Fatter ponies are naughtier, Australian research suggests.
The new study of Pony Club animals indicates that the naughty fat ponies depicted by the famous British cartoonist Norman Thelwell may be close to the truth.
Horses and ponies that were excessively fat were found to be roughly three times more likely to misbehave, the study found.
The research has raised particular interest as it draws parallels with the obesity crisis in humans. United States studies have suggested links between being overweight with behaviour problems and lower academic performance in young children.
The equine study, entitled “Misbehaviour in Pony Club Horses: Incidence and risk factors”, was published in March by the Equine Veterinary Journal.
It is the first of its kind to quantify the incidence of misbehaviour in a population of horses.
The research, by Petra Buckley, senior lecturer in equine science at Charles Sturt University, in New South Wales, involved 84 Pony Club horses from seven different clubs in rural Australia.
Owners kept daily records over 12 months of horse management, including nutrition, healthcare and exercise. They also recorded any misbehaviour.
The horses were checked by a vet every month to investigate any relationship between pain, such as lameness and back pain, and misbehaviour.
Fifty-nine per cent of the horses studied misbehaved at least once during the study year, either during handling or when ridden.
Whilst the occurrence of misbehaviour during riding was low, at 3 per cent of horses in each month, in more than half of these cases the misbehaviour was dangerous, and posed a serious injury risk to horse and rider.
Risk of misbehaviour was higher in horses that were fat or obese and in those that were ridden infrequently.
Horses exercised more than three times each week had lower odds of misbehaviour. The odds of misbehaviour during riding were more than twice as high when horses were fed daily supplements, such as roughage, concentrates and/or grain.
Access to “good grass” was also associated with increased risk of misbehaviour, independent of any supplementary feed provided; and horses and ponies that were excessively fat were roughly three times more likely to misbehave.
The findings suggest a link between nutrition, exercise, body condition scores and misbehaviour, where higher body condition scores reflect dietary intake exceeding requirements – a problem that can be exacerbated by infrequent exercise.
Buckley also noted that misbehaviour was more likely when horses were competing – a time when riders may have higher expectations of their horses and subject them to greater physical and mental challenges than during leisure riding.
This may result in horse-rider conflict and subsequent misbehaviour.
The study included recommendations to help prevent misbehaviour, such as exercising at least three times a week and maintaining an optimal physique by more closely matching pasture and supplementary feeding to horses’ exercise levels and resulting energy requirements.
“Our day-to-day management lays the foundations for healthy horses and highlights the important role and responsibility of every horse owner,” Buckley says.
The US research, conducted for the National Institute for Healthcare Management Foundation, were based on data from an educational study of children as they entered school.
The study showed that obese girls were significantly more likely to exhibit behaviour problems and that overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores compared to non-overweight children.
In line with the equine research, the studies also suggested that an increase in exercise could reduce the numbers of overweight girls and thus the related behaviour problems.
The editor of the Equine Veterinary Journal, Professor Celia Marr, an equine clinician and European specialist in equine medicine, said: “It seems that the behaviour of Thelwell’s iconic fat pony, and even Greyfriars’ Billy Bunter, may have some scientific basis!
“There are numerous studies demonstrating the damage that excess weight can have on equine health and thanks to this research we can now highlight the importance of considering body condition, nutrition and exercise in misbehaving horses.
“Meanwhile, vets and horse owners can use the recommendations to help minimise the chances of misbehaviour; and perhaps parents might think about the repercussions of giving in to their children’s demands for that extra doughnut: making sure the horse is healthy and well-behaved by keeping its food intake down and its exercise level up might even be an important life lesson for all the family.”
Misbehaviour in Pony Club horses: Incidences and risk factors
P Buckley, DJ Buckley, School of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, JM Morton, GT Coleman, School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia Equine Veterinary Journal, doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2011.00541.x
You can enjoy a selection of Thelwell’s ponies at www.thelwell.org.uk