Surprise surprise…

This was the headline of an article in the British (online) magazine Horse and Hound last week. It was tagged ‘Overweight horses‘.This study was carried out by the veterinary and agricultural science faculty at the University of Melbourne, Australia on a mere twenty-four horses. Such a small sample is in itself totally inadequate for any truly conclusive study, but such is the trend these days. Although there was a variation in exercise — one group did not work; the others, 15 minutes  “brisk trot”, with five minutes’ walking before and afterwards, five days per week for 12 weeks — there was no diet control group : all the horses were being fed identically.

Considering the study was particularly aimed at the obese horse with restricted diet, we see –once again– the veterinary world trying to accommodate rather than eliminate a serious problem. The main reasons for obesity in horses are the same reasons for obesity in humans : primarily lack of exercise followed by a poorly adapted diet.

The systematic incarceration during the winter combined with commercial feed is sufficient to raise, or at least maintain, the level of insulin resistance. Exposure to sugar-rich grass in the early spring will push the level of insulin resistance higher often resulting in laminitis, at times extremely serious. 


Grazing horse

In order to break this cycle, the horse needs to have a naturally restricted diet — that means free access but to less rich food — which will decrease the level of insulin resistance sufficiently to remove the dangers associated with young spring grass. Typically such a diet is winter grasses and in their absence, hay. This does not mean alfalfa (lucerne), soya bean meal or anything similar. In the majority of cases there is also absolutely no reason for giving supplements either. All the horse needs can almost always be found in the field; be aware that minerals must be balanced. Although the supplement itself may apparently be balanced, it does not take into account in any way the living environment of the individual horse. However, the horse itself will frequently be able to balance its requirements if it has sufficient access to natural foodstuffs.

Another Horse and Hound article this week reference a fight against colic. The British Horse Society — an organization like many such similar bodies, not exactly the most exemplary in true equine welfare — is joining up with the University of Nottingham (UK) for their first colic awareness week.

Unsurprisingly, many owners — more than 90% surveyed, according to the article — are incapable of spotting the early signs of colic. The BHS website colic page is amazingly poor. It mentions that “…many years of research and development of new methods of diagnosing and treating colic…” whereas in reality ‘colic’ is a generic name for any intestinal problem, from blockage due to impaction of something ingested to a twisted bowel. There is also reference to REACT, the acronym that can be used to identify potential colic, but anything else requires watching the videos or requesting the information pack.

In fact, the videos add nothing new, either. They merely promote REACT and talk about ‘having a plan’ — basically what do you do at 2 o’clock in the morning and do you envisage being able to pay £5000+ for colic surgery…

Two important things are missing from both the video and the webpage. In the video there is mention of knowing your horse and of TPR –a subject missing on the webpage– explaining that to be able to identify the signs better, you should be aware of what is and what is not normal for your horse: TPR should also be an aid in this. TPR is Temperature, Pulse and Respiration; what is not explained, are the normal values. Although there will be some slight variation from individual to individual, when we look at patient for the first time, we know the order of the numbers we are seeing; we know that a horse with 39º is febrile, that if respiration and heartrate at rest are much off 12  and 40 per minute respectively, that something is amiss…But many owners don’t. And it is not always one’s own horse with which one may be confronted. Frequently it is other owners or the yard owner that discover the horse in distress.

The second item missing is probably even more important in the long run: how to minimise the chances of colic. This is a fundamental point, particularly if we want to address the problem effectively. We don’t just want to be able to treat colic; we want to not have to treat it.

We will never be able to eliminate colic completely. It is not like a viral or bacterial infection that can be avoided by vaccination; colic is often an impaction caused by accidental ingestion of a foreign body or torsion, the twisting of the bowel. But we can reduce many of the factors which will contribute to the chances of a colic.

The majority of horses spend at least
half of their lives locked up like this...
  • Incarceration or any restriction of movement does not encourage a good bowel movement (typically in the BHS video, we see the stabled horse – an abomination in itself so much at odds with the BHS ethos of equine welfare)
  • Feeding –or provision of– inappropriate foodstuffs: incarcerated horses rarely have sufficient hay and end up eating their bedding; straw, wood chippings, copra, and such materials are highly dangerous; incorrect feeds such as grains and cereals can contribute similarly
  • Baling twine not properly removed from hay bales can be ingested accidentally; similarly, plastic packaging
  • Rubbish tipped or even just blown into the field

These are just a few of the causes of colic but they are the most prevalent – particularly the first two which are also the two that can be addressed the most easily…

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