Obesity is Dangerous, Warns UK Researcher

Laminitis specialist Robert Eustace, BVSc, Cert EO, Cert. EP, MRCVS, director of The Laminitis Clinic in Wiltshire, England, wants horse obesity to be declared a welfare concern. In a campaign launched at the annual meeting of the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) at the end of 2002, Eustace directed sharp words at the horse show judging system, which rewards round, plump horses in the show ring. The ILPH recognized the severity of the problem in the show ring, and it has responded publicly by educating horse owners about how serious obesity can be.

"Fat is a good color for a horse," is an old adage in horse management. According to Eustace, overweight horses should be cause for alarm, not reward, since they are at a very real risk of developing laminitis. He showed slides of obese horses sent to his clinic for laminitis treatment, accompanied by slides of the same horses after weight reduction. Recovered horses which were not allowed to regain weight remained at low risk for recurrence of laminitis, he reported.

He then showed a series of slides of national-level class winners from British horse shows, pointing out the predilection of judges to reward overweight horses. These were followed by archival photos of winning horses of bygone days, which looked considerably more fit. He remarked that obesity was an even worse problem at smaller shows, where owners attempt to disguise poor conformation under a rounded outline.

Eustace then shifted focus to feed companies, which he blamed for promoting overfeeding, especially for ponies.

Dr. Emma Hynes, the ILPH-sponsored orthopedic veterinarian at the University of Edinburgh said, “This trend for obesity in show animals is particularly concerning when it involves our native ponies. These breeds have evolved both physically and metabolically to live in harsh environments on selectively low nutritional planes. Significant health problems, for example laminitis, which can be life threatening, arise when these ponies are overfed.”

“In adult horses, an increase in body weight increases the biomechanical loads carried by the limbs and makes the management of conditions such as navicular syndrome and osteoarthritis more difficult. In young stock, overfeeding has been implicated as a factor in inducing developmental orthopedic disease, particularly osteochondrosis.

Eustace hypothesized that insurance companies in the future might refuse to insure overweight horses, or perhaps refuse claims for treatment of laminitis if horses were known to have been at high risk for the disease because of owner-induced obesity.

Teresa Hollands, a nutritionist with the European feed company Dodson & Horrell, said that the company’s helpline takes between 45 and 80 calls a day, of which over 70% are related to laminitis.

Hollands said, “The recent welfare guidelines set out by the British Veterinary Association states that a condition score of 5 (on a scale of 0 to 5) is of as great a welfare concern as condition score 0. Condition scores only describe fat cover. If you are unable to feel the ribs of the horse, there is a large crest, and a buildup of fat around the tail to give an ‘apple bottom,’ then that horse has a condition score of 5. You should always be able to feel the ribs of your horse and they should be at a condition score of 3.5 or less.

“Horses carrying too much weight will be 

  • putting excess strain on their feet which are a set surface area and can only carry a limited amount of weight;
  • putting) extra stress on the laminae;
  • possibly altering insulin control;
  • more prone to hyperlipaemia (increased fats in the bloodstream);
  • lazy; and
  • unhealthy.

Hollands added, “It is of nutritional concern that horses in the show ring are fat, however the equine world is not unique and most show animals, including cattle and dogs, are likewise. It would be a huge step forward if the equine world could lead the way and start placing fit, not fat, animals in the ring. After all, have you ever seen Miss World won by an obese, unfit person, or indeed seen a fat horse win Burghley or The Derby?”

Eustace snapped, "I am fed up with shooting perfectly nice, healthy horses that have nothing else wrong with them apart from they have been fed up like a Christmas goose (until they) foundered. This, I find, to be the legal definition of cruelty: Conduct that causes a threat to bodily health."

Prosecution under equine welfare laws might be needed to get owners' attention, Eustace suggested.

He bemoaned the dramatic increase in laminitis caused by pituitary-dependent Cushing's disease in the UK, and reported that it is being seen in younger horses and suspects that environmental factors are causing pituitary dysfunction.

“A review of the breed standard regarding the over-condition of show horses is long overdue to ensure that the welfare of the show horse is not compromised,” added Hynes.

For more information on the ILPH, visit www.ilph.org. Information on Robert Eustace and his research can be found online at www.laminitis.org.

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at www.hoofcare.com. Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More