There is a huge discrepancy between how we look and how healthy we are. The best example I can give is of a friend from college who, at first look, would be dubbed a “big girl” and I’m sure coached by so-called fitness gurus to eliminate carbs and hit the treadmill to fight off the ill effects of obesity. No one would know from 20 yards away that she is one of the fittest women on earth, playing women’s rugby (80 grueling minutes at a time) for the United States and competing in the Cross Fit Games. I love that she proves to herself and everyone else everyday that size doesn’t matter, its how you use it, to stay healthy and happy.
So how does this relate to our horses? This is, after all, a blog about big horses, not just big women. The connection is the disconnect between size and health.
Unfortunately the obesity epidemic has not only affected our children, dogs and cats. Horses, with the high starch/sugar grains that we feed and the limited turnout and exercise, have fallen victim as well. But it is difficult to tell by looking, whether a fat horse is an unhealthy horse.
The reason we worry about obesity in horses is because it is directly related to Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Insulin Resistance (IR). Much like Type II Diabetes in humans, EMS and IR contributes to excessive/abnormal fat deposits, lethargy, inability to lose weight and some real medical concerns. EMS horses are predisposed to developing laminitis, a painful condition where inflammation separates the hoof wall from the coffin bone. Because they do not process sugars and starches well, even small fluctuations in carbohydrate intake can lead to an acute crisis.
But not all fat horses have EMS, just like not all heavy people have diabetes. But how to we even determine if a horse is “fat?” Getting an accurate weight on a horse is difficult. Unless you live near a hospital or clinic with a walk on scale, you are stuck with using a weight tape, and unfortunately those are not very accurate. And anyway, we all know that the number on the scale is no way to estimate health! Long ago we created Body Condition Scores (BCS), a number that you can give a horse (on a scale from 1-9) based on the presence or lack of adipose (fatty) tissue in certain locations. The BCS gets us closer to an answer because studies show a high correlation between high BCS (>6) and EMS. BCS however is a subjective number, no measurements taken. So one person’s 6 may be someone else’s 7. And we all know we have a blind spot when we’re judging our own horses and may not be critical enough with our score. To combat any prejudice we may have when we score our horses, there are two other scores, ones that involve hard and fast numbers, that have recently been developed.
The first is the Obesity Score. Measure your horse’s girth in inches and divide that number by the height at the withers. If the score for your horse is >1.26, he is Overweight. Greater than 1.29 falls into the Obese category. Ponies are considered Overweight with a score >1.33 and Obese if their score is over 1.38. Another score that is highly correlated with the presence of EMS and insulin resistance is the Cresty Neck Score. For this, you must measure the circumference of the neck in 3 places, behind the pole, in the middle and just before the shoulders and calculate the average of these numbers. Next measure the length of the neck from the bridle path to the withers. Divide the average circumference by the length. Horses have a Cresty Neck with scores greater than 0.63 (0.68 for ponies).
These measurements are quick and easy to do and don’t require too much math. They are a great way to screen your horse for obesity related problems. If your horse has a Cresty Neck or is Obese, talk to your veterinarian about testing for Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance, because recognizing the problem and treating it early will prevent serious consequences, like laminitis, and help keep your horse healthy and happy.
For more information about this problem, how to diagnose and treat it, please enroll in our Online Course: Equine Metabolic Syndrome and check out our blog, Strong As A Horse and our Facebook Page for healthy horse tips!
Today's guest blog is written by Dr. Joan Norton, VDM DACVIM. A little bit of background from her website:
Dr. Joan Norton VDM DACVIM was born in New York and raised in the NY/NJ/CT tri-state area. She fell in love with horses at an early age and never had any doubt that veterinary medicine was her calling. She spent most of her childhood at the barn and traveling up and down the east coast competing in the pony and junior hunters with trainer Carol Thompson. While attending Kent School in Kent, CT she had the opportunity to train with Olympian Michael Page during the school year, spending her summers competing in the junior jumpers as a working student on the A-circuit with trainer Bert Mutch. Highlights of her equestrian career included championships at Lake Placid, Pony Finals and the Washington International Horse Show.