A panel of experts at the National Equine Forum’s (NEF) Great Weight Debate (Equine) has concluded that teamwork, communication and trust are key to solving the problem of horse, pony and donkey obesity in the UK.

Equine obesity is a growing problem not just in the UK but around the world. The debate explored how various sectors of the equestrian industry see the challenges faced by people who are struggling to manage their horse’s weight. It included the views of equine vet Lucy Grieve, horse owner Helen Gale, livery yard owner and coach Beth Maloney, nutritionist Liz Bulbrook, competition judge David Ingle and equine welfare officer Penny Baker.

The session was chaired by equine vet and nutrition specialist Professor Pat Harris with the support of Dr Tamzin Furtado, a social scientist with a special interest in human behaviour change for animals.

The panellists shared their views on what they believed to be the blocks for horse owners in recognising obesity and addressing the problem.

They identified the importance of empowering owners and working with them to make step by step changes with the support of a reliable and trusted team including vet, nutritionist, yard owner and farrier.

Lucy said: “Vets are in unique and privileged position to provide an achievable and effective tailor-made strategy for individual horses.

"We must all learn to overcome avoidance and engage recognise, accept and understand, and tailor a solution.”

Helen added: “Owners need to be able to recognise and acknowledge that their horse has a weight problem and be motivated to take action. Communication is key. It’s important for others to understand why you are following the advice form vets and other experts and how they can best help."

There was recognition that a bespoke approach is needed for every horse, owner and situation. Some livery owners may face challenges in changing management practices and peer pressure on a yard may prevent people implementing intake restriction measures such as a grazing muzzle or restricted turnout.

Beth said: “Peer pressure can be daunting and there can be a lack of confidence that you are doing the right thing."

Communication and proactive signposting to reliable advice and scientific information were identified as pivotal, not only in helping to identify weight changes but also to build horse owners’ knowledge and confidence. This would build a clearer understanding of the calorific value of feeds and of grass and forage, what constitutes a balanced diet, the importance of regular exercise and weight monitoring, being able to identify the difference between fat and muscle and being familiar and comfortable with the range of weight control tactics, such as grazing muzzles, restricted grazing and track systems.

The language used was also identified as important; gauging the needs and response of the individual and asking the owner what they think, would be more effective than using potentially inflammatory language - for example choosing the phrase ‘fat pad’ rather than the terms ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’.

Lucy said: “If we are all being really honest with ourselves obesity is neglect. I doubt many vets would walk away from an emaciated horse or an infected wound or a cloudy eye so why are we so willing to walk away from these ticking time bombs which are actually a real welfare issue as the animal is potentially at risk of losing their life?”

You can buy tickets for a replay of the debate for £5, here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-great-weight-debate-equine-playback-tickets-138080533593 

The 29th National Equine Forum will be held online on Thursday 4th March 2021. Tickets will be available in February 2021. If you'd like to be notified when they become available, you can subscribe here: https://www.nationalequineforum.com/subscribe/ 

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