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September 15, 2014 – Did you know that obesity is a problem in horses?

One might not expect these historically active animals to have weight issues, but just as it has in our household pets, obesity has become a significant problem in companion horses. Some statistics suggest that up to 50 percent of horses are now obese.

That’s bad news for horses because obesity can result in leg and hoof problems, which are debilitating and often fatal. One of the culprits for this increase in obesity is lack of exercise. Horses evolved in areas where they had to graze over large areas. In doing so, they expended a lot of energy every day simply searching for their next meal. In addition, for thousands of years horses helped with farming and transportation. This rigorous work kept them trim, even when they were housed in stables and kept well fed.

 Recent improvements in pasture management have resulted in higher quality and denser grass. While today’s horses are eating better, higher-calorie food, they are also exercising less because there is decreased use  of horses for work.

Dr. Melody de Laat, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia who is funded by Morris Animal Foundation, decided to address the lack of exercise in overweight horses. Because many horses are housed in small paddocks or stables, she needed a solution that would work in confined spaces. She also needed to encourage the horses to exercise without overstressing them.

Her colleague Dr. Bruce Hampson had already devised a unique feeding system that involved a feeder with two doors separated by a fence. Only one door was open at a time, so in order to eat, horses must walk around the dividing fence to the open door. Every five minutes, one door closed and the other opened, requiring the horses to keep walking—sort of like a continuous drive-through restaurant!

In a preliminary study, the research team had demonstrated that horses significantly increased their daily mileage when using this system. Because the exercise wasn’t strenuous, none of the horses in the first study developed orthopedic problems.

For the most recent Foundation-funded study, Dr. de Laat refined the feeder design to make it accessible to smaller horses. She is now in the early stages of a new study looking at overweight ponies housed in small paddocks.

Dr. de Laat is optimistic that the unique feeding system will result in improved health in the ponies and that this simple feeder system can be readily used by anyone with horses.

Morris Animal Foundation is committed to improving the lives of companion animals, both small and large. The Foundation has funded studies in more than 150 countries, helping wild and domestic animals worldwide. Learn more about our other equine studies.

By: Kelly J. Diehl, DVM MS, DACVIM (SA Internal Medicine)