BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
The horse caught my eye simply by the way it was standing. There was something about its demeanour that seemed off. There was no back leg resting, the head wasn’t lowered and the ears were pinned. Furthermore the horse was tilting slightly backwards to remove the weight off its front legs. This wasn’t a horse at rest, no snoozing was occurring here, it looked like a marble statue. Laminitis seemed obvious, probably likely, but I also considered colic or even overheating, which in some cases can be connected. The most apparent thing about this animal which wouldn’t depend on a vet diagnosis was that it was morbidly obese. I had considered overheating because the horse was a heavyweight native breed of the British Isles…and it was wearing a rug on a mild autumn day. This horse had been clipped but for no real reason that I was aware of, as it could not even be considered to be in light work.
The owner was no more than a passing acquaintance, although I was still aware she did not ride very often. On the rare occasions the horse was exercised it was usually just a short hack at walk. When the horse was clipped I assumed it was done so the horse would be more comfortable during this mild Autumn when temperatures had been as high as 220C. I couldn’t fathom any other reason to clip what was essentially a field ornament. But then I became completely baffled to see the horse turned out with a rug on. Furthermore, as if the horse wasn’t already miserable enough, I would at times see it wearing a muzzle.
So there you have it, a morbidly obese horse that’s rarely ridden, standing in a field looking dejected, with a rug and muzzle on at the back-end of a very warm summer. A lot of research goes into my writing, and sadly research often puts me in harm’s way. I am regularly exposed to articles and images on the internet that show deplorable practices and training techniques used by psychopathic horse owners and handlers. These types of people do not deserve a place on this planet. Therefore I am fully aware of what cruel can really mean. Yet seeing this native breed standing in the field that day looking despondent is also a form a cruelty caused by a human. Everything going on with that horse was caused by a loving, yet ignorant owner. This isn’t love in my book.
Breed Does Not Matter
When people consider buying a horse they should stop and think whether they can really commit the time to caring for such a large animal, in fact any animal. Because it isn’t necessarily lots of money an owner needs, they need knowledge and time. Time to gain knowledge and time to meet the needs of the horse. If the horse is still in work, then it shouldn’t be left to graze in a field 24/7, as was the case with this horse.
Judging by eye alone whether the horse is of a healthy weight is the same for any breed. A heavyweight will have strong shoulders that aren’t layered in fat and overshadowed by a protruding barrel, the barrel should be lean. Bone structure at the shoulders, hips and ribs should be just visible, at the very least easy to feel. A level back that doesn’t end with a deep gutter spanning the top of the rump is also preferable. So no matter whether the horse is a Suffolk Punch, a Thoroughbred, an Arab or a Welsh Section A, it is fairly easy to see if a horse is overweight or not.
Managing Stable & Field Requirements
I want everyone that loves horses, to own horses. It does not matter whether they ride or not, I just want to make that clear. Not everyone wants to compete, some people may just want the pleasure of grooming and caring for a horse. Owning horses is beneficial to both physical and mental health whether they ride or not. In either case steps can be taken to keep the weight at a healthy level. Leaving a horse for long periods of time without food will create anxiety and frustration, so this method should be wholly dismissed. Field management could include strip-grazing so the horse still has freedom, and promote movement. If hay is to be added over winter then make separate piles spaced widely apart. If you don’t have the luxury of owning your own land then there are many yards that will let you manage your own piece of paddock and accommodate your needs. Do your home-work and move if you feel impeded in the management of your horse’s health.
I don’t like to see horses stabled for long periods of time, especially if they are just stood in one place eating hay. This lack of movement will not burn calories, only add them, as well as cause all sorts of other physical or mental issues. Of course I reiterate here that I don’t like to see horses without something to munch, therefore do add hay when using a stable. A method I have used in the past is to fill a small-holed haylage net, tie it up securely, then place it inside another, still empty net. It will take three times as long for the horse to finish all the hay. He may not appreciate having to work for the hay but it will at least keep him busy and occupied, rather than bored, frustrated and kicking the stable door.
If an owner is not confident in using a weigh tape, or unsure what weight their horse should be, then please speak to the vet. Vets can be a bit shy about telling an owner their horse is overweight, as some people regard it as criticism rather than helpful advice. But the vet does want to help you and your horse, and will gladly advise you on hard-feed and hay requirements. So whether you ride or not, there are solutions to keeping a horse healthy and his weight down, no matter what breed it is.