The negative effects of obesity on horses in general—and ponies in particular—are increasingly well documented in the research literature, with serious issues ranging from equine metabolic syndrome to insulin resistance to laminitis all linked to carrying excess weight. Yet despite this, many equestrians are biased toward keeping ponies over conditioned (overweight), and new research reveals that even judges might be susceptible to rewarding these horses with higher model scores compared to an animal in healthier (lighter) condition.
“There are a lot of really fat hunter horses,” said Shannon Pratt-Phillips, Ph.D., MSc, professor of equine nutrition at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Even at our local shows, I see a lot of overweight horses.”
But it was a visit to the USEF Pony Finals in Kentucky several years ago that truly raised Pratt-Phillips’ level of concern. Though she observed some “beautiful, wonderfully fit, lean ponies,” she saw many more that would qualify as overweight, and others that crossed the line into true obesity.
“I started to feel a bit sad that we have these ponies that children love, whether leased or owned, and what might happen to them,” said Pratt-Phillips. “We all know obesity is associated with insulin resistance and laminitis. But we tend to think that those are horses at pasture, not those in work. These ponies are athletes, but they are portly and over conditioned.”
Seeking to better understand the incidence of adiposity in this elite equine population, Pratt-Phillips designed a study to assess the body condition of ponies competing at the 2021 USEF Pony Finals. Additionally, she hoped to determine if there was a relationship between body condition score and the score an animal received in the model phase of the hunter divisions. This phase was chosen because it is primarily judged on the animal’s “conformation, quality, substance, and soundness,” and the outcome is less influenced by the handler than in the ridden phases.
Researchers assigned a body condition score (BCS) and a Cresty Neck Score (CNS) to 377 ponies competing in either the medium or large green or regular pony hunter divisions. What they found was perhaps expected but still shocking—with an average BCS of 6.7 and CNS of 2.5, the majority of ponies were overweight. Even more troubling was that over 35% of the ponies had a BCS of 7 or higher, making them not just overweight but obese. Only 7% of the ponies evaluated had a healthier BCS of less than 6. Overall, medium ponies carried more body fat and had crestier necks when compared to the large ponies.
Finally, researchers also found a positive relationship between higher body condition scores and higher model scores.
“If you had a slightly more conditioned horse, chances were, you had a slightly higher model score,” said Pratt-Phillips. “This is not to say it is cause and effect, but there was absolutely a correlation. What this means is that judges are rewarding animals that are over conditioned.”
And when fatter ponies score well, that trend is perpetuated, despite the fact research has shown that animals with a BCS of 7 or higher and regional fat deposits—like a cresty neck—are at three to five times higher risk for developing laminitis.
Although not included as part of the study (in fact, researchers avoided intentionally interacting with the riders or their ponies either verbally or physically while collecting data), during casual conversation at the competition, Pratt-Phillips learned that many owners and trainers had deliberately added weight to their ponies for the event.
“It was interesting to think that people are well aware that if they want their ponies to be successful, they have to get them fat,” says Pratt-Phillips. “It is a really sad thing for ponies, who are supposed to be a kid’s lifetime best friend. We are doing them a disservice.”
A Welfare Issue
When it comes to measuring adiposity in horses, most quantitative methods of assessment are not practical to use on live animals. Instead, body condition scoring through observation and palpation using a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 9 (grossly obese) has become a commonplace method of estimating body fat coverage.
“I like a 5 or 6,” said Pratt-Phillips. “I want to feel their ribs but not necessarily see them. If you can feel the ribs without having to use a lot of pressure, less than one inch underneath the skin, that’s pretty good.”
The Cresty Neck Score, developed by Dr. Rebecca Carter, uses a scale of 0 to 5 to assess the level of fat deposited along the horse’s neck. A lean horse with very little fat will receive a score of 0. A score of 5 is most commonly seen in donkeys, who will sometimes develop a flap of fat on their crest similar in appearance to a camel’s hump. Although both methods of assessment are subjective, with practice and training it is possible to standardize your eye; researchers in this study reported 95% agreement in their assessments.
The CNS is a newer metric, but because you are focusing exclusively on the fat deposits along the neck, it is perhaps easier to use and apply than the BCS, which requires the assessment of fat deposits on multiple locations around the horse’s body. Horses with a CNS of 2 or higher have visible, palpable fat deposits on the crest.
“There should be a natural curve to the neck, depending on how the horse is holding his head,” said Pratt-Phillips. “But some horses and ponies really develop more of an arc, with more and more fat tissue. It starts to get a bit wobbly.
“Just like with people, different breeds carry their fat a little differently,” Pratt-Phillips continued. “Some ponies carry more fat on their necks, but it’s fat, not muscle. If you go and feel it, it is squishy.”
One limitation in the Pony Finals study was that due to the nature of the competition, researchers could not palpate the animals for fat deposits. However, with the permission of show management, researchers stood within five feet of each animal while the ponies were lined up outside the arena prior to their model class. From here, researchers each performed visual assessments of every animal and confirmed the handler’s back number.
Pratt-Phillips’ work at Pony Finals inspired her to compile a more extensive literature review on the subject of the impacts of adiposity in horses. The results revealed a need for further research, particularly in the area of the mechanical impacts of excess weight on the horse over time.
“There are many studies in dogs that show carrying excess weight increases the risk of osteoarthritis at a younger age, and contributes to other joint and limb issues,” said Pratt-Phillips. “This relationship hasn’t really been studied in horses. But it would make sense if these horses are continuously carrying an extra 100 pounds, and they’re jumping, that over a 10-year career, they are probably doing more damage to their joints than if they were to be a little leaner.
“A lot has been done with rider weight and the welfare of horses, but if the horse himself is carrying an extra 50, 100, 200 pounds all the time, they are going to be working harder just to move,” Pratt-Phillips continued. “What else could we be doing to the detriment of our athletes by having them be overweight?”
But despite many readily available sources of information on the use of BCS, research shows that most horse owners will under score their animal compared to the score given by a professional. This means that not only do owners not recognize when their animal has become overweight, seeing animals with excess body condition has become normalized.
Changing The Standard
Pratt-Phillips wants to make one thing clear: The preference for a fatter horse over a thinner one is a trend that simply must change, for the sake of the horse.
“If you think about French Bulldogs, and their noses that went all the way in, that wasn’t healthy, and so breeders started saying, ‘Let’s get them out again,’ ” said Pratt-Phillips. “There can be trends that happen, and we need education and teamwork to say, ‘We know this is not good for our animals.’ How can we make a pony look fabulous at a BCS of 5.5—where they will last longer, be able to show five more years, and probably have a lower incidence of laminitis?”
Although in some disciplines a leaner animal is preferred, most equestrians justifiably frown on animals with a BCS of less than 5, particularly when the horse’s condition trends toward the lower end of the scale. But Pratt-Phillips would like to see equestrian governing bodies become equally concerned with the health of animals scoring on the higher end of the scale as well.
“If someone shows up at a horse show, and their horse is gangly skinny, the steward is going to say, ‘No, you can’t show,’ ” said Pratt-Phillips. “I would like to see that on the top end too. I would like to see that at every horse show, there is a veterinarian, a steward and maybe a nutritionist all working together to say, ‘Look, your horse is not healthy.’ ”
Pratt-Phillips points to the increasingly popular “Best Fit” awards presented at many horse shows in the United Kingdom as one possible incentive to encourage people to trim up their fatter horses.
“It’s a way to start to subtly say, ‘Your horse looks amazing,’ ” said Pratt-Phillips. “It is important for there to be some support for the people who are doing right by their horses in the long term, and trying to keep their horses a little bit leaner.
“There is no amount of healthy fat on a horse,” added Pratt- Phillips. “I think because judges don’t want to see ribs, a 6 is totally acceptable in Hunterland. But once they get fatter than that, the potential negative health and limb issues outweigh any benefit.”
Read The Studies
Pratt-Phillips, S., Mujizun, A., Janicki, K. Visual assessment of adiposity in elite hunter ponies. “Journal Of Equine Veterinary Science.” 121 (2023): 104199.
Pratt-Phillips, S., Munjizun, A. Impacts of adiposity on exercise performance in horses. “Animals.” 13 (2023): 666.
Shannon Pratt-Phillips, Ph.D., MSc, welcomes questions, comments and further discussion on this subject. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the June 26-July 17, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.