Project investigates cause of horse obesity

A research team from Edinburgh Napier University and horse feed manufacturer Dodson and Horrell have teamed up to run a three-year project that aims to discover what makes horses fat.

One in three horses, and over 80 per cent of ponies, are currently believed to be in danger of fat-related health risks such as laminitis.

Now the scientific study is set to put different breeds under 24-hour surveillance to find out what makes them fat. Tiny cameras, GPS devices and movement monitors will be attached to the animals in order to analyse every last aspect of their lifestyles.

’The equipment will allow us to distinguish between food-related effort and other exercise − the horse equivalent of a trip to the fridge or the gym,’ said study leader Dr Dave Smith, a veterinary nursing lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University.

The research, which is the first of its kind, will be conducted at a Norfolk farm run by charity World Horse Welfare. Around 15 horses will initially graze in paddocks specially seeded with different grasses by retailer Oliver Seeds.

Dr Smith said: ’We suspect a major factor in rising obesity levels has been the move from grazing in traditional meadows, which naturally feature a variety of grasses, to monoculture fields more suited to dairy cows.However, there are also horse and pony owners who, through overfeeding, are unwittingly killing with kindness.’

Dr Teresa Hollands, senior nutritionist at Dodson and Horrell, said a prior study had shown that obese horses were at greater risk of developing skin, muscular and bone problems, as well as laminitis − a life-threatening inflammation of the hoof.

’We will be watching them around the clock as they go about their natural routines. It will allow us to find out who the grazers or gorgers are, exactly how far they travel, how much they eat and what they eat. Once we have that data for each breed, we will be able to advise owners on how best to feed and manage their horses so they don’t get fat and unhealthy,’ said Dr Hollands.