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Does obesity awareness help equine caregivers manage their horses’ weight?

Background

Obesity is a significant welfare issue in the US and UK leisure horse population. Weight management strategies can be impacted by the understanding and awareness of body condition by equine caregivers. How caregivers view their horses’ body condition and then implement weight management programs is little understood yet is critical to helping caregivers manage their horses’ health and wellbeing and considering how advice is provided.

The study

A recent study examined the understanding of body condition and obesity in equine caregivers1. Data were acquired by interviewing equine professionals (including vets, nutritionists, yard managers, farriers; n = 19), leisure horse owners (n = 28), reviewing discussion threads on social media for a (n = 16) and undertaking focus groups with equine caregivers (n = 21). Data were anonymized and analyzed qualitatively through examining language use and identifying themes. A limitation to this type of study is that it is self-reported, and responses can be managed based on what answers or information people think is expected. However, assessing caregiver perspectives in this way is a useful addition to the wider understanding of managing healthy equine body condition.

The results

Caregivers linked physical care of their horse with the building of their relationship with their horse and visual indicators were important in describing health. Many caregivers recognized that identifying the presence of excess fat was difficult, especially in native breeds and cob-types, where a ‘heavier’ physique is typical. In many cases, body fat was considered a fundamental part of that type or breed. There was also disconnect between caregivers thinking their horses’ body condition as ‘ideal’ and then describing them using terms suggestive of excess body fat (“chunky”). Equally, comment that some excess weight was linked to health was noted by terms like ‘show condition’. Caregivers were aware that excess body fat could be managed but many described it as difficult and that management strategies were linked with negative equine welfare and their relationship with their horse. Practical management concerns at livery yards were also noted as potentially problematic in implementing weight management strategies.

What does this mean?

The results of this study suggest that while horse caregivers are aware of the issues and concerns related to excess body fat and increased body condition, recognizing it in their own animals can be problematic. Where weight management strategies are to be implemented, effective communication with caregivers by professionals is needed to support equine welfare, the relationship of caregivers with their horses and to effectively manage such programs. A guide was generated as a result of this study to help caregivers manage their horses’ weight and can be accessed HERE.

References

Furtado T, Perkins E, Pinchbeck G, McGowan C, Watkins F, Christley R. Exploring horse owners' understanding of obese body condition and weight management in UK leisure horses. Equine Vet J. 2020 Oct 1. doi: 10.1111/evj.13360.

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