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Perils of Pudge: Obesity and Laminitis in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 22, 2016

Mirroring the epidemic in humans, equine obesity continues to grow at an alarming rate. Studies show that almost 50% of horses are considered overweight or obese in developed nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom. According to a group of Australian researchers*, the prevalence of obese horses is on the rise there as well.

The research team described its experience with 10 Pony Club groups throughout Victoria. After weighing, taking various body measurements, and assigning a body condition score (BCS) to 229 horses and ponies, the research team reported:

  • The prevalence of obesity, defined in this study as a BCS of greater than 7, in pony breeds (31%) was three times higher than in horses (9%);
  • Almost half of all included ponies were overweight or obese, with a BCS equal to or greater than 6.5, and 86% of all Shetlands and miniature ponies fell into this category.
  • About 40% of owners significantly underestimated their horse’s condition, indicating their horses were thinner than they actually were. Only 16% of owners overestimated body condition.

What’s wrong with a little extra padding? According to equine nutritionists, a lot.

“Serious problems are associated with obesity in horses,” said Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a Kentucky Equine Research nutritionist. “Overweight and obese horses are at risk for developing insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and life-threatening laminitis.”

In a separate paper**, the same researchers reported that 15% of the horses and ponies included in the above-described study population had been diagnosed with laminitis, and more than half of those animals reported suffering more than one bout.

Together, these studies show that owners widely perceive their horses in moderate condition when, in reality, they are overweight or even obese, putting them at risk for major health issues.

“A greater awareness of body condition, together with nutritional and management advice, may produce considerable benefits in preventive health care for ponies and horses,” concluded the researchers.

Although controlling equine obesity may seem like a piece of cake, getting weight off a horse or pony can be challenging. Consultation with an equine nutritionist could be beneficial for many owners helping their horses lose weight.

“Obesity should not be taken lightly, especially considering the risk for laminitis,” advised Crandell.

Most horses that are on “slimming” rations do not require the calories provided in typical concentrates; they tend to eat all-forage rations. While sufficient forage may supply all of the energy a horse requires, it may not fulfill all of the vitamin and mineral needs. Consider using Micro-Max or I.R. Pellet to make up for these shortages. Micro-Max is suitable for all mature horses. Like Micro-Max, I.R. Pellet can be fed to any adult horse, but it has been specifically formulated to help horses predisposed to metabolic disorders.

Micro-Max and I.R. Pellet are available in the U.S. Horse owners in Australia should look for Gold Pellet, Nutrequin, or Perform.

*Potter, S.J., P.A. Harris, and S.R. Bailey. 2014. Prevalence of obesity and owner perceptions of body condition in Pony Club ponies and horses in Victoria. In: Proc. Australasian Equine Science Symposium, Vol. 5. Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. p. 16.

**Potter, S.J., P.A. Harris, and S.R. Bailey. 2014. Survey of laminitis incidence and diet in Pony Club ponies and horses in Victoria. In: Proc. Australasian Equine Science Symposium, Vol. 5. Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. p. 25.