Britain’s owners often struggle to recognise excess fat on their horses but, once they do, it could well be “war”, a new study reveals.
Researchers have painted a picture of the complex dynamics involved in what has become a Battle of the Bulge in pastures across Britain.
Obesity is considered to be one of Britain’s most serious equine welfare concerns, affecting somewhere between 31% and 54% of the nation’s horse population.
It has been well studied in terms of the risk factors involved, the physiological effects, and methods for reducing weight, doctoral researcher Tamzin Furtado and her colleagues at the University of Liverpool noted in the Equine Veterinary Journal.
Weight management in an equine hospital setting is usually relatively straightforward, they said. “However, most equine obesity and its management occur outside the clinical setting, in the complex world of horse ownership and care.”
They said the population of leisure horse owners — that is, people who own horses as a hobby — is increasing. “For these owners, the horse‐human relationship and the provision of care to the horse are central to horse ownership.
“For leisure horse owners, horse ownership is in some ways similar to ownership of other companion animals, such as dogs and cats, in that it may be focused strongly on the relationship with the animal and spending quality time with it.
“However, such relationships may bring particular problems.”
In dogs, it is well recognised that obesity is intricately linked with the human‐animal bond.
“For example, owners of obese animals are also more likely to ‘humanise’ their pets, blurring the boundaries between human and animal, such as allowing dogs to share food and sleep in the human’s bed.”
In canine obesity, the owners’ style of “parenting” their animal and the human‐animal relationship are considered crucial in finding ways to address obesity.
Effect of the horse-human relationship
To date, little research has examined the human‐horse relationships in the context of obesity and weight management.
“Research to understand owners’ views on appropriate weight in horses has shown that owners consistently underestimate their horse’s weight,” Furtado and her colleagues said.
“They consider a horse’s ideal weight to be affected by the ‘work’ that the horse is engaged in; for example, it may be considered appropriate for a horse used for showing to be fatter than a horse used for eventing.
“However, beyond this, little is known about how owners might think about equine weight and its management.”
The study team set out to understand leisure horse owners’ views on equine management and health, and examine how decisions were made in terms of managing weight.
Their findings were based on data from 16 threads from three well-used online equine discussion forums in Britain, as well as 28 individual interviews with leisure horse owners, 19 interviews with equine professionals such as vets and nutritionists, and two focus groups with a further 21 horse owners.
The researchers found that awareness of excess fat was a complicated issue, with owners finding 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.
The ‘battle’ of the bulge
“Owners were not necessarily ‘aware’ or ‘unaware’ of fat, but instead equine body fat was constructed as an integral part of the equine body.
“For example, owners might say that they thought their horse was an ideal weight yet describe their horse’s overall body shape as ‘like a Thelwell’ (in reference to the rotund ponies portrayed by popular British cartoonists Norman Thelwell).
“When owners became aware of fat as a changeable part of the horse’s body, and/or a threat to health, the presence of fat was articulated as a strong‐willed adversary, and weight management was considered a ‘battle’ or ‘war’,” the study team said.
“Owners found weight management difficult because they perceived that it had immediate negative welfare implications for the horse, and this, therefore, interfered with their preferred ownership practices and the horse‐human relationship.”
The researchers found that managing horses’ bodies in order to promote optimum health was constructed by horse owners as one of the key activities of being a responsible horse owner.
“However, owners’ constructions of body fat on their horses were complex; fat could be constructed as an indicator of health, an integral part of the horse’s shape or a sign of disease.
“Furthermore, each of these constructions was not necessarily held in isolation; owners’ narratives showed that they may refer at different times in an interview to conflicting views of their horse’s shape and body fat.
“Understanding that a horse had harmful levels of body fat was not, therefore, a simple case of an owner moving from being ‘unaware’ to an ‘awareness’ of fat, but was instead a complex, dynamic process of altering the owner’s construction of fat and body shape in relation to their horse’s health.”
Many owners described difficulty differentiating the shape of the horse from the fat on the horse.
“There was a lack of certainty about the relationship between the breed of the horse and its ‘natural’ shape, particularly for heavier‐built breeds such as cobs, native ponies and draught horses.
“Thus, for some breeds, equine fat was invisible to owners because it was believed to be a feature of their breeding.”
For example, one owner declared: “I thought that was just her build, thought she was just a big chunky cob.”
Views on their horses’ weight were often reflected in the language used by owners and professionals alike. Humour, euphemism and similes were employed by both owners and professionals.
Horses were variously described as chunky, beefy, blubber, podgy, waddling and porky, among others, even if the owner also suggested to the researcher that they did not think the horse was technically overweight.
Words which were not meant to be humorous, but nevertheless provided well‐used euphemisms around fat included phrases such as “looking well”, “wintering well”, “rainbow neck” (describing a crest), “in show condition”, and having “been on the grass”.
“Interestingly, these terms could be used interchangeably to denote good health, or when said with a hint of irony they could denote obesity. It is notable that no examples of such language were reported for thin, underweight, or diseased horses.”
One veterinarian commented: “Actually quite a lot of people are aware, I think deep down they’re aware that their horse is overweight.”
Often, a move towards understanding that the horse had reached an unwanted level of body fat occurred when an obesity‐related event occurred, such as laminitis, or when items no longer fitted the horse (such as girths and rugs), or when a respected professional drew the owner’s attention to their horse’s weight.
“Recognition of obesity in the horse owner forced a reconceptualisation of their horse’s body.
“Owners undertook a cognitive shift towards reframing the horse’s body as ‘unhealthy’ where previously they had perceived its shape to be reflective of health, and their good ownership practices.
“Fat was now understood to be present overlying the horse’s actual body shape. Perhaps an important consequence of this was that owners understood that body fat was removable.”
This shift in perception was reflected in the language used.
“In line with human discourses about fat and weight loss, the light‐hearted humour previously used to describe fat was replaced by the language of ‘struggle’ as efforts to reduce weight were implemented.”
Weight management and compromised welfare
Weight management was usually perceived as doing less of the things that owners thought their horses enjoyed and doing more of the things that they considered were negative for the horse — less food and more exercise.
“For the leisure horse owner, these strategies carried concerns,” the study team said.
“While the horse’s health might be improved by having less to eat and more exercise, owners considered that the horse’s welfare might be compromised.
“Exercise, whether introducing it or increasing it, was often perceived as a negative experience for the horse, and potentially risky for the owner.”
Restricting access to food held the potential to generate unwanted behaviours such as biting, jumping out of fields, or misbehaving when ridden.
“The unwanted behaviours from horses undergoing weight management were sometimes damaging to the horse‐human relationship.
“It was, therefore, difficult for owners to implement and maintain over the lengthy time needed to reduce weight because they felt they needed to perform tasks which were opposing to their horse’s welfare, their relationship with the horse and their beliefs about horse care.
“Owners also described the need to find solutions which worked within the environment in which their horse was kept.
“For example, solutions that were allowed by their livery yard. Livery yard rules, including managing the available land as well as managing the horse, have profound effects on the strategies that horse owners considered when managing weight.”
Many owners reported trying lots of different options according to their needs, the horse’s needs and the yard’s framework in order to shed weight.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said their study showed that owners found it difficult to make change to their horse’s care practices in terms of managing excess body fat.
Overweight “the norm” for owners
“Horse owners felt disempowered by the prospect of excess body fat in their horse and the need to make changes.
“Therefore, tailored strategies are ideal for horse owners, helping them to find changes which will suit their yard environment, their horse and their lifestyle.”
The study, they said, also highlighted how overweight equines are constructed as the “norm” by owners, who find it difficult to conceptualise the body shape of their horse underneath its fat.
Thus, finding practical ways to recalibrate that social norm, for example, by celebrating and promoting healthy body weight, may help to redress this balance.
Owners, they concluded, found it difficult to find ways to “fight” obesity.
“Weight management is often considered to negatively impact the immediate welfare of the horse, for example, by leaving the horse hungry, bored or isolated.
“Thus, flexible and creative equine management strategies which maximise the horse’s welfare, such as herd living, non‐grass turnout and track systems, will make equine weight management a more positive experience for horse owners and horses alike.”
A decision‐making guide was created as a result of the study to help empower owners to create tailored weight management strategies which suit their individual situations.
The full University of Liverpool study team comprised Furtado, Elizabeth Perkins, Gina Pinchbeck, Catherine McGowan, Francine Watkins and Robert Christley.
The research was funded by The Horse Trust.
Exploring horse owners’ understanding of obese body condition and weight management in UK leisure horses.
Tamzin Furtado, Elizabeth Perkins, Gina Pinchbeck, Catherine McGowan, Francine Watkins and Robert Christley.
Equine Veterinary Journal, 1 October, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/evj.13360