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The Overweight Horse, Digestive Health, and Ongoing Lameness

What’s your horse’s body condition?  Is your horse overweight?  Comfortably round? Does he have a bloated hay belly? Are there other health issues that you are contending with in your horse?  Possibly allergies?  Metabolic conditions? Poor hoof health?  Joint lameness? Tendon or ligament injuries?  How about his digestive health?  Any problems with gas, loose stools, hard fecal balls, ulcers or poor absorption of nutrients?  Is there a connection between your horse’s overweight body condition, metabolism concerns, and those other health or soundness issues?

Overweight Horse, Digestive Health and Lameness
Overweight Horse, Digestive Health and Lameness

In today’s society, the rate of obesity in humans is steadily on the rise and with it, so are other health conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  Are we encountering the same problem in the equine industry?  Maybe to an extent.

When we look at the horse, body condition is important on several aspects.  For many horses, the owners struggle to keep weight on, while for others, the problem is the opposite.  In another article, I discussed “why is my horse fat?” and relevant factors associated with weight gain.  There are many breeds that are just heavier in body condition, carrying more weight naturally, and often have a heavier bone structure.  These can include the average Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, Paint, various warmbloods, and draft breeds.  While they may have a tendency to carry more weight ‘naturally’, the ultimate question is where do we want them to ideally be and does this influence their health and soundness?  Also, is there a connection between their weight and digestive health?  This is an interesting concept to look at.

If we look at human medicine and research, as mentioned above, there is a close association between body weight gain (body mass index) and associated health problems.  There is also a close link between increasing body mass index (BMI) and internal levels of inflammation along with an imbalance in the gastrointestinal tract microbiome.  Does this problem exist in the horse as well?

When I look at the equine patients that I have encountered in the past and current times, there are some horses that struggle to gain and maintain weight, while the vast majority of my other patients are really heavier in body condition than they should be.  Interestingly enough, through observations, it is not hard to see that the vast majority of the foot problems, lameness conditions, allergies, and digestive health cases in the horse involve those horses that are heavier than what is desired.  There appears to be a connection, but let’s dig deeper.

Now for me, visual observations play a big role in helping any horse, such as making a connection between body condition and current health or lameness concerns.  For others, they may agree that there is data on the human side to make an association, but this is not relevant to the horse.  It may be true that there is not much equine or horse research to support this observation, but likely the problem exists, as well before human research was conducted, associations were noted on a clinical level likely by many doctors.  An overweight body condition equates to higher degrees of disease.  We should not ignore the findings in human research, but more so should correlate them to the horse.

What is the ideal body condition for a horse?  That is dependent on the owner and/or trainer.  It is all in the eye of the beholder really.  Looking at the average body condition scale, the ‘ideal’ horse is around a 4-5 out of 9.  The average horse with ongoing metabolic issues, foot concerns, tendon issues or otherwise is often noted to be a 7-8 or higher.  When we ask the owner to grade their horse’s body condition, they tend to be a little lenient in their interpretation.  Often an owner will grade their horse as a 5 out of 9, in which case I will ask them if they can see any ribs, to which they reply ‘no’. Then I will ask how much pressure does it take to their side to feel the ribs.  Many usually laugh quietly at this point, as the amount of pressure required is often very high.  If this is the case, this horse is not a ‘5 out 9’ but more like a 7-8 out of 9 or higher.  This is reality and something we must be honest about because this body condition does play a major role in the health and soundness of that horse.  If we are aiming to remedy or improve a problem, this is one area that we need to address and be honest, and not be offended.

How Does My Horse’s Weight Impact Health and Soundness?

When it comes to health and soundness, there is one common denominator and that is the inflammatory process.  Inflammation is linked in with almost every health and lameness condition you can mention or find in the horse.  It is just a question of to what extent and where that inflammation is originating from in your horse.

The original source of inflammation is often not just one place in the horse’s body, but many, and with that there are often many hands in the pot.  For instance, a horse could have arthritis in his fetlock joint which is creating pain and lameness, being associated with direct inflammatory changes.  This inflammation could originally be stemming from a conformational issue or foot imbalance, which is placing excess strain upon that joint.  This localized strain could also be associated with the chosen discipline, jumping for example, which is then creating more stress and inflammation.

In most horses, however, it is not this straight forward and simple.  Conformation may be a contributor as could the chosen discipline, but then we have other contributors such as body weight and gastrointestinal health.  It is a known fact in research, that as the body size increases, more often than not, so does the internal level of inflammation in the horse or person.  So, we can have a warmblood, a Quarter Horse, or other draft breed that is heavier in body condition and also has a joint problem.  This excess body weight is creating excess strain to the joint by shear weight forces.  In addition, the increased body condition has a higher level of internal inflammation which then is adding to the existing joint inflammation.  To go one step further, a high percentage of these heavier horses also have gastrointestinal problems, including microbiome imbalances, that are further adding to the inflammatory equation.

In our laboratory, we have performed fecal cultures on about 450 horses to date with a variety of problems.  By far, the majority of these horses, based on the questionnaires, are heavier set in body condition and present with a wide range of problems from lameness, laminitis, allergies, digestive complaints, hoof ailments, and poor performance.  On average, 80% of those horses upon culture demonstrate a higher than normal level of lactic acid bacteria in their fecal samples.   Is there a connection between body weight and lactic acid bacterial overgrowth, or dysbiosis of the hindgut bacteria in the horse?  My research and clinical observations tell me that indeed there is, but many of my colleagues would say, ‘sure, but who came first?’.  In reality, it doesn’t matter to me who came first, but more so that both exist and should be managed.  Interestingly enough, as we manage this dybiosis or bacterial imbalance in the hindgut of the horse, the weight problem often improves additionally.  This implies a connection between that existing digestive microbiome and metabolism in the horse. As we also manage this bacterial balance and weight in the horse, the lameness condition also improves, which then connects in the process of inflammation. 

The Overweight Horse, Gut Microbiome; the Big Picture

The overall point to my article and observations is that in most equine conditions that I assist with, we do have a lameness or health problem, but we also have a weight problem in that horse. As much as we’d like to have an injection or pill to make it all go away, it just isn’t that simple.  It is true that a horse may be lame and have an injection of a corticosteroid, then return to full work, but those results are often short-lived and do somewhat come with a risk. What is the risk?  Joint injections are not without risk, but in the easy-keeper or overweight horse, there is an increased risk of injection-associated laminitis.  When this happens, and it does happen, it is not an easy remedy and more often than not is career ending.   This all gets back to the increased level of inflammation in that patient, and a negative response to the corticosteroid.

What I see in many of these patient is an improper diet and decreased level of true exercise, which is enough to increase the heart rate and burn calories.  Many of these patients are overweight to begin with and then when the diet is evaluated, there is a low level of quality forage being given, many feed balancers for added ‘nutrition’, and more often than not…a fat supplement.  When asked, the owners will often note that the fat supplement is good for the horse because it has ‘healthy fats’, but while this is true, those fats also come with added calories, which are often extremely high if an oil is being used.  Calories then equate to more body weight, especially if proper exercise is not provided.  These calories, even when perceived as being low, will add to the weight, and then ultimately to the internal inflammatory response in the horse.  I’ve seen it countless times and in many, just the elimination of the ‘fat’ supplement, whether if it be an oil or flax, can produce real results for the horse.  It’s been denied by many, but I’ve seen it first hand many, many times.  So, the diet is our first area to start, in order to pursue our goals of reducing the inflammatory status and weight of that horse.

The gastrointestinal tract microbiome is another area that is just recently being explored in equine research, although there have been indications in research that problems exist for several decades.  It is just that more recently, researchers are using more complicated methods to evaluate the problem, using DNA-sequencing rather than plain bacterial culture methods.

Human research indicates that there is a different gastrointestinal microbiome in overweight individuals than there is in healthy-weight ones, and more importantly that this altered microbiome is potentially contributing to their health ailments and altered metabolism.  Likely, this is the same in the horse.  What causes it?  Many, many things from the diet to stress, medications, genetic influences, and other factors.

Let’s look at a couple of examples here.  Before us are two Thoroughbreds, not being off-the track, but involved in jumping from the start.  Both of these horses are viewed as being heavier than the average Thoroughbred, but if we look closely, their biggest problem is a bloated belly, which is linked not just with caloric intake, but a digestive microbiome imbalance.  Both of these horses had lameness conditions either connected with the feet, the back, or other joints.

In both cases, the horses were placed onto ‘clean’ diets composed of high quality alfalfa hay, minimal to no grains, and targeted supplementation to address their joint needs and digestive health.  In addition, both were put into full ground work 3-4 times per week consistently.  Both horses, interestingly enough, cultured out higher than normal on lactic acid levels in their feces originally.

The time difference between the photos is approximately 2 months for each horse and there is a marked difference in their body condition, most notably with a loss of the ‘pot belly’ appearance.  In some aspects, there is also a loss of top-line temporarily, as before, the top line was composed mainly of fat when we desire muscle instead.  This will come with time.  In addition, as the weight came off, their digestive microbiome became ‘normal’, and their lameness conditions markedly improved.  Now, they are healthier and in gear to build up muscle and conditioning.  This is now where diet and protein provision comes into play.

What supplements were used in these two cases?  In both, the horses were placed on Cur-OST EQ Total Support in combination with Cur-OST EQ Tri-GUT and Cur-OST EQ Adapt.  For more stubborn or truly metabolic horses, I will add in the Cur-OST EQ Meta-Support to further benefit weight loss and antioxidant protection.  Again, however, the supplements are one piece of a strategic regimen.

Is this an expensive regimen? That depends on your viewpoint.  My goal as a veterinarian is to help that horse and the owner.  I could opt to perform the same injections as before or do expensive laboratory testing, or I could try to go after the root problem in that horse.  After all, most of the horses that I encounter continue to struggle despite those prior injections, medications, special shoes, or other efforts.  So, really, we have no choice but to go after the root problem in that horse if the owner is seeking true results.

After 90 days, both horses are now on a much simpler supplement regimen along with the same diet and exercise, so the costs have come down. But, even in the beginning, if we factor in the ongoing lameness in the horse, ongoing veterinary costs, ongoing farrier expenses, medications, or even loss of use….the supplement regimen cost actually saved the owners money and acquired a higher level of results.  The horse is sounder, leaner, and healthier than prior.  If the current regimen is continued, then things should stay that way, which may mean a reduced veterinary cost into the future.

The Overweight Horse and Health; The Bottom Line

Some may perceive my article as being offensive, when really it is not.  More so, it is just observations made over a couple of decades of being a veterinarian and rehab researcher.  I mean no offense, as I too, have owned horses that were overweight in their own respects and had ongoing health or lameness concerns.  It is just that in more recent years, the connection between the horse’s weight, their health, and lameness has become apparent in our research.  My goal is just to relay my observations.

What’s the bottom line?  We all have lameness conditions and health problems in our horses.  If you own a horse, a problem will arise now and again.  In the world of social media, I see all sorts of posts and also receive many emails noting a joint problem, a tendon problem, or in many cases, ongoing hoof health issues.  What I ask is that you, as the owner, step back from your horse and just look.  Don’t focus in on that one problem, that one hoof or that one joint, but look at your horse and instead of asking ‘why is this happening?’, instead ask “what is creating this condition?”  Body weight, lack of conditioning, and digestive health are at the top of my list with every equine patient.  They may not be the exact or precise cause of that condition, but they are contributing to the internal inflammatory response on a very high level!

Manage those factors and often the horse improves on many levels!


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN


1 thought on “The Overweight Horse, Digestive Health, and Ongoing Lameness”

  1. I totaly agree with your post, the weight of the horse creeps up on you and you dont notice, especialy competition horses due to the virus , no competitions. Do you have a joint supplement, and are these neccasary?

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