Hunter Judges Might Be More Lenient Toward Overweight Horses

Researchers confirm that misconceptions about what constitutes obesity exist among horse show judges.

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Hunter Judges Might Be More Lenient Toward Overweight Horses
Equine obesity is a growing issue with significant health implications. Among certain sport horse disciplines, however, many judges place horses carrying too much condition. | Courtesy Alexandra Beckstett
Equine obesity is a growing issue with significant health implications that include laminitis, exercise intolerance, heat intolerance, and equine metabolic syndrome. Among certain sport horse disciplines, however, many judges place horses carrying too much condition. In fact, some rulebooks stipulate that underweight horses cannot compete but have no guidelines for an upper limit of condition. These factors might encourage owners to maintain their horses at a higher and potentially unhealthy level of obesity.

To determine horse show judges’ perceptions of equine weight, researchers from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, carried out a survey of hunter judges. Graduate student Ahmad Munjizun shared the team’s findings at the Equine Science Society’s 2021 virtual symposium.

The team surveyed more than 1,000 hunter judges using United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA), American Quarter Horse Association, and Equine Canada databases. Judges responded to questions about their background, how long they had judged, and the judging consequences of thin, average, overweight, or obese animals. They also viewed 13 photos of horses and ponies and categorized them as thin, average, overweight, or obese.

The research team received 211 completed surveys; 77% were from USHJA judges, and 50% of respondents had 20 or more years of judging experience. The judges considered themselves to be very or moderately experienced in judging both horses (73%) and ponies (67%). Ninety-six percent of the judges said they consider too much or too little condition to compromise the horse or pony’s score in competition.

Statistical analysis of the results showed the proportion of judges agreeing to penalize a horse or pony for being too thin was significantly greater than the proportion who would penalize them for being too fat. Most judges, however, agreed they would penalize both. Twenty percent of respondents said they would be more likely to accept fat coverage on a pony than a horse, with 38% stating this might be the case.

Three experts in body condition scoring ranked the 13 photographs shared with the judges. They ranked four horses as obese, four overweight, three average, and two thin. The judges, on the other hand, ranked three of the obese horses as overweight. Ninety-one percent said an average horse with only a faint outline of ribs was thin. These results suggest judges might be more lenient toward overweight or obese horses.

Most judges indicated they would like to receive further education on what constitutes appropriate fat coverage and that they would benefit from more concrete guidelines in governing body rulebooks. This research suggests the body condition that is ideal for showing might not be ideal for health, and misconceptions about what constitutes obesity exist among equine judges. Further, how judges judge horses might influence an owner’s perception of their horse’s condition. Horses that are overweight but place well might lead owners to believe this level of condition is necessary to succeed in the show ring, which ultimately might have long-term health consequences for those horses.

If you’re interested in viewing presentations from the 2021 Equine Science Society Virtual Symposium, you can register for the Symposium until Aug. 2, 2021, and recordings are available for viewing until Sept. 3, 2021.


Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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