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Is your horse in shape to canter through its life?

Fight the flab: Keeping a careful eye on your horse will prevent weight-related problems

Obesity in horses is on the increase and with it, the risk of serious, long-term health problems including heart and lung conditions, joint problems and laminitis.

The recent warm weather has pushed grass out of the ground at a ferocious rate, which should not be ignored by horse owners whose charges are inclined to pack on the pounds.

Native horse and pony breeds have been designed by nature to thrive on the barest of grazing so the flush of extra lush grass can result in additional unhealthy weight gain.

A horse that is a 'good doer' must be managed carefully so that its body condition can be maintained at a healthy level, thereby avoiding any unwanted health problems.

The Teagasc equine specialist team advises owners of horses inclined to become overweight to consider restricting their summer grazing by using strip grazing or bare paddocks with low energy forage.

Excess grass often occurs where stocking numbers are too low and there is no access to rotational or mixed grazing.

Breeders and owners are advised to be vigilant of their animals' body condition by closely observing the overall shape of the horse or pony. Knowing how to condition-score a horse is a skill that everyone should learn.

Body fat tends to be laid down in specific areas, including the neck, withers, behind the shoulder, over the ribs, tailhead and along the top-line. Remember that the horse's abdomen or belly is not assessed, because the shape of the belly is determined by factors other than body fat, such as gut fill.

To decide whether you are feeling fat or muscle on your horse, think how the muscle on your upper arm feels and then think of the wobbly bit under your arm. That's the difference you're feeling for on your horse.

One of the most common methods of assessing the body condition of horses is known as the Carroll and Huntington method, which uses a 0-5 body condition score (BCS) system.

BCS 0 -- Very poor

A horse with a body condition score of zero is in very poor condition, with an angular appearance and tight skin. The horse will have a very sunken rump and a deep cavity under the tail, a very prominent and sharp backbone and a marked ewe-neck that is narrow and slack at the base.

BCS 1 -- poor

The pelvis and croup are prominent, the rump is sunken but the skin is supple. There is a deep cavity under the tail, the ribs are easily visible and the backbone is prominent, with sunken skin on either side. The horse has a ewe neck that is narrow and slack at the base.

BCS 2 -- Moderate

The rump is flat on either side of the backbone, the croup is well-defined with some fat and there is a slight cavity under the tail. The ribs are just visible, the backbone is covered but the spinous processes can be felt. The neck is narrow but firm. A BCS score of two is normally ideal for a fit racehorse or eventer.

BCS 3 -- Good

The pelvis can be easily felt but is covered by fat and rounded, with no gutter on the top of the pelvis. The ribs are also easily felt but just covered by fat and there is no gutter along the back. The spines of the backbone can still be felt.

The neck is firm but without a crest, except for stallions. A BCS of three is normally ideal for most show and leisure horses.

BCS 4 -- fat

There is a visible gutter along the pelvis to the root of the tail. Both the pelvis and ribs are covered by soft fat and you need to apply pressure to feel the bones underneath. The neck is wide and firm, with a slight crest.

BCS 5 -- Very fat

The pelvis and ribs are buried by fat and cannot be felt. There is a deep gutter from the pelvis to the root of the tail and along the back. The back itself is broad and flat, while the neck is very wide and firm, with folds of fat and a marked crest.

Laminitis is a major risk in ponies, but it can affect horses.

Overweight horses and ponies, particularly animals that are turned out to a large area of new spring grass, are at high risk of contracting this painful condition.

The key rule for laminitis-prone horses and ponies is that they should never be overfed any feed, including grass, and should never be allowed to become too fat.

However, starving overweight horses is not the answer. Weight loss needs to be gradual. Horses are designed to eat for long hours, taking in small amounts at a time. Their digestive systems work best when trickle-fed and leaving the stomach empty for long periods can cause other problems such as ulcers.

A horse's appetite should be satisfied with hard, stemmy hay or straw, supplemented by a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement. Plenty of fibre is necessary to support hindgut function and a minimum of 1pc bodyweight of forage should be fed per day.

The Teagasc team maintains that prevention of laminitis is better than cure, so the following guidelines should be used:

• Monitor grass intake and restrict grazing by strip fencing.

• A correctly fitted grazing muzzle or turnout onto a bare paddock with hay is an option. Animals should not be turned out on overgrazed paddocks without supplementary forage.

• Grass is thought to be at its safest during the early morning hours before dawn, so turning out from dusk until dawn is an option.

• Horses should not be turned out on frosty grass, particularly on a sunny morning.

• Do not allow animals to become overweight, particularly those that are not exercised.

• All dietary changes should be made gradually and several meals per day should be given, rather than one or two feeds.

• Coarse mixes and cereals should be avoided and replaced with high fibre cubes and vegetable oil if concentrate feed is necessary.

• Make sure the horse has access to water at all times.

• With veterinary advice, an exercise regime should be maintained, particularly if the horse is overweight and/or in a restricted area.

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