Overweight Horse Study: More on Improved Forages

More than half of 300 horses involved in a study at at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech were found to be overweight or obese. The researchers also found that generous grain diets weren’t the issue in these cases of apparently overzealous eaters; rather, they found pasture grasses, hay, and inactivity were more to blame for the problem.

The researchers examined a sample population of 300 horses from 114 farms and found that 51% could be classified as overweight or obese per the Henneke body condition scoring system. The last research published on the incidence of equine obesity was the USDA’s 1998 National Animal Health Monitoring System study, which is based on an on-farm survey of horse owners across the country. These results indicated that 5% of the nation's horses were overweight.

However, Craig Thatcher, DVM, PhD, a professor of Clinical Nutrition at VMRCVM said, "We believed that the incidence of obesity was much greater than this. We were seeing a large number of obese horses in our practice, particularly obese horses experiencing laminitis."

Owners of the horses participating in the current study provided details about the animals' diets, revealing that excess grain, commonly implicated as a cause of obesity, was not a primary factor in the horses' weight gain.

"The vast majority of the animals were on pasture or fed hay, with very little concentrate," Thatcher said, leading researchers to conclude that pastures and preserved forages "improved and selected for weight gain in other livestock species" might be taking their toll on equine waistlines.

These improved forages show up in both hay and pasture grass. Horse owners who have not recently replanted any pasture grass should not be complacent. In Virginia, location of the study, most pasture grasses are improved varieties, not native grasses.

Another problem predisposing the horses to be overweight--insufficient exercise.

Thatcher recommended that owners feed their horses based on body condition, test the nutritional value of their forages, scientifically formulate a complete and balanced ration, and implement a regular exercise program. "Owners should limit pasture grazing if horses are becoming overweight on pasture alone," recommended Thatcher. For overweight horses, owners should "work with their veterinarian and nutritionist to formulate a complete and balanced weight reduction diet," Thatcher said. 

For more information on the study see www.TheHorse.com/emag.aspx?id=10038.

About the Author

John Borchardt

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