Experts debate the ‘ticking time bomb’ of equine obesity

Equine obesity is a growing problem around the world.
Equine obesity is a growing problem around the world. © The Donkey Sanctuary

A panel of experts at the National Equine Forum’s (NEF) Great Weight Debate (Equine) say that teamwork, communication and trust are key to helping to solve the serious problem of horse, pony and donkey obesity.

Last month’s debate was the second of two special interest webinars held in advance of Britain’s National Equine Forum in March. It was a truly international affair with more than 170 delegates signing in from Australia, Belgium, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Norway, Slovakia and the United States, as well as Britain and Ireland. Conclusions and possible pathways for change will be presented at this year’s forum.

Equine obesity is a growing problem not just in the UK but around the world. The webinar explored how various sectors of the equestrian industry perceive the challenges faced by those who are struggling to manage their horse’s weight. It included the views of equine vet Lucy Grieve, horse owner Helen Gale, livery yard owner and coach Beth Maloney, nutritionist Liz Bulbrook, competition judge David Ingle and equine welfare officer Penny Baker. The session was chaired by equine vet and nutrition specialist Professor Pat Harris with the support of Dr Tamzin Furtado, a social scientist with a special interest in human behaviour change for animals.

The panelists shared their views on what they believed to be the blocks for horse owners in recognising obesity and addressing the problem. They identified the importance of empowering owners and working with them to make step by step changes with the support of a reliable and trusted team including vet, nutritionist, yard owner and farrier.

“Vets are in a unique and privileged position to provide an achievable and effective tailor-made strategy for individual horses,” Grieve said. “We must all learn to overcome avoidance and engage recognise, accept and understand, and tailor a solution.”

There was recognition that a bespoke approach is needed for every horse, owner and situation. Some livery owners may face challenges in changing management practices and peer pressure on a yard may prevent people implementing intake restriction measures such as a grazing muzzle or restricted turnout.

Communication and proactive signposting to reliable advice and scientific information were identified as pivotal, not only in helping to identify weight changes but also to build horse owners’ knowledge and confidence.  This would build a clearer understanding of the calorific value of feeds and of grass and forage, what constitutes a balanced diet, the importance of regular exercise and weight monitoring, being able to identify the difference between fat and muscle and being familiar and comfortable with the range of weight control tactics, such as grazing muzzles, restricted grazing and track systems.

The language used was also identified as important; gauging the needs and response of the individual and asking the owner what they think, would be more effective than using potentially inflammatory language — for example choosing the phrase ‘fat pad’ rather than the terms ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’.

“If we are all being really honest with ourselves obesity is neglect,” Grieve said. “I doubt many vets would walk away from an emaciated horse or an infected wound or a cloudy eye so why are we so willing to walk away from these ticking time bombs which are actually a real welfare issue as the animal is potentially at risk of losing their life?”

Welfare officer Penny Baker reiterated this message: “Our farms have seen an increase in overweight horses being admitted.  Long-lasting health issues attached to these horses can make it difficult for owners to cope, and the effects of obesity impede their chance of successful rehabilitation and we’ve seen a guarded prognosis for horses in this category.”

Debate chair Pat Harris concluded that the webinar had been a unique opportunity for open and constructive conversation between various parts of the Industry. “This is an important welfare topic in which we all have a role to play,” she said. “I hope it will lead to collaborative action providing ‘joined-up’ support to those trying to manage an obese horse, pony or donkey.”

The 29th National Equine Forum will be held virtually on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Tickets will be available shortly.

» Replay tickets for the Great Weight Debate are available for £5.

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