Obesity – What’s The Problem?

Obesity – What’s The Problem

Katie Williams M.Sc. (Dist) R Nutr, Technical & Product Development Manager

Whilst there is still much to be learnt about the relationship between obesity and disease risk, it is generally accepted that being overweight predisposes an animal to disease. In the case of the horse, laminitis is one of the most serious repercussions of obesity but it isn’t just horses where levels of obesity are high and appear to be rising. Studies investigating obesity in pets as well as humans are reporting worrying levels of obesity but what is behind this trend?

In the spring of 2021, Dengie carried out an on-line survey about weight management in horses and over 650 people responded. We asked horse owners to tell us how they would describe their horse’s bodyweight and 44% described their horse or pony as overweight which reflects levels found in other studies including the European College of Equine Internal Medicine consensus statement on EMS*. Studies show that owners tend to underestimate their horse’s condition, particularly when compared to a professional’s assessment ** and so we thought it would be interesting to know how confident horse owners felt about their ability to assess their horse’s body condition status.

Half of respondents said they were completely confident that they could tell if their horse was overweight and 46% described themselves as fairly confident. 2% said they weren’t very confident and one person was honest enough to say they had no idea. Obviously a survey doesn’t allow us to explore whether the relatively high levels of confidence were misplaced or not but if horse owners are able to tell if their horses are overweight, something else is contributing to the high levels of obesity.

We asked horse owners to share the issues and challenges they have trying to keep their horses at a healthy weight. Not being able to exercise either because of injury or old age was a significant problem for many. This is an area worthy of further investigation as even very light exercise such as walking in hand may have potential benefits for issues such as insulin dysregulation and that level of exercise may be possible with more horses than is currently thought.

The biggest issue reported though, was trying to feed enough to avoid ulcers without resulting in too much weight piling on. Understandably, horse owners are increasingly worried about ulcers and it is known that long periods with insufficient pasture or forage is a risk factor but how do we find the balance between providing enough but not too much?

Obesity Whats the Problem

Around 20% of horse owners mentioned that they can’t limit access to pasture and a third of respondents said they didn’t want to stable for longer. The use of muzzles was also not an option for about a third of horse owners too, either because they didn’t like the idea of using one or they felt it wasn’t safe to do so with their horse or pony. It is an interesting dilemma; as horse owners we want our horses to be out in the paddock because we feel it is where they should be and yet it can present a risk to our horse’s health. One respondent highlighted this with the comment “the grass is lethal at the moment” and many indicated they find owning a good doer particularly stressful. As a nation of animal lovers, we are rightly appalled when an animal is malnourished or starved but we generally don’t consider letting an animal become obese to be quite as despicable. Perhaps it’s because we can empathise with how hard it is to keep weight off when food is often how we express our love and affection for our family and pets?

If we do limit our horse’s access to grass what do we replace it with? Grass hay or haylage can still be too much for some good doers especially if fed ad lib and so we have to restrict the amount we feed.

Achieving consensus and a clear directive on the minimal dry matter intake for maintaining optimal digestive health has been confused by different studies which can be open to interpretation and differ in the timeframe the advice is recommended for.  The work of Dugdale et al (2010) is regularly cited as they restricted intake to 1% of bodyweight in dry matter which achieved significant weight loss without adverse effects on the welfare of the horse. However, the criteria used to measure welfare related to behaviour and the time that ponies spent in three major behavioural categories (eating, resting and play). There is no reference in this study to the incidence of gastric ulcers for example. The study lasted 12 weeks and there have been no studies that investigated the effects of longer-term reductions in forage intake.

The frequency with which ulcers is being diagnosed is increasing and this may account for why the recommendations for minimal dry matter intake tend to increase in more recent studies. Morgan et al (2016) state they initially recommended 1.5% of bodyweight in fresh weight of hay but adjusted if necessary depending on response and Rendle et al (2020) cite 1.5% Dry Matter which is the level most equine nutritionists would work to for the long term management of good doers. The veterinary perspective of some of these studies may be to restrict intake in the acute scenario to deal with significant obesity, hyperinsulinaemia and acute laminitis but this is often getting lost in interpretation and communication. Clarity of communications both within the veterinary profession and to horse owners is an area that can be improved.

The general principle is that the lower calorie forage, the more can be fed which is why straw should not be dismissed. Straw often gets “bad press” in the context of gastric ulcers as one study by researchers in Denmark, found that a horse eating straw as the sole or predominant forage source was 4.5 times more likely to have gastric ulcers. What often gets lost when people read this research is the proportion of straw in the ration. In the UK, straw is rarely fed as the sole forage source to horses and, recognising that straw can be useful as a low-calorie forage source for good doers, a follow up study has been published investigating the safety of feeding 50% wheat straw. The research found no increased risk of ulcers from using 50% straw to replace haylage in the ration.

The recent study by Jansson et al (2021) used 50% wheat straw to replace haylage with no ill effects. The rate of consumption of straw mixed with haylage was slower than when fed haylage alone with the resulting effect being a lower plasma insulin response. Straw has a much lower water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) content than grass forages so a lower insulin response would be expected but when the rate of intake was slowest in the evening, the researchers found no significant increase at all in insulin levels. This suggests that using low WSC forages and slowing the rate of intake are both important strategies in managing horses with insulin dysregulation (ID) or the potential to develop ID due to being overweight or obese.

Some simple calculations show that if straw replaces 1/3 of the weight of an average hay, a reduction in energy intake of 16% is achieved. Obviously replacing half the haylage ration will achieve an even greater reduction. However, long chopped straw isn’t for everyone. If a horse has a history of impaction colic or has poor teeth, long chopped straw is not suitable and its hygienic quality can vary, so sourcing the right quality can be tricky. Some horses won’t eat straw, even if there is nothing else on offer. Whilst it might seem wasteful, mixing straw in with other forages can mean it still serves a purpose as it slows the horse down when eating as they have to sort the straw out from the other forage. The significance of rate of consumption of forages is a key area that requires more research but the results of the Jansson et al (2021) study provide an indication that slowing the rate of intake could have significant benefits for reducing insulinaemic responses.

 Monitoring your horse

Spotting if your horse is starting to gain weight early is key to nipping the problem in the bud.

There is so much advice available it can sometimes be overwhelming trying to work out where to start. We’ve tried to simplify the advice so you know what you should be aiming for and how often you should be doing things. Many of you will already be doing more than what the following guide suggests which is great, but the aim is to give everyone a realistic starting point on which to build if time, resources and circumstances allow.

Weigh tape – every 2 weeks

  • Use the same weigh tape each time you assess your horse
  • Make sure your horse is stood square on a flat surface when taking a measurement
  • Use the weigh tape at the same time of day
  • Track weight changes on a graph so you can spot changes early
  • Weight loss of 0.5-1% of bodyweight weekly is realistic. This equals 2.5-5kgs a week for a 500kg horse or 0.5 to 0.75kgs a day

Fat Score – at least every month – it is likely to take a month for a score to change by half a point on the 5 point scale if a realistic rate of weight loss is achieved

  • Choose a scale (0-5 or 1-9)
  • Score your horse in the key areas where fat is stored and then calculate an average
  • Use a pictorial guide to help you
  • Why not work with a friend and score each other’s horses to see how you compare?
  • For an average horse it is estimated that to change ½ a condition score (0-5 scale) requires weight losses of 20-30kg.


*Durham et al (2019) Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

ECEIM consensus statement on equine metabolic syndrome – Durham – 2019 – Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine – Wiley Online Library

** Morrison et al (2017) Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine

Perceptions of Obesity and Management Practices in a UK Population of Leisure-Horse Owners and Managers – ScienceDirect

Dugdale et al (2010) Equine Veterinary Journal

Morgan et al (2016) Equine Veterinary Journal

Rendle et al (2020) Vet Times Equine

Jansson et al (2021) Animals

Be prepared: Red diesel rules are changing

From 1 April 2022, the rules surrounding rebated diesel (also known as red diesel) and rebated biofuels are changing. Make sure you are in the know:

What is red diesel?

Red diesel is the same as regular diesel but intended for registered off road vehicles and machinery only. It is dyed red, to help identify illegal use. Red diesel is taxed at a lower rate and there are legal requirements about when and how you can use it.

What’s changing?

From 1 April 2022, we will only be able to supply red diesel for the following applications (as stated by gov.uk)

  • for vehicles and machinery used in agriculture, horticulture, fish farming and forestry. This includes allowing vehicles used for agriculture to be used for cutting verges and hedges, snow clearance and gritting roads
  • to propel passenger, freight or maintenance vehicles designed to run on rail tracks
  • for heating and electricity generation in non-commercial premises – this includes the heating of homes and buildings such as places of worship, hospitals and townhalls; off-grid power generation; and non-propulsion uses on permanently-moored houseboats
  • for maintaining community amateur sports clubs as well as golf courses (including activities such as ground maintenance, and the heating and lighting of clubhouses, changing rooms etc.)
  • as fuel for all marine craft refuelling and operating in the UK (including fishing and water freight industries), except for propelling private pleasure craft in Northern Ireland
  • for powering the machinery (including caravans) of travelling fairs and circuses

What does this mean for my business?

This depends on your industry and what you are using red diesel for. If you are covered by the above points, you can continue as normal.

If your business does not fall into the above categories you will need to prepare for significant cost increases. For example, those dealing in construction, manufacturing, transport or logistics will need to switch to regular white diesel, also known as DERV.

Government advice states that there will be no “grace period” to allow businesses to use up remaining diesel past the cut off date of 1 April 2022. Be aware that non-compliance could result in on-site spot checks and fines.

You may also want to consider flushing out your existing tank when switching to white diesel, so no trace of rebated fuel can be found.

Why can construction no longer use red diesel?

This change is part of the UK Government’s strategy to meet climate targets, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. By taxing more users at the standard rate, the government hopes to incentivise businesses to invest more in cleaner alternatives like electric vehicles, HVO and to burn less fuel.

Read more at gov.uk >>

Time4Lambing: How To Stop Watery Mouth Before It Starts

watery mouth

Ewe condition will be more important than ever this year to prevent watery mouth as sheep farmers battle antibiotic shortage. 

Focusing on pre-lambing ewe condition and nutrition will improve lamb health, reducing disease incidence, severity and reliance on antibiotics, says Simon Mellor, Animal Health Advisor at Carr’s Billington. 

“Particular attention should be paid to diets in the six weeks before lambing for two reasons: this is when ewes start to produce colostrum, and 70% of foetal growth takes place during this period. An optimised diet will reduce the incidence of lambs with low birth weights which in turn will reduce their susceptibility to diseases like watery mouth.”  

Mr Mellor recommends sourcing high-quality nuts or cake, if supplementary feeding is required, to achieve recommended pre-lambing body condition scores (BCS). The target BCS for a 60-80kg lowland ewe at lambing is 3.0-3.5, and for a 40-60kg hill ewe, 2.5. The amount of feed ewes require depends on forage quality, breed, and the number of lambs carried. 

“Feed that contains a premium yeast fraction such as Safmannan® will also help to maximise colostrum quality, which is crucial for boosting lamb immunity.  

“Look for cake or nuts that contains between 16-19% protein, according to forage quality and number of lambs, as this will maximise birth weights and help with milk production and quality. Increase concentrate feeds gradually and divide into two feeds a day if possible, or include in a TMR, to prevent acidosis.” 

To achieve optimum condition, alongside adequate feed, ewes need sufficient minerals and vitamins.  

“Selenium, cobalt and vitamin E help to promote lamb vigour. A nutritional supplement prior to lambing via a feed bucket can be used to provide this,” says Mr Mellor. 

“Carefully assessing ewe condition and nutrition, along with other measures such as making sure the lambing environment is clean, could help to reduce the need for antibiotics that are in limited supply which would disrupt lambing this spring.” 

Time4Transitioning: A guide to improving transition cow comfort

Transition cows typically have lower immune systems compared to that of the milking herd, making them vulnerable to disease such as ketosis, mastitis, metritis and milk fever.

Stress before, at and post-calving can make them even more susceptible to issues, as can factors caused by environmental influences. So, ensuring dairy cow comfort is prioritised by improving housing conditions, will help reduce health issues brought on through stress and set them up for subsequent milk production.

Methods to reduce transition cow stress and improve comfort

Feed space

Ensuring 85cm to 1m of feed trough space per cow (slightly more than the target 75cm in-milk cow space) will help to reduce stress by limiting aggressive interactions between cows.

Adequate feed space will also encourage greater feeding activity to ensure optimum body condition scores and rumen fill are achieved. This is important to prevent metabolic disorders pre-and post-calving and ensure cows are not under or overweight which could cause difficulties at calving.

Water troughs

Dehydration is a significant issue in cows post-calving causing a reduction in feed intakes. Freshly calved cows can drink 20L of water or more.

Aim for 10cm water trough space per cow, with one drinking point per 20 cows. This will reduce competition and stress, enabling adequate intakes. Water troughs should be clean, with a flow rate to encourage drinking.

JCF large double and oval 100-200GL ‘fast-fill’ troughs fill at 75L per minute. Find out more by calling your local Carr’s Billington branch: Store Locator

Bedded areas

Cows need ample space to lie, so aim for 10 to 12m2 of bedded area per cow. It’s also good practice to have extra housing space available to prevent overstocking which can result in competition and stress.

Bedding should be clean and dry, ideally 60cm deep to improve comfort which will encourage rumination. This is important to maintain feed intakes and efficient digestion.

Cubicles should be 1.35m wide and 2m long with 75cm headspace for lunging. If cows are lying half in and half out of cubicles more space may be required.

Ventilation and lighting

Ventilate housing by opening roof ridges and side inlets to a minimum of 20 to 30cm wide to ensure adequate airflow.

Stale, humid air will be present where airflow is poor in the shed so cows may refuse to lie down or eat in these areas. Bacterial growth is also more likely, which will increase the risk of respiratory disease.

Carefully group cows and minimise changes

Cows prefer consistency and routine so achieving a ‘stress free calving line’ is a critical component of maximising the health and productivity of dairy cows.

Group ‘far off’, ‘close up’ and ‘freshly calved’ cows in pens adjacent to one another in the same building. This will minimise the stress of moving cows from group to group through this critical transitional period.

Ideally, cows should also be moved in groups, at least a pair at a time – not individually. Adopt a ‘just in time move’ approach as moving cows into a different pen just at the point of calving is less stressful than moving them within ten to two days.

If space allows, a relatively new idea is to provide a “cuddle box” for the calf outside the calving pen so the cow can see and lick the calf but not defecate on it. This will help to reduce post-calving stress.

Speak to your local specialist for advice on keeping your transition cows as comfortable as possible.

You can also read more about dry cows nutrition to optimise health and milk yield here: Time4Transitioning: A Guide On Dry Cow Nutrition and here: Time 4 Transitioning | Time 4 Winter

A Year In The Life Of A Hoof!

A year in the life of a hoof

Throughout the year hooves have to experience many conditions which can really stress hoof condition and certainly impede growth.

We all know here in the UK we experience four seasons each year, approximately 13 week periods make up each shift.  With climate change impacting how we live our lives, extremes of weather are commonly witnessed which can make the traditional approach to the seasons harder to gauge.  In these modern times the hoof is subjected to the variations in wet/dry conditions all year round.  With extremes seen in each season, from dry arid spells in summer to long wet spells in the winter months. 

year wheel

When exposed to wet conditions, the horn itself expands as the moisture molecules force their way between the essential bonds.  While the hoof may appear more ‘wholesome’ and to the naked eye give a smoother impression, the wet has actually weakened the overall integrity of the hoof itself.  Once dry periods and conditions occur, the horn shrinks as the moisture molecules evacuate the horn leaving plenty of gaps.  These gaps can lead to cracks forming and brittle horn itself, opening up these tracks for different bacteria to develop and play havoc with horn quality, and leaving our farriers with a difficult hoof to work with.

Lost work days and shortened shoeing/trimming cycles which leads to increased hoof care expenses can follow, this wet/dry cycle is one of the most common challenges faced by every horse and pony in the UK today. 

The Structural Impact


  • Water molecules can force their way into horn making it expand and weakening the overall structure
  • Weaker structural integrity can be more susceptible to damage; hoof is more pliable
  • Horn swells – the appearance can hide cracks and defects which can be falsely interpreted as healthy hooves


  • Horn is at its strongest at around 25% moisture content
  • Hooves drying out after a wet spell can lead to extensive cracking and brittle horn
  • Increased farriery visits

Has our Horse Management evolved?

Ben Benson AWCF Master Farrier and Team GBR Farrier believes farriers have witnessed a huge change in the way we manage our horses over the last 20 years.  With more horses stabled and schooled on manmade surfaces.  This if not managed pro-actively can have a negative impact on the health of our horse’s feet.  There is now an entire generation that has worked all its life on synthetic surfaces.  The standards of which are dramatically varied from deep rubber or wood chip to a high wax sand to modern fibre sand blend, each of these brings a different level of footing, resistance and energy absorption.   

We see more horses washed off each day rather than have the more traditional (and laborious) grooming routine they once had and we also have to take into account horses are now worked 12 months a year and to an older age, increasing the overall working life of the hoof.

Feet that may not be functional all year round

Andrew James AWCF Master Farrier explains that the shoeing routine tends to be on a 4-6 weekly basis – some go as long as 8 weeks.  However, most horses require specific routines to effectively maintain their hooves.  On average the horn grows around 6mm[1]/month dependent on the individual.  Some may grow plenty of horn but brittle and weak with little integrity to its overall structure, others, grow very slowly but strong, adaptable horn, trimming and shoeing can prove difficult on both accounts.  For the weak horn, simply trimming and perhaps shoeing can be difficult for the farrier to achieve the desired result.  For the strong horn, resultant paring down on trimmed hooves or re-shoeing can be difficult with little horn to work with despite the strong nature of the horn itself.

In both instances a hoof supplement can be highly effective, it should not be fed short term, and can take 3-6 months to typically see a difference and 9-12 months for the hoof to grow from coronet to toe!  It’s a long process that should not be taken lightly, “no foot, no horse” is a performance limitation which can lead to a possible welfare issue for the individual.

A good tell-tale sign of improvement is witnessing a ring that develops from the coronet band and grows downwards with the hoof, this depicts a dietary change and in many cases can be a positive.



[1] Kainer, R.A. (1987) Functional anatomy of equine locomotor organs. In: Ah’ Lameness in Horses, 4th edn, Ed: T. S. Stashak. Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia. pp 1-18