Stop! You’re Killing Me!

Linda Jones makes it no secret that Katy is the light of her life. Purchasing the Saddlebred mare six years ago fulfilled a dream Jones had nurtured since childhood. And she was determined to get their relationship off on the right foot. From day
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Linda Jones makes it no secret that Katy is the light of her life. Purchasing the Saddlebred mare six years ago fulfilled a dream Jones had nurtured since childhood. And she was determined to get their relationship off on the right foot. From day one there has been lots of grooming, lots of affection, and lots of treats.

“I even go to the barn and just walk her around so she gets a change of scenery,” Jones says.

Even so, Jones is just as quick to add that Katy is often the bane of her existence. Katy sometimes refuses to take Jones’ direction in performance, and in training Jones is frequently slow to correct Katy’s misbehavior.

That’s because, Jones admits, she’s overpampered her horse.

“I waited so long for her,” Jones says, “so when I did finally get her, I wasn’t as strict with her as I should be. I just can’t help it; she’s pretty spoiled.”

Jones is not alone. In fact, she’s typical. The majority of first-time amateur adult horse owners are women in their 30s or 40s who are lifelong horse enthusiasts that are finally able to purchase horses of their own, says Susan Turcott White, BS, MS, director of equine students at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa.

“She’s so pleased about getting that first horse, that there’s a lot of pampering going on,” says White. “The problem is that pampering often leads to spoiling.”

A certain amount of so-called pampering–such as specialized shoeing, frequent grooming, and even blanketing–became necessary when people brought horses out of their native pastures and adapted them as work, athletic, and performance partners. But equine behaviorists, farriers, and veterinarians warn that excessive spoiling can be unhealthy or even life-threatening for the average horse.

“There are people out there killing their horses with kindness,” says Robert Judd, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Equine Practice), operator of Judd Veterinary Clinic in Hewitt, Texas. “They’re all very well-intentioned, but they’re just doing too much.”

But He Looks Hungry

“Too much,” according to Judd and others, ranges from overgrooming to inappropriate shoeing, with inconsistent training falling somewhere between. But far and away, overfeeding and inappropriate feeding are the most common ways owners overpamper their horses–to the animals’ detriment.

“It’s calories in and calories out–just like it is with people,” says Judd who, in additional to his veterinary practice, hosts “Texas Vet News,” a daily radio program on the Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network. “Too many calories in and the horse is going to get fat.”

Judd says that’s because well-meaning owners feel the need to overfeed. And what they tend to overfeed is the stuff that quickly packs on the pounds.

“Most people feed grain because they want to think their horse is eating well and is in really good flesh,” he says. “But not every horse needs grain or concentrated pellets. Most horses do just fine with quality pasture and hay.”

In fact, horses are built to eat a diet low in nonstructural carbohydrates and high in fiber–just the things found in high-quality pasture and grass, although some pastures and hays can also be high in nonstructural carbohydrates. The introduction of grain and molasses-based “sweet feeds” add calories most horses never get a chance to burn unless they are extremely active running barrels, roping, racing, or engaging in other physical work on a daily basis.

Horses can be hurt by the way owners provide high-calorie feed. Owners, especially those new to horsekeeping, don’t always get the best advice when it comes to feeding their animals. As a result, their horses’ diets are destined to be too high in calories, their portions too large in volume, and the feeding schedules themselves are bad for the horse’s digestive system.

“People talk to their neighbors, and they’ll talk to the guy at the feed store, then feed their horses the same way their neighbors do, or on the recommendation of an uncle who has had horses for years,” Judd says.

Usually, that means feeding grain in addition to pasture and hay, all administered as unscientifically as possible. Most owners, Judd says, forgo the scale and dispense feed by the “scoopful.” In most cases, not only can horses be getting inappropriate feed for their needs and activity level, but they are most likely getting too much.

“Generally, horses in good body condition that are getting grain should need no more than four to six pounds total per day in divided feedings,” Judd says. “And a ‘scoop’ is not a regulated standard unit of measure. Feed should be weighed on a scale.”

To make sure their horses are getting a complete diet, well-meaning–but misinformed–owners also take things into their own hands when it comes to concocting individualized diets for their horses. On the assumption that more is better, owners mix traditional and commercially blended specialty feeds to achieve what they believe–or have been told–packs the best nutritional wallop. Judd says they couldn’t be more wrong.

“Don’t mix feed unless you’re a nutritionist,” he says. “The companies that produce equine feeds spend millions of dollars to create feeds that offer balanced nutrition. When people mix them, they remove that balance.”

Instead, Judd recommends that horse owners keep it simple. And he encourages them to do two things before deciding how and what to feed their horses. Not only will they save cash, he says, but, more importantly, they’ll reduce the risk of diet-connected ailments, ranging from colic to insulin resistance to laminitis.

“First people need to have the grass in their pastures and hay analyzed to find out if their compositions are providing their horses with enough–or even too many–calories,” he advises. “Then they need to get their vet involved. Veterinarians have knowledge about nutrition and equine obesity-related health issues. Just ask the vet, ‘Is she fat?’ ”

But excess weight is not the only negative result of inappropriate feeding, says Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, founder of the Equine Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, which is part of the School of Veterinary Medicine. Diets high in concentrated, and high-calorie food such as corn, create biological changes in horses’ brain chemistry.

“No matter how willing and compliant they are,” says McDonnell, “horses on a high-calorie diet start (stall) walking and pacing and cribbing.”

They also get competitive over food with their human handlers and their stablemates.

“Horses tend to get nippy, biting the hand that feeds them, and many display food-related aggression, such as guarding their food tubs,” she says. “They’ll fight with other horses over food, but horses as a rule don’t fight over pasture.”

He Deserves Something Extra

In fact, a litany of equine behavior problems from agitation to inability to concentrate on commands can be attributed to inappropriate diet, says McDonnell, whose work involves treating horses for disorders ranging from shyness to aggression to panic attacks. Yet instead of simplifying their horse’s diets, many owners attempt to solve behavior problems by complicating the diet.

“I walk into stalls and lined up along the ledge I see all these bottles– everything from performance supplements to those that are supposed to regulate temperament,” she says. “If you look at the ingredients, some supplements might have something in them that is calming. But right next to it on the ingredient list is something that does just the opposite.”

Equine dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means supplements might not actually contain the ingredients stated on the labels. What’s more, existing ingredients might be inappropriately combined, increasing the potential for unwanted or even health-damaging side effects. As a result, it’s tough to prove that supplements safely accomplish what they claim. And that, says McDonnell, can be dangerous.

“Supplements are a concoction of things, and they may contain neurochemicals that have not been tested for either efficacy or for detrimental side effects,” she says. “It’s been my clinical impression that supplements don’t benefit a horse.”

He’s Expressing Himself

Instead of turning to supplements to address equine behavioral issues, trainer Susan Turcott White recommends owners look in the mirror for solutions. Pamper-prone owners tend to actually teach their horses behaviors that, sooner or later, will become frustrating at best, dangerous at worst. And when their horses display those kinds of behaviors, many owners are frequently slow to appropriately correct them.

“It’s amazing how quickly and how well horses associate human actions with behavior,” she says, “either desirable behavior or the undesirable kind.”

According to Turcott White, reinforcing inappropriate behavior can begin with something as seemingly innocent as hand-feeding treats. The little nudges treat- seeking horses perform when owners get close can quickly change from endearing to downright dangerous if left unchecked or encouraged.

“I’ve seen horses pin their ears back, crane their necks, and bare their teeth if they don’t get a treat on demand,” Turcott White says. “So people give them their treats to avoid that kind of aggressive behavior.”

In fact, many well-meaning owners never realize that when they allow horses to demand treats, ignore cues under saddle, or refuse to perform routine tasks during workouts, they are choosing to relinquish their roles as leaders. Some owners put their horses in control of situations out of “love for their animals.” Still others don’t know how to correct inappropriate behavior, or fear their horses’ reaction to the reprimand. Whatever the reason, Turcott White says, failing to keep control is a recipe for disaster.

“These are very large, very strong animals, and an appropriate measure of healthy respect for their size and power is necessary,” she states. “People should be cautious, but if, for example, a horse won’t go into a wash stall and he walks right by it time after time, the owner is likely to decide it’s easier to bathe the horse outside and let him munch on some grass in the process. Not a bad deal for the horse. The horse is directing the owner’s behavior.”

Instead, she advises owners to be consistent when it comes to identifying and correcting unwanted equine behaviors. Once owners decide which misbehaviors they won’t tolerate, it’s critical, she says, to make corrections immediately.

“Horses ‘correct’ each other immediately in the pasture,” she says. “So you can’t wait and correct them later.”

And because horses rarely perform unwanted behaviors just once, Turcott White reminds owners that the so-called “Three Time Rule” really does apply.

“Corrections must be made at least three times in order for the horse to get the message,” she says. “Likewise, if you let a horse get away with an unwanted behavior three times, it’s going to be tougher to retrain him.”

But that’s exactly what pamper-prone owners tend to do over and over again.

According to Turcott White, many owners become so frustrated with their horses’ delinquent behavior that they turn to professionals to undo the damage they’ve done by being too lax. It’s a short-term solution, she says, unless owners go into training, too.

“It’s a kind of trend these days that people who have horses will ride them, ignoring their trainer’s rules and instructions, and turn the horse back to the trainer every month or so for a ‘tune-up,’ ” she says. “Horses always know when someone is a pushover. The truth is, it’s the person, not the horse, who needs the pep talk.”

Back to Katy

These days Linda Jones is getting lots of pep talks from her trainer. And she’s committed to take all his recommendations to heart. That’s partly because she wants to improve her performance relationship with Katy, but mostly because she’s determined not make the same mistakes with Kirtland, her newly acquired Saddlebred gelding.

“I’m trying to do everything my trainer tells me to do to make sure I don’t undo all the good training he’s already had,” says Jones. “I know I made a lot of mistakes with Katy, but it’s not easy. I have to remind myself that spoiling them, even a little bit, isn’t the best thing for any of us.”


Advice from Robert Judd, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Equine Practice), of Judd Veterinary Clinic in Hewitt, Texas, sounds like a no-brainer: Look at the horse to determine whether it is fit or fat. And while it’s pretty easy to distinguish an obese horse from a very thin one, horse owners need to know the score to understand the criteria in between.

According to Judd, equine body condition is evaluated by a scoring system that rates the “fleshiness,” or amount of visible and palpable fat on points along the horse’s body. The system assigns values to fleshiness ranging from 1–indicating very poor or emaciated condition–to 9–indicating that a horse is extremely fat.

The amount of fat along the neck and withers, at the ribs and tailhead, behind the shoulder, and the absence or presence of a defined crease along the horse’s back all figure into the scoring system and to corresponding condition standards.

“Ideally, most horses should be a 5 or 5½,” Judd says. “You should not be able to see the ribs, but you should be able to feel them.”

Fit at 5 With a body score of around 5, a horse is in moderate condition, and it’s easy to feel his ribs and some spongy fat at the tailhead. Shoulders and neck smoothly blend into the body, and the withers appear round. A moderately fleshy horse–a 6 on the body condition scale–has spongy fat around the ribs, soft fat at the tailhead, and the beginnings of greater fat deposits at the withers, behind the shoulders, and at the neck.

“Performing or working horses may be at a 6 on the scale,” Judd says. “But if a horse is at 7, it’s time to cut something out.”

Fleshy at 7 With a body condition score of 7, a horse is considered “fleshy” and on its way to an unhealthy body weight, according to Judd. Fat can be felt between individual ribs, along with increased fat deposits along the neck, at the withers, and behind the shoulders. A crease might also be visible along the back.

Portly at 8 A horse with a body condition score of 8 is considered fat. Ribs are difficult to feel, and obvious thickness appears at the neck. Fat fills the withers area, behind the shoulders, and around the tailhead.

Over the top at 9 Patchy fat over the ribs, and bulging fat at withers, shoulders, along the neck, and at the tailhead indicate that a horse is extremely fat and at very high risk for a range of physical complications, including insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease, and developmental orthopedic diseases (in the case of young horses).

“By feeding a horse to a level of 7, you are starting to push the limits of good health,” Judd says. “Horses with scores of 8 and 9 are definite candidates for a weight reduction plan.”

Judd warns that horse owners should consult their veterinarians about feed changes and exercise regimens before setting their horses on a path to weight reduction, but, he adds, there are some rules of thumb to consider.

As with humans, diet and exercise are critical to slimming down an overweight horse. That means cutting back on feeding by about 70% and adding regular exercise to the horse’s schedule. He recommends making diet changes gradually to avoid stressing the horse. And bear in mind the way horses burn calories.

“A one-hour trail ride, with the horse in a walk and slow trot, burns very few calories,” he says. “Just because they sweat does not mean they have used a lot of energy. And it doesn’t mean they need more feed.”

To help owners formulate a plan for their overweight horses, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has 10 tips to offer:

  1. Be patient. Weight reduction should be a slow, steady process to avoid stress and metabolic upsets.

  2. Make changes in both the type and amount of feed gradually. Reduce rations by no more than 10% over a seven- to 10-day period.

  3. Track your horse’s progress by using a weight tape. Available at tack stores and horse supply retailers, a weight tape measures size around the horse’s heart girth just behind the elbow and correlates weight to the size indicated on the tape measure. When the horse’s weight plateaus, gradually cut back its ration again.

  4. Step up the horse’s exercise regimen. Gradually build time and intensity as the horse’s fitness improves. Walk, then trot the horse long enough to make him begin sweating, then walk to cool down. Do this once (or preferably twice) daily.

  5. Provide plenty of clean, fresh water. Water helps the horse’s digestive and other systems function as efficiently as possible and rids the body of metabolic and other wastes.

  6. Select feeds that provide plenty of high-quality fiber, but are low in total energy. Measure feeds by weight rather than by volume to determine appropriate rations.

  7. Select feeds that are lower in fat. Do this because fat is an energy-dense nutrient source.

  8. Switch or reduce the amount of alfalfa hay fed. Replace alfalfa with a mature grass or oat hay to reduce caloric intake.

  9. Feed fat horses separately from other horses. This prevents the overweight horse from eating his portion and his neighbor’s, too. In extreme cases of obesity, caloric intake might also need to be controlled by limiting pasture intake.

  10. Balance the horse’s diet based on age and activity level. Make sure the horse’s vitamin, mineral, and protein requirements continue to be met.

In addition to following its 10-tip plan, the AAEP also recommends that owners slate regular visits with their veterinarians to monitor their horses throughout the weight loss process.

Finally, Judd adds that, like people, horses need not give up all goodies while they’re “dieting.” They can continue to enjoy treats–dispensed in moderation.

“Calories in treats, such as one carrot a day or commercially produced horse treats once a day, are negligible if given in moderation,” Judd says. “It’s when people overdo things that their horses get in trouble

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Written by:

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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