Horse owners are often warned about the dangers of equine obesity and encouraged to help overweight horses drop a few pounds. But to solve this problem they must be able to acknowledge it in the first place. According to the results of a recent study completed by a group of researchers in the U.K., one of the biggest challenges posed by equine obesity could be that owners don't recognize their horses are overweight.

"Obesity is a problem in horses; as horse owners we need to be aware of this and learn how to recognize it," said Sarah Freeman, BVetMed, PhD, CertVA, Cert VR, CertES, Dipl. ECVS, MRCVS, associate professor of Veterinary Surgery at the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, in Leicestershire.

Freeman worked with Helen Stephenson, BVMedSci, and other colleagues to examine the prevalence of obesity in a population of U.K. horses and ponies (specifically horses in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire that were not in a professional training program) along with the owners' perceptions of equine obesity.

The researchers reviewed owner-completed surveys that included individuals' perceptions of their horses' body condition scores (BCS) according to the Dodson and Horrell feed company body scoring chart. Then each of a random selection of horses was examined by a researcher that provided his or her assessment of the horses' BCS. Each researcher examining the horses was blinded to the owners' perceived BCS.

The horse owners scored only about 20% of the horses in the study population as overweight or obese (a score greater than 3 on this particular scoring system), whereas the researchers perceived nearly 55% of horses in the study population to be overweight or obese. Upon evaluation, the team determined that 53% of owners scored their horses at least one grade less than did the researchers.

"There are probably two reasons why people underestimate weight," Freeman explained. "One is not wanting to admit that their horse has a problem (like saying you are a dress size smaller than you actually are), and the other is that if the problem is as widespread as this study suggests, then 'fat' horses are the norm.

"It was interesting from interviews that the owners knew how to manage obesity, which suggests that the main problem is recognizing it," she continued. "I think there is some reluctance to discuss it--you would probably feel comfortable telling a friend if you thought their horse was lame, but would (feel less comfortable) telling them that their horse is fat."

Freeman also noted that the team was not able to pinpoint one single link between the horses they evaluated and the animals' obesity; however, she believes diet and exercise are contributing factors: "My personal opinion is that it relates to a mismatch in nutrition and workload. In the study just under half the horses (49%) did between zero and five hours (of) work per week, however 90% received concentrate feed."

Freeman suggests consulting a veterinarian to determine each horse's individual BCS and an appropriate nutrition and exercise program. She also advocates determining whether the horse has any other conditions that might predispose him to obesity, such as equine metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, and treating them accordingly.

The study, "Prevalence of obesity in a population of horses in the U.K.," was published in the February 2011 issue of the Veterinary Record. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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