Managing our horse’s weight is one of the most vital things that we can do as horse owners to keep them fit and healthy – yet, for many of us, it is not something we like to talk about. Here we explore the taboos around weight management and the steps BEVA are taking to combat the issue. Welcome to the Great Weight Debate. 

Equine obesity is widely recognised as one of the biggest welfare concerns affecting leisure horses in the UK today. However, when it comes to watching our horse’s waistlines, there is clearly a reluctance to tackle the issue – not just for us as horse owners but for vets too.

What is BEVA doing about horses’ weight?

“If we are all being really honest with ourselves obesity is neglect,” says British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) President, Lucy Grieve. “I doubt many vets would walk away from an emaciated horse or an infected wound or a cloudy eye so why are we so willing to walk away from these ticking time bombs which are actually a real welfare issue as the animal is potentially at risk of losing their life?”

Lucy recently represented the veterinary sector on a panel of experts from across the industry who gathered to discuss the challenges surrounding equine weight management. Held in the run up to the National Equine Forum, ‘The Great Weight Debate’ explored what the panellists believed to be the blocks for horse owners in recognising obesity and addressing the problem.

How much do horses weigh?

Knowing how much horses weigh or should weigh is one angle to look at. BEVA identified the importance of empowering owners to understand and acknowledge when their horse may be overweight. This is something that many of us would probably dismiss, believing that we had it covered in our everyday management – “he’s happy, he’s healthy”. But if we stop and think about, do we truly know if our horse is the right weight?

A study funded by The Horse Trust * in 2020 highlighted the complexities of the issue. It cited that many owners found it difficult to differentiate equine obesity from the shape they thought the horse was “meant to be”, particularly if the horse was a heavier breed such as a native pony or cob. Thus, for some breeds, equine fat was invisible to owners because it was believed to be a feature of their breeding.

The study also recognised that the issue was, further complicated by the fact equine fat is commonly deposited in horses in the same general areas in which muscle development is prized; for example, the crest of the neck along the back or “topline”.

So, whilst we may be familiar with condition scoring and know the areas of the horse’s body that we need to be monitoring, recognising whether we are looking at fat or muscle can be more of a challenge.

What to do if your horse is overweight?

The study also found that it took an obesity-related event – such as the horse becoming ill (a case of laminitis, for example) or a respected professional drawing the owner’s attention to their horse’s weight – before an owner recognised that there may be a problem. It was relatively uncommon for owners to realise that their horse was overweight on their own, without a trigger. In other words, we need to do better.

BEVA has been tackling equine obesity for several years now but over the past few months it has been ramping up its efforts. The Association has teamed up with Tamzin Furtado, a social scientist at the University of Liverpool with a background in global health, and a specific interest on how human behaviour change can improve the management of obesity in horses. Tamzin has been providing advice and guidance for vets on how to approach those difficult conversations about obesity. A number of online resources have been made available for vets, including a short advice video from Tamzin herself.

“Approaching the conversation about a horse’s weight with an owner can be difficult,” says Lucy. “Sometimes what we say is not what the other person hears but by making small changes in how we word things can have a big impact.”

The Association is also trialling a new scheme, which involves vets issuing a black or white sticker during a vaccination visit, relating to the horse or pony’s current weight. The QR coded sticker directs owners to a series of five short videos providing practical advice on ways to manage or reduce their horse’s weight by looking at hard feed, exercise, grazing, hay and rugging.

“Using a less direct method of communication such as this seems to make it more comfortable for owners to recognise and accept that their horse is overweight,” said Lucy. “This should be the kickstart they need to embark on a supported path of rehabilitating their horse to a healthy body condition.”

The availability of good advice and resources was a common theme throughout the Great Weight Debate, with the panel in agreement that communication and proactive signposting to reliable advice and scientific information were pivotal, not only in helping to identify weight changes but also to build horse owners’ knowledge and confidence.

There is a fantastic range of resources available for horse owners on the BEVA website – including, When the grass is greener: The Equine Weight Management guide for every horse, every yard, and every owner produced by The Horse Trust and The University of Liverpool.

Lucy believes that owners should see weight management as an exciting challenge and an opportunity to do something good for their horse. “Obesity is a ticking time bomb, and we all need to work together to avert the crisis,” she concludes. “By initiating conversations in the right way, vets can help owners recognise and maintain a healthy body condition for their beloved horses and ponies. In so doing we should be able to significantly reduce the many serious obesity-related health problems - surely this is the biggest motivator for all of us to engage with this project.”

Thank you to Lucy Grieve and The Horse Trust for supplying information for the Great Weight Debate. Want to know more about equine nutrition – meet Claire MacLeod an independent equine nutritionist with expertise in equine health and fitness who can assist you in establishing the correct diet for your horse.