palomino hunter pony

Veterinarians have long warned of the dangers of equine obesity and promoted maintaining horses at a healthy body condition. But an influential sector in the horse industry might favor ponies with a Thelwell-esque physique: show judges.

In a recently published study, researchers reported a positive correlation between higher body condition scores (BCS) and the scores ponies received from judges evaluating the animals’ conformation and appearance. This, they said, suggests judges favored overweight ponies’ appearances over leaner ones, which could have health and welfare implications.

Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD, a professor of equine nutrition in the North Carolina State University Department of Animal Science, in Raleigh, and colleagues evaluated the body condition and cresty neck scores of 347 ponies preparing for the in-hand phase at the 2021 United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Pony Finals. The mean BCS (on a 9-point scale) was 6.8, and the mean cresty neck score (on a 5-point scale) was 2.9, indicating most ponies were overweight, she said.

“There were definitely some ponies that were scoring an 8 or an 8.25, and there were maybe 10 ponies that were a BCS of less than 6,” Pratt-Phillips said.

An ideal BCS, she added, is generally around a 5—when the pony has enough fat coverage that you can’t necessarily see the ribs, but they’re easily felt.

Ideally, the cresty neck score should be less than 2, she added, though properly developed muscle isn’t an issue. “It’s actually been shown that fat within the crest of the neck is more metabolically active (than fat deposits in some other locations) and potentially a bit more dangerous in terms of promoting inflammatory conditions, such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS),” she said.

In addition to EMS, overweight horses and ponies are at increased risk for several health problems, including the hoof disease laminitis, Pratt-Phillips said. But the plump ponies in the study face an additional challenge: They’re asked to perform in not only in-hand classes but also under saddle and over fences.

“If you were to go to the gym and carry an extra 50 pounds in a backpack, it’s going to be harder on your body,” said Pratt-Phillips. “We need to think about the wear and tear that’s going on when these ponies are carrying this extra weight: on their limbs, feet, joints, navicular bone, all of their tendons. Not only are they likely not performing at their best, but I think, over time, these forces could cause them to start breaking down at an earlier age if they’re carrying excess weight for a long time.”

Pratt-Phillips said she hopes this research will, ultimately, result in leaner ponies in the show ring. But she knows this goal will take time to achieve.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of work from different groups,” she said. “It could be from owners and breeders who are concerned for the health of their animals, who put their foot down and don’t want to compete in an arena that’s going to promote or support obesity. Maybe it comes down to the judges who are aware of and concerned about problems with obesity.

“Maybe it’s talking with the governing bodies that are hosting and organizing shows,” she added. “Maybe it’s having equine nutritionists on hand at shows to offer help or training in recognizing overweight horses and ponies. Or maybe it’s conversations with stewards and veterinarians to start to look at whether a pony is fit to compete. If you had a horse that’s skin and bones, you would probably have a steward who would say that horse should not be at this competition. I would love for stewards and veterinarians to say, ‘Your horse is overweight. They are at risk for disease. They’re not fit to compete.’”

Young riders and their parents gaining a better understanding of the potential issues and advocating for the ponies’ health and welfare is also important, Pratt-Phillips added.

“From my standpoint as a parent, any pony that can take my child around the ring safely—whether it’s at a local show or Pony Finals—is a saint, and I want to do right by that pony,” she said. “I want that pony to have the best life possible, and I don’t want to ever imagine a world where it is in so much pain it can’t walk.

“I hope other children and other parents will also start to perhaps be more proactive and maybe talk with their trainers and the officials,” Pratt-Phillips added. “It’s these ponies that pack our kids around, and we absolutely owe it to them.”

The study, Judges favour adiposity in athletic show ponies, was presented at the 11th International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology, held June 26 – July 1 in Uppsala, Sweden and appeared in Comparative Exercise Physiology in May 2022.