Summer weight (June 2015)

Summer’s Weighty Issue…

No matter how you measure it, weight is an important issue. Over the last ten years, our perceptions of what is “normal” have changed whether we are looking at our own body shapes or those of our horses. While pictures of extremely thin and emaciated horses from across the world, (or in our own country), shock us and make us wonder how someone could starve an animal without a care, we do not look at our increasingly obese equine population with the same horror or even moderate concern. Fat is in fact, normal!

Now you might ask why, as a McTimoney Animal Therapist, I would be particularly interested in the ‘weight issue’? Surely this is a topic for a nutritionalist to put forward suggestions on weight control and measurement…. Well, my concern is how weight on a horse affects their performance, and their ability to work comfortably without pain. And as Billy Connolly once pointed out, if you want to lose weight you must ‘eat less, and move more!’ Easier said than done, but it can be done.

Why so weighty?

Firstly let’s look at the reasons why our horses do put weight on so easily. Our horse’s gut is designed to take in large quantities of low quality roughage every day. Compared to a cow which has a complex digestive system requiring all food to be broken down into sections no longer than 2mm long, the horse can pass food material through in much larger particle sizes. This is actually a good adaptation for survival as a horse can live on low quality grazing and moorland by eating greater quantities of the available food supply. Cows living in the same environment must still break down everything they eat into tiny 2mm particles for the food to pass through the system so they absorb far less nutrients in the time this takes. However, when you put horses on good grazing, they will still eat similar quantities as they would on poor grazing but now gain far more nutrients….. and those calories have to be used up or they are stored as fat.

Research by one of the leading equine insurance companies was carried out in the last few years, and showed that the average horse worked 2 ½ hours a week. That isn’t a lot of exercise when compared to suggestions that wild horses will travel approximately 20miles each day. While the energy needed when carrying a rider is greater than that to move without a rider, the energy required for the average horse to carry out his prescribed weekly workload is far less than the exercise he has evolved to accommodate…. (And in case you were wondering, it has been theorized that we humans also evolved to run similar distances daily on a much lower calorific diet…)

So we keep our horses on better quality grazing and food than they have evolved to require, and then exercise them considerably less than they have evolved to move…. It isn’t surprising that we have a “weight issue” in our equine population is it!

So how does obesity affect our horse’s performance?

Flexibility is key to good performance, whatever sphere you compete in, but as the weight creeps on so the joints cannot move through their full range anymore, resulting in stiffness. Compensatory muscle tightness around the stiff joints causes tension, shortening of the muscles and loss of power when contracting, so the horse loses impulsion and becomes resistant to going forwards as well. While your local therapist can help release this tension and rebalance the spinal system to function more normally, the treatment will not be lasting if the main reason of obesity is not dealt with.

The more weight you carry, the greater the loading on the soft tissues, joints and bones and the greater the potential pain and discomfort your horse endures. About a year ago, there was a tv documentary showing people with obesity problems walking on a treadmill and rating their pain levels. In all cases, using an air cushion around the lower body to ‘remove’ the additional weight which classified them as obese, resulted in a huge reduction in pain from walking on the treadmill within MINUTES…. This proved to the documentary participants that their pain which they attributed to arthritic joints or similar conditions, was in fact only occurring because of their WEIGHT. Personally I immediately saw how this effect is also seen in our horses, where excessive weight is the main factor preventing a horse from carrying out the job required by the owner. In some cases, excessive weight has been a direct factor in injuries to lower limbs and joints, and can slow down the repair processes during recovery as well.

Excessive weight also affects the homeostatic functioning of our horses’ bodies, from the reduced ability to dissipate heat through the huge amounts of body tissues when exercising, to the increased incidence of metabolic syndromes leading to laminitis and tying up. Saddle fitting can become an issue with obese horses, as not only do they increase in barrel circumference, but some of the spinal structure which the saddle fits to is lost under the layers of fat tissue which are laid down.

Slimmer and trimmer?

Getting weight off an obese horse is much harder than maintaining a normal weight horse, as exercise may be curtailed due to the level of obesity and horses who are obese are used to eating the amount of food they have had access to, up to this point. Weight loss will be gradual and regular measurement is key.

There are several types of weight tape and all give an average weight reading for a horse of each circumference size but while this reading may be slightly inaccurate on an individual basis, it does give you the ability to monitor weight loss in a measurable way. As an example, my first Arab arrived at 5yo unbroken and a portly 612kg according to the weight tape. A year later she was competing 32-40kms rides at a healthier weight of 456kg and when she completed 160km at 14yo she was running at 398kgs…. And she still didn’t look thin!

So, even if you think your horse isn’t obese, invest in a weight tape and start measuring and monitoring your horse’s weight. There are equine body scoring systems you can access online, and a range of highly qualified nutritionalists who are able to provide advice on quantities and types of feeding regimes best suited to you and your horse…. Tackling this issue now may save you time and money later by avoiding injury or metabolic disease in your horse, and will allow your horse to perform successfully for far longer in his competitive career….. plus it is healthier for your horse!