Obesity often comes with a lack of fitness, but it also counts as its own arthritis risk factor. The extra weight that the joints of an overweight horse must bear with each step multiplies the stresses related to any activity. Consider the tendency of draft horses to develop the arthritic conditions sidebone and ringbone; the sheer size of these horses makes them susceptible, even if they are not overweight. And the more years a horse spends carrying excess weight, the more damage is done; it’s never too late in life to try to reduce a horse’s weight.
An easy-keeper might be ridden regularly but still carry extra weight. In that case, you need to cut back on the calories he takes in each day. Don’t give in to the feeling you “need” to feed an active horse a high-calorie feed. Good-quality hay alone can provide enough nutrition for many horses. If you can’t find good-quality hay, or can’t overcome the feeling you must provide something in your horse’s feed tub each evening, look for a “balancer” pellet that provides nutrition without the unneeded calories. Also, consider fitting your horse with a grazing muzzle when pastures are lush. As you cut back on calories, keep him active and monitor his weight. If he loses too much, you’ll want to tweak the formula.
An out-of-shape, obese horse poses a particular challenge. In addition to dietary changes, you’ll also need to increase his activity to reduce his weight, but too much work too soon can lead to stresses or injury that increase the risk of arthritis. Consult with a trusted trainer and/or your veterinarian to devise a progressive conditioning program and diet plan that makes sense given your horse’s situation and limitations. Then, as you watch for changes in his weight, also keep an eye out for signs that you’re pushing the exercise program too hard.
Atouch of arthritis isn’t going to ruin your horse’s golden years, but early-onset or debilitating changes in joint health can be devastating. Looking to your horse’s past and current experiences can help you determine if you’re likely to be facing that challenge as well as provide some clues as to how you might be able manage or even alter what the future holds for his joints.
The longer a horse is obese, the more damage is done; it’s never too late in life to try to reduce a horse’s weight.