and 20% scored a 7 or higher (Owens et al., 2008). It is no surprise that obesity-related health conditions are also on the rise. An interesting secondary outcome of the Scottish study was that many horse owners did not believe their horses were obese. It is in fact common for horse owners to be very defensive about this topic. This further stresses the need for horse owners to learn how to score a horse’s body condition properly and understand the health consequences of obesity.

There are many reasons for the rise of obesity in horses. One of the biggest causative factors is the lack of owner education about equine nutrition. Surveys have shown that horse owners generate most of their nutrition knowledge from feed dealers rather than from independent nutritionists, academics (professors and researchers of equine nutrition), or veterinarians. There may be some discrepancy in what a feed dealer suggests a horse needs compared to what a nutritionist suggests. For example, a feed dealer may suggest the purchase of a special feed for a horse, while a nutritionist might determine that ordinary grain will suffice, or even that hay is enough. Also, many feeds are marketed to improve health or performance. Horse owners may take such advice too seriously and overfeed the product.

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AUTHOR: Amber Barnes
1 Comment
  • One of my equine massage clients bought a beautiful Quarter Horse to show in halter class. I tried to tell her, as did the vet, that he was quite overweight and this was detrimental to his health. She replied that the halter show horses needed to be fat – thats how the judges like them. She would not listen to reason.

    February 12, 2014