Redwings Horse Sanctuary: Obesity Case Study

Obesity is a major welfare issue for horses and ponies, not  least because of the increased risk of laminitis. Other health and welfare implications include increased joint strain, respiratory stress, heat intolerance, an increase in chronic low-grade inflammation in senior horses, an increased risk of certain types of colic and reduced fertility.

Obesity is not always easy to tackle as some horses and ponies seem to live off fresh air but if a good weight loss programme is being followed, you should eventually start to see your efforts pay off.  

When you hear the words ‘rescue cases’ you might immediately think of emaciated horses, but Redwings Horse Sanctuary rescues many overweight horses too. Redwings have kindly shared with us the story of John, one of their rescues, who was obese when he first arrived at the charity. His weight loss journey has been a real success, so we wanted to share it to inspire and encourage any horse owners who are currently facing their own challenges with implementing an effective weight loss programme.

John’s story

Hackney cross John was described by a vet as ‘grossly overweight’ when he was rescued in May 2020. The eleven-year-old was just over 15 hands yet weighed 612kg and had a body condition score of 5 on the 0-5 scale used by Redwings (at SPILLERS we use the 1-9 scale). John was also suffering from the painful effects of laminitis, not helped by the additional pressure being put on his laminae by his excessive bodyweight.

John- before

Part of the immediate care John received on arrival at Redwings was to begin a carefully planned weight loss programme. While urgent, his diet needed to be managed to ensure all John’s nutritional, physical and psychology needs would be consistently met while gradually losing body fat.

By seeing John’s weight loss as an essential but long-term project, Redwings’ veterinary and horse care teams enabled John to lose an incredible 167kg over a 14-month period. This amounted to more than a quarter of his original body weight, and more than a third of what John’s weight would have been if his owner had monitored and managed his condition effectively.

Redwings’ team used the following management practices to reduce John's weight safely:

- Weighing John regularly on a calibrated weighbridgeFeeding only hay and a balancer- the balancer was essential

- Recording weighbridge readings and adjusting forage rations to maintain total daily intake at 1.5% of actual bodyweight (not target weight)

- Weighing every hay net and sticking to calculated portions

- Soaking hay to reduce the water soluble carbohydrate or 'sugar' content- less sugar means fewer calories!

- Using small-holed haynets and double-netting to keep John busier for longer without increasing his forage intake

- Splitting daily forage rations into multiple small portions to be fed at regular intervals through the day and evening

- Using an all-weather turnout area with shelter to promote natural movement and provide equine neighbours without offering access to grazing

- Providing enrichment and spending time with John

For some horses, exercise can help to further support weight loss but ridden work was not option for John, partly due to his laminitis. However, this case shows that significant weight loss is still achievable for a non-ridden horse.

In addition to looking far healthier, John’s weight loss also transformed his behaviour. The often grumpy, food-obsessed gelding became far more relaxed, sociable, and easier to handle.

John’s owner had been made aware of the risk John’s condition posed to his health and was given practical advice on numerous occasions to help her reduce his weight. Having ignored every effort to guide and support her, John was removed from his owner’s care while legal action was taken against her by the RSPCA. John’s owner was  found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering, banned from keeping any equine for three years and ordered to pay almost £9,000 in costs, fines and charges, and John was transferred into Redwings’ permanent ownership.

Thank you so much to Redwings for taking the time to share   John’s weight loss journey with us. It’s great to  hear how well   he is doing since he has been given the management he needed to lose weight safely and have a healthier life.

If you also struggle with your horse’s weight and are looking for some friendly support, you can call the SPILLERS Care-Line on 01908 226626 to speak to one of our nutritionists. Why not also join the SPILLERS Slimmers Facebook group where you will be able to post questions directly to one of our  nutritionists and also share your horse’s journey with other horse owners that are facing similar challenges too.