Did you know? Equine obesity is considered to be a global welfare concern?

In addition to laminitis, obesity poses a number of health and welfare risks including joint strain, respiratory stress, heat intolerance, an increased risk of certain types of colic, reduced fertility, an increased risk of OCD and insulin dysregulation in foals born to obese mares and increased ‘inflamm-aging’ – chronic low-grade inflammation associated with aging. However, we also know that managing the good doer's waistline can be a real challenge! This is why we have been working hard with our collaborators for the last 20 plus years to improve our understanding of obesity, including how best to monitor and manage obese horses and ponies as well as how we might be able to help owners keep their horses at a healthy weight.

Key highlights include:

- Developing  a number of now commonly recommended methods for monitoring condition such as the cresty neck score and belly girth/rump width measurements.

- Recognising that weight loss may not initially result in a change in body condition score (BCS, especially  in very obese ponies)  - hence the need for other monitoring measurements.

- Validating Deuterium oxide dilution (a specialist clinical test)   as the gold standard method for determining total body fat percentage in ponies. This  has since been used in several studies which has helped us to further our understanding of obesity.

- Producing the evidence to support the recommendation that horses and ponies with a BCS of ≥7/9 should be considered obese which has now become the globally accepted definition.

- Identifying that some horses and ponies may be weight loss resistant – this means they may need greater calorie restriction to promote weight loss.

- Showing that obesity rates may be as high as 70% in some groups of leisure horses and ponies.

- Developing the body condition index (BCI), a method of assessing body fat similar to the body mass index (BMI) used in humans. 

- The very first study to evaluate the effect of strip grazing on bodyweight.

- A series of studies evaluating the effect of grazing muzzles on pasture intake and bodyweight.

- Showing that the severity of calorie restriction may affect the rate of future weight gain – safe weight loss takes time!

- Showing that becoming obese does not always result in becoming insulin dysregulated – the source of excess calories in the diet may have more of an effect.

- Showing that even small amounts of exercise may improve insulin sensitivity in overweight horses, even if it doesn’t result in additional weight loss.

- Detecting certain characteristics in faeces that may be able to help us predict which horses and ponies may be weight loss resistant.

- Showing that in some weight loss resistance ponies, gut microflora involved in fibre digestion may be able to adapt in order to counteract a restricted diet.

Current research includes:

- Improving the accuracy of the BCI, so that it is even more valuable for those who prefer using measurements rather than the more subjective descriptions used for body condition scoring.

- Evaluating the effect of strip grazing on behaviour, pasture recovery and the WSC or ‘sugar’ content of the pasture.

- Continuing to look at how diet influences weight management in ponies.