Veterinary practitioners must work harder to confront the epidemic of obesity affecting the UK equine population. But getting horse owners to change the way they look after their animals will be a huge challenge, and vets will need help from other professions, such as equine nutritionists, if they are to win the hearts and minds of their clients, according to speakers in an online discussion.
The National Equine Forum’s Great Weight Debate on 27 January 2021 included representatives from all branches of the horse industry, including vets, welfare organisations, feed manufacturers and livery owners. They agreed that a collaborative approach was needed to tackle what has become a signiﬁcant health and welfare problem.
Pat Harris, honorary professor in equine nutrition at the University of Nottingham veterinary school, explained that an estimated 30 percent of the UK equine population and 70 percent of those from native pony breeds are considered obese. These would be deﬁned as any animals with a body condition score of 3 or more on the standard 0 to 5 scale, and anything above 7 on the alternative 1 to 9 scale.
Carrying excessive weight can have many detrimental effects on the quality and duration of a horse’s life, she said. Equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis are the most signiﬁcant health risks, but other conditions may include some forms of colic, impaired athletic or reproductive performance and orthopaedic disease.
Newmarket practitioner and BEVA President Lucy Grieve noted that the biggest barrier to dealing with the equine obesity issue was that many horse owners fail to recognise that their animal has developed a weight problem. Some don’t see it, some see it but don’t think it is a serious issue and some may realise that it is a problem but don’t know how to ﬁx it, she said.
Obesity is a sensitive matter and practitioners may be worried that any attempt to draw attention to the problem will undermine their relationship with the client. Yet “this is neglect. We would not walk away from an emaciated horse, one with an infected wound or a cloudy eye. So why should we be prepared to walk away from this ticking time bomb,” she exclaimed.
She hoped that most vets would have the powers of persuasion needed to guide the owner towards making changes in the animal feeding and exercise regimes. However, for those owners who are stubborn or in denial, it may be necessary to take a more brutal approach – pointing out the pain and suffering that the horse may experience if it doesn’t start to lose weight.
The owner’s veterinary advisor is in an ideal position to take charge of the situation because they will have knowledge of all those factors – husbandry, genetics, exercise levels, diet, and medical and behavioural issues, etc – likely to inﬂuence the outcomes. But the results will be better if the practitioner works alongside others such as equine nutritionists, farriers, instructors and yard managers in helping owners to improve their management of the animal.
Tamzin Furtado is a social scientist who completed a PhD at the University of Liverpool on controlling obesity in horses by inﬂuencing human behaviour. She pointed out that the difﬁculties in managing weight problems in equines are no different to those when dealing with the owners of obese dogs or the parents of overweight children. Careful communication and patience are both central to a successful outcome, she said.
Penny Baker, an inspector with World Horse Welfare, agreed that there are no quick ﬁxes when dealing with cases in which a horse has been allowed to become morbidly obese. Prosecuting the owner is rarely a suitable option. Effort must go into encouraging the owner to provide a healthier diet and appropriate exercise, she believed.
However, it is not just horse owners that struggle to spot when an animal is overweight. While the general public is very willing to report cases in which horses have become seriously underweight, they appear to be less concerned about obese animals. Penny explained that there were 620 cases of malnourished horses reported to the charity in 2020, compared with 58 calls about overfed animals. Indeed, owners that overfeed their animals are usually seen as taking good care of the animal.
Penny said that her organisation has begun providing training for its ﬁeld staff in the techniques of motivational interviewing, which involves seeking the opinions of the owner and guiding them towards a realisation of what they need to do for their horse, rather than simply offering advice.
Yet, there are likely to be competing pressures on the owner that may inﬂuence their decision making, warned Helen Gale, an experienced horse owner and marketing consultant from Newmarket. She said that if the animal is kept in a livery yard, other owners may insist that the horse is being neglected, should the owner fail to explain why their horse is receiving reduced rations. Vets and other expert advisors should also take into account the frequently malign inﬂuence of social media, which will often be the ﬁrst source of information that the owner will consult, she said.