Bigger is seen as better in the horse show ring, but overfeeding brings health problems


Siobhán English

Now that the showing season is in full swing horse owners across the country are going to great lengths to get their animals in peak condition, but at what cost?

Scientific evidence over the years has shown that when young horses are being prepared for the show ring there is a tendency to maximise feed, particularly protein, to create rapid growth and to maximise size.

This is far from ideal, but show horse owners and producers so often feel compelled to have their animal looking bigger and better than everyone else's, even if it means having a yearling looking more like a two-year-old, and a two-year-old looking more like a three-year-old.

The general consensus is that show horses need to display musculature and appropriate flesh to win classes, and sale horses need to stand out in the crowd to bring in the money.

Smaller animals with excellent conformation are often overlooked in favour of larger animals with fewer attributes.

What people fail to realise is that optimal growth would be far more beneficial to the long-term prospect of the horse, as it will still reach its genetically determined size regardless.

Overdoing the amount of feed - particularly if it is unbalanced in the ratio of fat, carbohydrates and protein - will have detrimental effects on the physiology of the horse.

High-energy diets without the full nutrient support may result in horses gaining weight faster, but the risk is that the bones are not developing at the same rate and so result in bone developmental problems that will affect the usefulness of the horse.

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Under these conditions, the incidence of developmental orthopedic disorders (DOD) and unsoundness increases. This scenario can also occur during periods of uneven growth.


For example, if a horse which was underfed and growing slowly is switched to an adequate diet which allows it to grow quickly, the probability of DOD occurring is increased.

Foals between the ages of three months and nine months are at greatest risk for the incidence of DOD.

Common symptoms include enlargements and deformities of the ankles, knees and hocks, as well as contracted tendons.

The first year of the young horse's life is the most critical for growth, since they achieve 90pc of their mature height and 65pc of their mature weight during that time.

Although the rate of growth will slow over time, young horses will continue to grow until they are around three or four years old.

At a moderate rate of growth, mature height will not be reached until they are two years old, whereas filling out to their mature weight may take an additional one to two years.

How often have we seen a young horse clean up in the show ring, only to disappear from sight once it reaches a stage where it is ready for competition under saddle? This happens far too often, sadly.

Their joints simply not hold up once they start their new careers.

It is no secret that overweight young horses are prone to splints and, while some will be absorbed, others can remain as flaws.

A study carried out by the University of Nottingham in England found that nearly 54pc of the horses examined were overweight.

This study showed that most of these animals were maintained on grass and hay, proving that grain or concentrates are not needed to produce an overfed horse and that pasture grass intake must be carefully regulated in order to realistically manage body weight.

Overweight broodmares are more likely to have trouble breeding, while overweight ponies have also been a contentious issue in the show rings for many years.

In many cases ponies tend go into the winter overweight and are fed grain-based feeds, so they do not get a chance to lose that weight at all.


They are then highly prone to laminitis when the flush of spring grass comes - their high levels of cortisol and sugar increase the risk of it developing.

This condition is known as equine metabolic syndrome or EMS, and is especially prevalent in ponies and warm-bloods usually from five to 15 years of age.

As one showing enthusiast once said: "If people keep seeing fat horses and ponies being placed above ones with less weight, then people are going to think that it is better for a show pony/horse to be fat, or think that it's the only way they are going to get placed.

"It is the judges who are maintaining this trend of obesity, and until they start refusing to place obese animals then nothing will change."

Indo Farming