Many of Britain’s horses and ponies are battling the bulge, researchers have shown, with 31 percent of animals in a study found to be obese.
The new research into equines has highlighted that obesity is not just a growing human health problem.
The latest research reveals equine obesity as an increasing but under-recognised welfare issue in Britain.
The findings of the research by the Animal Health Trust have been published in the Equine Veterinary Journal.
Data collected from 785 horses and ponies revealed that 31 percent of them were classified as obese.
The data, gathered over a two-year period between 2009 and 2011, has been used to explore various elements that contribute to the risk of obesity in British horses and ponies.
The research, funded by World Horse Welfare, identified several factors which may increase the obesity risk.
Pony breeds, particularly Britain’s native breeds, and heavier horses such as draught and cobs types, were all significantly more likely to be obese compared to thoroughbreds.
The increased risk may be due to these native breeds having adapted to thrive in harsh environments with sparse grazing available.
“Native breeds may be genetically better adapted to survive in harsh conditions, having a so-called thrifty genotype, increasing their risk of obesity when maintained in an environment where food is of better quality and more readily available,” said Charlotte Robin, research assistant at the Animal Health Trust and lead author of the paper.
Horses described by owners as readily being able to gain weight or being “good doers” were more than three times more likely to be obese, compared to those that normally maintained weight.
The research also highlighted various links to human obesity.
“In humans, obesity is associated with poor health status and chronic health conditions including diabetes, hypertension, respiratory disease and arthritis,” Robin said.
“Similar associations between obesity and adverse health events have been described in equines.”
Similarly in humans, exercise significantly improves insulin sensitivity, and it is thought the same “dose-response” effect is mirrored in horses.
The research showed that the risk of obesity was greater in pleasure or non-ridden horses, with pleasure horses being more than twice as likely to be obese and non-ridden horses being nearly three times more likely to be obese.
Competition animals would receive increased exercise at a higher intensity and be fitter than non-competition animals, further reducing the risk of obesity.
“Competition horses are likely to be managed in different ways compared to non-competition or non-ridden animals and this may also contribute to the reduced risk of obesity within this sub-population,” Robin added.
World Horse Welfare’s deputy head of British support, Sam Chubbock, said excess weight was one of the greatest challenges facing horse owners in Britain, which was why the charity supported the research.
“Being overweight can be just as much, if not more, of a health concern as being underweight,” he said.
“In our experience, it can take three times longer to get an overweight horse back to optimum condition than it can a thin horse.
“Moreover, a previously obese horse’s weight will need to be managed for the rest of its life, even after the weight has come off, and they are likely to suffer long-term effects.”
One of the most common health conditions linked to equine obesity is laminitis.
A new Animal Health trust study, in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College and funded by World Horse Welfare, aims to take a closer look at the management factors which may increase the risk of laminitis among Britain’s horses.
People frequently misclassified their own weight or body shape, and this phenomenon appeared to apply to perceptions about pets’ weight.
Dog and horse owners have been demonstrated to underestimate their animals’ weight, suggesting the prevalence of obesity in this study is likely to be an underestimation.
Robin explains: “It is possible that in certain breeds, being overweight or obese has been normalised to a certain extent.
“Owners may find it easier to identify an overweight thoroughbred, compared to an overweight cob or native pony.
“Helping owners identify when their horse is overweight or obese is an essential aspect of reducing the welfare impact of equine obesity.”