Health Woes of Easy Keepers

Learn why obesity is a real health risk, and what steps you can take to help your easy-keeping horse.

Is your horse fit? Or fat? Recent studies estimate that as many as 50 percent of horses are obese, yet most of their owners think they look just great. Picture them: those hulking, shiny halter horses…the hunter with his apple butt and cresty neck…even that adorable roly-poly pony at the local riding school. In a world where our picture of a beautiful woman is the lean, fit model who graces the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, our picture of a beautiful horse is just the opposite—shiny, round, and fat.

Credit: Photo by Ozana Sturgeon

Obesity in humans is an epidemic in America. And obesity in horses might be an even bigger problem. A fat horse might look like a happy one—but he’s probably not as healthy as he seems. In case you need convincing, in this article I’m going to explain why obesity is such a huge health risk for your horse. Then I’ll show you why obesity is so prevalent and tell you what steps you can take to protect your horse from falling victim to his fat.

Fat Attack: A Three-Prong Problem
So what’s the problem? A little extra weight isn’t that big of a deal, is it? You may think fat is just…fat—a disgusting accumulation of excess energy that builds up in your horse’s body and weighs him down. But really, fat, or adipose tissue, is much more than a simple storage vat. It’s an active metabolic tissue that releases hormones and inflammatory proteins that can wreak havoc on your horse’s body. In fact, the negative effects of fat attack your horse from three distinct directions—mechanical, hormonal, and inflammatory—and all three contribute to a long list of possible health risks.

Mechanical. When your horse is fat, he weighs more than his frame should support, and that extra weight puts stress on his body. Not only that, but layers of fat under his skin also create a physical barrier between his muscles and the environment, and fat surrounding internal organs can affect how they function. That’s right, the simple physical presence of excessive fat can cause significant health risks.

Laminitis. When your horse packs extra weight, it puts an extra load on the laminae, or small, finger-like projections that help hold his hoof wall in place. The additional weight alone can cause laminae to loosen their hold, resulting in a potentially life-threatening founder episode. If they’re stressed for any other reason (more to come), that extra weight is likely to make matters even worse.

Degenerative joint disease. Extra weight means excess stress on bones and joints and can contribute to wear and tear, with eventual breakdown over time.

Soft-tissue injuries. Extra weight means excess stress on tendons and ligaments, putting your obese horse at greater risk for a traumatic soft-tissue injury or chronic damage.

Problems with thermoregulation. Increased body mass without an increase in surface area means it will be harder for your horse to cool down when he’s overheated. He’ll be less tolerant of exercise in the heat, and will be prone to heat stress or even heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Fatty tumors. Although the relationship between obesity and fatty tumors isn’t completely supported by science, some experts believe that your fat horse may be more at risk for developing these tumors that form within his abdomen. Once they form, fatty tumors dangle from a stalk that can wrap around a loop of intestine to cause a severe colic episode.

Hormonal. Hormones are substances released by your horse’s body that act as signals for a wide variety of different body functions. For example, insulin released from the pancreas after a meal helps regulate blood-glucose levels by stimulating cells to take up glucose to be used as energy. And hormones released from the ovaries during the estrous cycle of a mare help regulate ovulation or maintain pregnancy. Fat is an active tissue that can affect the function of a variety of different hormones.

Insulin resistance. Fat horses are less sensitive to insulin, putting your obese horse at risk for insulin resistance. If your horse develops insulin resistance, his blood-glucose will remain elevated. Persistent elevations in blood-glucose can be toxic to the body’s cells.

Laminitis. In addition to the mechanical impact of excess weight, hormone disruptions due to obesity also contribute to laminitis. If your horse is insulin-resistant, he’ll have high levels of insulin as well as glucose circulating in his blood. Insulin can negatively affect blood flow. It’s been shown that very high insulin levels can cause laminitis, perhaps due to alterations in blood flow to the laminae.

Infertility. Although the mechanism isn’t completely clear, obesity is also associated with disturbances in estrous cycles that are related to alterations in hormonal function. When weight is lost, the estrous cycles return to normal.

Inflammatory. Cytokines are small cells that act as messengers between cells and help regulate cellular responses. Adipose tissue (fat) releases inflammatory cytokines that are important for regulating inflammation and can lead to a generalized “inflammatory state” within the body, resulting in a wide variety of tissue damage. In humans, this contributes to a higher risk for heart disease and stroke in those who are obese. In horses, many of those risks are yet to be identified.

Laminitis. Obesity is really a “triple threat” when it comes to laminitis. Mechanical, hormonal, and inflammatory factors all play a role. Those inflammatory cytokines released by adipose tissue are yet another reason why laminitis is possibly the No. 1 health risk faced by your overweight horse.

Why So Fat?
The formula for maintaining a healthy weight is no surprise: less food, more exercise. So why are so many of our horses fat? It’s pretty simple, really. We like them that way. After all, it’s much more fun to feed a complicated diet filled with rich hay, fancy grain mixes, and yummy treats than it is to strap a muzzle on our equine friends. Here are four primary factors that help keep our horses fat.

1: Perception problems. We like how fat looks on horses. And it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t recognize that it exists. If your horse is at a healthy weight, you should be able to easily feel his ribs when you run your flat hand firmly along his side. If you see fat deposits on either side of his withers, behind his shoulder, along his ribs, or at the top of his tail, he’s too fat. And if he develops an obvious crease along his back, he may be hitting the danger zone.

What to do?

Take a different picture. Try to adjust the picture in your mind to one where a beautiful horse is lean and fit, rather than round and fat.

Monitor body condition. Devise a checklist to assess your horse’s weight, and check it every week or two. You can use a weight tape, keep track of how much you have to tighten your cinch or girth, determine whether you can feel his ribs when you run your flat hand along his side, and check for fat deposits. Keep track of your findings on a calendar, and adjust your horse’s ration depending on weight loss or gain.

Adjust regularly. One of the hardest things to realize is that if you want to keep him at an ideal weight, your horse’s feeding plan is likely to change constantly. Once you’re happy with his condition, you’ll have to feed less if he’s gained a bit, or more if he gets too lean (feeding charts in my barn change almost every week, depending on how my horses look). If you are happy with the balance in your horse’s ration, it’s often difficult to decide how to cut back. Try cutting back 25 percent of his entire ration. He’ll get all the same stuff—just less.

2: Too much grain. When you walk into your local feed store, there’s an overwhelming array of brightly colored bags. And the marketing that accompanies these bags is powerful. You might think your Western pleasure mount should have his daily scoop of “Performance Plus” to keep him at his best, but chances are it’s just making him fat—not fit. In fact, most horses (even those in regular daily work) don’t need grain at all, and the high caloric density of these carb-packed feeds is a big contributor to obesity. What to do?

Be realistic. Unless your horse is a high-performance athlete, a pregnant or lactating mare, or a growing foal, chances are he doesn’t need to be fed grain. And just because you work him in the arena for an hour every day doesn’t mean your horse is a “high-performing athlete.”

Choose low-carb options. Most of us like to feed a little bit of concentrate, if for no other reason than to provide a vehicle for supplements. Even for the average horse, a low-carb concentrate ration is probably best. And if your horse qualifies as an easy keeper, low-carb is critical.

3: Rich forage. Hay and pasture are good for horses, but if that hay or pasture is too lush or rich, it can cause serious weight gain. Hay that’s grown for cattle is generally too rich for horses, as is lush, green grass. While turnout on a beautiful green pasture or a hefty ration of beautiful hay feels like the best thing for your horse, it’s easy to overlook the role lush forage can have in contributing to weight gain. One of the biggest problems I see is with clients who tell me there is “nothing” on a pasture. Remember: If your horse is on a pasture that’s grazed down to “nothing,” he’s eating all that grass. Especially in spring and fall months, the pasture may provide a lot more than you think. What to do?

Learn to love the muzzle. A grazing muzzle is one of the best inventions the horse world has seen in years. By outfitting your horse in one, you can maximize his turnout time and increase his exercise, yet limit the amount of forage he consumes.

Limit grazing. If your pastures are very green, you may have to limit your horse’s grazing time. As an alternative, turn him out in a dry lot, or…once again…learn to love that grazing muzzle.

Buy diet hay. Consider adding a low-calorie hay to your horse’s ration. He’ll be able to spend more time eating, but gain less weight.

Install slow feeders. A wide variety of slow-feeder options is available to slow your horse down at feeding time. He’ll spend more time eating, but consume less calories, and gain less weight.

4: Overestimating exercise. You may think your horse is working hard, but chances are he isn’t working as hard as you believe. Most owners over-estimate their horse’s work demands; an hour a day of walk/jog/lope just barely scratches the surface of what a horse can do. And if you’re feeding your weekend warrior like a marathon runner, he’s going to get fat. What to do?

Add conditioning. Add a conditioning regimen to your horse’s work schedule that’s above and beyond his actual training time. Long, slow distance work such as long walks or interval trot sets can help keep his metabolism churning. Not only that, he’ll get stronger, perform better, and may even be less likely to get injured.

Increase turnout time. The more time your horse can spend outside moving around, the better. Studies have shown that a horse turned out in a pasture will walk many miles each day. Of course, you’ll have to monitor forage intake carefully if your horse is grazing—just another reason you should learn to love the muzzle.

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