Equine obesity is a serious welfare concern with an increasing prevalence. When a horse is obese, they are predisposed to a variety of diseases. Obesity also negatively impacts exercise tolerance and performance. The clinical conditions that excess adiposity is associated with include insulin dysregulation, equine metabolic syndrome, inflammation, laminitis, and a decrease in reproductive ability. These horses also have a lower tolerance for exercise.

The lower tolerance for exercise is attributed to a compromised ability to thermoregulate, an increased inflammatory response and negative effects of increased weight carriage on limb health. These consequences for overweight horses do not just impact the exercise tolerance, they also negatively impact performance.

It is not just leisure horses that compose this increasing population of obese horses; it is an issue in performance horses as well. A study completed in the UK reported that the incidence of equine obesity at one national show was 21%. That’s one out of every five horses! Another study that evaluated ponies at an international hunter competition reported that 80% of the ponies were overweight, with 20% of the overweight population being considered obese. That is four out of every five ponies! Clearly, equine obesity is not just a problem with horses that do not get regular exercise; these competing horses are in regular work and are still over-conditioned.

Now, of course, it is a complex problem that is difficult to combat and manage. In an ideal world, you would have the time to exercise your horse almost every day. However, for most of the population this is unrealistic. So, what can the busy amateur do?

Know your horse’s body condition score

It is a well-known fact that there are discrepancies between an owner’s perception of the body condition score (BCS) and the actual condition of the horse. This has also been shown in competition judges. Research has shown that the majority of experienced equine competition judges they evaluated were unable to correctly classify obese horses and 91% of these judges classified a horse as “thin” when their body condition was in fact normal.

As a responsible horse owner, take the time to acquire a body condition score reference sheet and practice accurately scoring your horse. It is recommended that you score your horse to evaluate their body condition every 30-60 days. Regularly tracking this information can allow you to make evidence-based decisions when it comes to your horse’s management.

A horse wearing a pink grazing muzzle.

A grazing muzzle allows nibbling grass and drinking water while reducing the volume of lush pasture consumed. (gg-equine.com photo)

Evaluate your horse’s risk of obesity

Horses are classified as “easy”, “medium” or “hard” keepers based on how they gain and maintain weight. Generally, easy keepers are likely to be over-conditioned with a BCS ≥ 6, medium keepers can easily maintain a BCS of 5, and hard keepers require additional feed to maintain a BCS of 5. This is based on the 9-point Henneke BCS system.

This difference in weight maintenance stems from genetic variability. Clear differences between horse breeds in how they gain and maintain weight have been shown. One example is that pony breeds tend to be more at risk for equine obesity.

If you consider your horse to be an “easy” keeper, exercise additional caution around energy-dense feeds and lush pasture. The increased cautious management may include implementing tactics such as a grazing muzzle and evaluating your horse’s body condition more frequently.

Decrease digestible energy intake

Reducing the amount of digestible energy your horse is consuming is often achieved through the implementation of slow-feed technology. Utilizing a slow feeder or hay net can reduce the rate at which the horse is able to consume their forage. When their intake is slowed, it will result in a reduction of digestible energy intake.

The other practical way to decrease digestible energy content is to work with an equine nutritionist and ensure your horse is not on any energy-dense feeds. They may also be able to suggest an updated nutrition program that meets your horse’s needs while supplying less energy.

Increase exercise intensity

Now, it may be difficult to increase the frequency of exercise sessions for your horse as time constraints may not allow for it, but changing the intensity of the exercise can assist in weight loss. Therefore, if you only ride your horse twice a week, try to slowly increase the intensity of those rides.

Research has shown that the exercise that owners typically put their horses under for weight loss is not of sufficient intensity. Achieving a heart rate of 150 bpm – considered moderate intensity work – is recommended to promote weight loss.

A few tips to increase the intensity of your horse’s work include:

  • increase time spent actively trotting or cantering
  • incorporate raised pole work or lungeing
  • add trot sets
  • do hill work
  • hit the trails
  • consider finding someone suitable to ride the horse on days you can’t

There are many possibilities to change up your riding routine to achieve the goal of increasing the intensity of the workout for your easy keeper. Altering your horse’s management to promote a healthy body condition score should be a priority. Since exercising your horse every day is likely not practical, try implementing the tips described in this article to set your horse up for success in the show ring!