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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! 🙂




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


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