Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thoughts on Weight

The topic of weight has come up in my conversations with people a lot lately in a variety of contexts. Weight is a subject where everyone seems to have a different opinion. It is one of those topics where if you ask three different horse people to pick out a horse that they consider to be an ideal weight they will all pick a different horse.

One area that I spend a lot of time thinking about weight is actually when I'm pondering things about soundness. When you spend your days amongst retired horses you tend to spend a lot of your time thinking about things related to soundness. I do find myself often having the same general discussion with my horse friends, with that discussion being something along the lines of lameness becoming more prevalent at younger ages.

There are any number of theories that can be discussed on this topic ranging from breeding practices to the number of horse shows some horses are asked to attend in a year. One thing that I seem to notice a lot of, and I tend to be pretty unpopular when I bring it up, is weight.

To be direct it seems in my opinion (gotta put that disclaimer in there!) a lot of horses seem to be overweight, overfed and underworked. The standard for what is considered to be good or healthy weight seems to keep slowly creeping upward. When I was a kid bombing around on my pony I remember good weight was seeing just a hint of the last couple of ribs, and the rest should be very easily felt.

By today's standard it has become a sin to be able to see any rib at all. In addition the standard also seems to be moving from being able to very easily feel the completely unseen ribs to having to having to press a bit to feel them. So the net effect is we're asking our horses to do the same types of things such as dressage or jumping or reining, but now we're asking them to do it carrying around 100 more pounds. And we wonder why they are retiring younger or why they need so much support and management to keep working. Granted some horses seem to be able to handle this just fine, but when you spend your days among the ones who didn't handle it fine you can't help but think about these things. An hour of work 5-6 days per week along with a few more hours shuffling around in a small paddock for turnout each day, combined with an owner that is obsessed with keeping their horse's weight up, has become the norm for a lot of horses. From my perspective with a retirement farm it doesn't seem to work well for a lot of horses.

On the subject of weight in general we have found with the residents here that we almost can't make a horse too fat. There are some easy keepers here that I wish we could get some weight off of but I never have to worry about anyone being upset about that. On the other hand if someone feels like their horse is even the slightest bit underweight boy will we hear about that (and it isn't like we have a farm full of skinny horses here!). When a horse has a chronic issue like arthritis or a soft tissue injury which would be more comfortable for the horse, being a little on the fat side or a little on the thin side?

I want to clarify that I like a nice round horse as much as the next person. And we do have a couple of hard keepers here that I would like to see gain a few pounds. Their owners tried hard at getting weight on them prior to retirement and we're trying hard as well. But I do find it interesting the significant differences in reactions that people have when they think their pet is even the slightest bit too thin and when their pet is flat out overweight. I think the reaction that surprises me the most is when someone's horse is in a perfectly acceptable weight - no rib can be seen at all for example - but they still want more weight on the horse. Or they look at one of the fatties and say "he looks really cute, I wish my horse would look like that."

Often what these people are reacting to is the lack of a topline. At some point any non-working horse is going to lose their topline. Some naturally keep a nice topline for a long time when out of work and others do not. The older the horse is when it retires the faster the topline will disappear. Let's face it, as they're wandering (or even running) about the pasture they are not concerned with lifting their back and engaging their hind end. They're doing all the things we were asking them not to do in their training - lifting their heads, dropping their backs, bulging shoulders, not traveling straight, etc. In other words the horses don't care if they use themselves "correctly" while out in the pasture. Thus what some people think is lost weight is actually lost muscle. You have to get a horse pretty overweight to fill in areas that would normally be covered by a layer of muscle filled in with adipose tissue (fat). I'm saying very clearly this is not a good goal.

One other thing we often talk about with people when it comes to weight, especially in aging horses, is about being able to see ribs. Some horses not only lose their topline but their backs will drop as they age with some horses ending up with a full swayback. Often this dropping of the back is accompanied by an expanding of the ribcage as the tendons and ligaments around it begin to relax with age. This is often called a hay belly or a pot belly. This is another example where putting enough weight on the horse to the point where you can't see any rib is a mistake, the only thing you get out of it is an obese horse and that isn't a good thing. With these horses it is almost impossible to achieve that "just right" look when it comes to weight. If you get the ribs completely covered they look like an over-stuffed sausage, but of course if you can see any rib at all people automatically label them as thin.

My last thought when it comes to weight, or maybe this post is more about being overweight, is that the fat horses are not the ones that live the longest. How many fat people do you know in their 90's? Well the same goes for horses. There are a few that manage it but they are the exception, not the rule.

So there you have it, my rambling thoughts on weight and horses. I'm thinking this will be one of those posts that has a lot of dissenting opinions! :)




Thomas and Hemi

Homer and Baby

Lucky and Lightening living the ultimate life of a horse - this of course involves being as dirty as possible

Silky, MyLight and Missy watching me get breakfast ready early one morning

George had an itchy spot; apparently Asterik found this interesting to watch

Stormy and Clayton

Rampal and Rocky



Bif said...

As the owner of a fat horse (Boyfriend), management to keep weight off an air fern is hard without the right facilities.

I wish I could get him thinner, because it *is* easier on his bad joint to weigh less. The thinnest he's been was when he was confined to a 12x24 stall while recovering from surgery. Limited foraging of good stuff, lots of low nutrient boredom hay. =)

It's a balance of keeping enough food/grazing in front of him to keep his mind and gut happy, but then he puts on the pounds.

He's out 24/7 with one horse on an acre, and I trail handwalk and lunge him, but he's just not exercising as much as when he was at a big barn with lots of geldings to run with... but he's sounder, so...

What to do?

Bif said...

We won't even discuss Fat Donkey!! Needless to say, the grazing muzzle I bought for him still hasn't been used by his owners...

lytha said...

interesting about the physical changes making ribs more prominent. i've always wondered why my horse shows all his ribs yet has fat deposits on his neck and rump.

there was a study done over endurance rides that showed fatter horses are more likely to have lameness issues and thinner ones are more likely to have metabolic issues. (during a ride)

Lisa said...

I guess the thing is we all don't want to be called horse starvers and bad owners. My mare looks very fit, but you can't see any ribs. I know she is a good weight, but when people see her they still say "oh, she's lovely, but she needs groceries, huh?". She's not a hard keeper, she's a 4 year old growing arab warmblood! The weight they think she needs is actually topline and muscle that she won't have yet because she is only learning how to use herself properly under saddle now.

Think of how many fat labs you see, and when you see one in good weight it looks skinny!

Funder said...

I think it's a prosperity issue. Only poor (or bad) horse owners can't afford to feed their horses enough, and none of us want to look poor, so we all want fat horses.

lytha - I always wonder if there's some underlying instability in thin e-horses. Why aren't they eating more - ulcers, brain fried, weird metabolics, what's going on? That might be a totally unfair generalization and I never say it out loud, but I do think it ;)

Dixie's a little porky. I relied successfully on exercise to keep her weight down and that's off the table for a while longer... I should find some worse hay.

Jen said...

So glad to hear someone address this topic. I totally agree with you Melissa. I don't think it's just horses either; in general, I think people are accepting a much larger profile for all their animals & anything smaller looks "wrong" to them. My cats are the only housecats I know that aren't 5-10lbs overweight. It makes me sick to see peoples' animals carrying all that extra weight & the people think they're doing the animal a favor. My horses live in a small herd on 8-12 acre hilly pastures. They keep healthy weights with minimal grain or extra supplements and their coats are glossy. As a medical provider, I've seen the same trend with my patients. They think the 20lb overweight look is what is "normal" and people in good condition are "skinny".

HammersArk said...

That's such a refreshing post. I have 2 horses, neither of which are what I would consider skinny. But because my 4yo TB mare (who is still growing) has about 3 ribs faintly showing - SOMETIMES - like when she's exerting herself - I've been told my horses are too skinny. I've attached a link to my blog that shows a picture of her.


Personally I think she looks great for being pasture kept right now, and her rations will increase as she begins working, but seriously, why do my horses have to be FAT to be considered "in good weight"?

My yearling, on the other hand - is going to be an air-fern and I ALREADY have to watch his weight... sigh...

Anonymous said...

My 30yr old is going through all these body changes. We soak his alfalfa pellets and senior food and he gets as much as he wants and still no topline. Its hard for me to look at him and remember the gorgeous `round' horse he used to be, but he still has the shiniest coat around, bright eyes, and still considers himself a herd boss (not a spec of arthritis in him). So, while he certainly is showing his age, he's a really happy, healthy guy, so I guess I'm going to have to accept he's never getting his topline back. He still ridden up until 3 yrs ago, so I guess he's a late retiree despite having been out of the show ring for a very long time...

Vivian, Apollo's Mom said...

Very informative and interesting post- the fat issue of which I agree wholeheartedly. I knew about the older horses losing their topline but I personally found it very interesting about the back dropping and the ribcage expanding into a "pot belly" because the horse I ride now, a Third Level practically a schoolmaster 20 year old, has a bit of that pot belly look. He has always been in training with a professional and has had plenty of work and turn out, but age is catching up with him. The age part I don't mind as age is catching up to me as well!

Val said...

I just found your blog, because I was drawn to this post. My horse is a hard-keeper with a lean profile. I am happy if he is a five on the body condition scale, although he is always muscled and fit even if he is not a plump, round horse. Over the years I have found that onlookers have no qualms about commenting on my horse's weight. I do not like the implication that I am not taking proper care of my horse, especially because he is healthy and hard-working. I guess it really is a trend shift in perspective, but I still find it frustrating. Thanks for the interesting post.

Candy'sGirl said...

I think this is a really frustrating topic. I keep my Arab on the lean side deliberately and have had many comments on it. Currently he looks "too thin" to a lot of poeple because his topline sucks and he needs to build muscle, but he's actually at a good weight aside from that. I can see his last rib and feel the rest of them. He's a fit limited distance endurance horse. It would be to his detriment to be carrying around extra weight. In the winter when I'm not riding as much I do put a few extra pounds on him to help him stay warm because he doesn't grow a great coat and even being blanketed to the point he looks like that kid from A Christmas Story, he'll still shiver.

My poodle is also "too thin" according to a lot of people. You can feel all his ribs when you're petting him. He runs around with me outside several hours a day. He's got plenty of energy. He's free fed, so he gets to regulate how much food he needs. Some days he eats a lot, others not as much, but I assume he can figure out for himself how much he needs.

Vet says both of them are perfect. The amount of flak I get sometimes is really obnoxious though. Then again, I get told I'm "too thin" without doing crazy diets or exercising my brains out. It's called staying active (riding, living on/taking care of 7 acres, etc.) and not minimizing the amount of junk I eat.