Australian study finds one third of Pony Club ponies obese

Better education of owners needed to avoid laminitis, say researchers

Nutrition

Welfare and Behaviour

Obesity in ponies and pleasure horses has been associated with the painful and debilitating hoof condition called laminitis. However, some owners may not recognise when their animals are putting on excessive weight. This is made harder by the fact that ponies and some breeds of horses put on body fat very easily, even on moderate hay or pasture alone. These animals are typically described as ‘good-doers’ or ‘easy keepers’. Studies in the UK and elsewhere have found a worryingly high prevalence of obesity in pleasure ponies and horses, and a high incidence of laminitis which is a major welfare concern.

However, relatively few studies have been carried out on this issue in Australia. So researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at Melbourne University, in collaboration with WALTHAM, decided to find out if there were links between diet, obesity and laminitis risk in ponies and horses in Victoria State, Australia.

The results of an initial study investigating body condition and diet in the Victorian pleasure horse population have now been published in the Australian Veterinary Journal.

Masters student Samantha Potter, together with her supervisor Associate Professor Simon Bailey, surveyed Pony Clubs across the state. They assessed the body condition of ponies and horses and quizzed club members on the feeding and management of their animals and on the incidence of laminitis.

Ten Pony Clubs were visited and a total of 233 riders participated in the study. Many different pony and horse breeds were assessed, and nearly one third of the ponies in particular were considered obese when measured using an objective scoring system. Significantly, when owners were asked to assess their animals on a linear scale, many underestimated their body condition. Owners reported that fifteen percent of ponies had previously suffered from laminitis, and many of these had had recent episodes.

The researchers talked to the riders and owners about appropriate feeding, assessing body condition and the risks of laminitis. They concluded that targeted education amongst grassroots associations such as Pony Clubs needs to be improved. Greater awareness of how to manage ponies and horses at risk of laminitis is crucial in preventing further episodes. This includes limiting pasture turnout, management of body condition and reducing starch and sugar intake.

SJ Potter, NJ Bamford, PA Harris and SR Bailey, 2016. Prevalence of obesity and owners’ perceptions of body condition in pleasure horses and ponies in south-eastern Australia, Australian Veterinary Journal. Volume 94, Issue 11, November 2016, pp: 427–432, DOI: 10.1111/avj.12506

Further related studies from WALTHAM and partners:
Harker et al 2011. The body condition score of leisure horses competing at an unaffiliated championship in the UK. J Eq Vet Sci. Vol 31, 5-6.

Giles SL, Rands SA, Nicol CJ, Harris PA. (2014) Obesity prevalence and associated risk factors in outdoor living domestic horses and ponies. PeerJ 2:e299 https://peerj.com/articles/299/