Could you be killing your horse with kindness? As horse owners, we are often too quick to hand our horse a treat simply because he looks so grateful and excited to receive a tasty nibble. At feeding time, we can’t seem to resist the urge to dump a bucket full of sweet feed or grain into the manger because plain hay or pellets just seems so bland. But while a well-fed horse with a glossy coat and a little extra flesh on its bones is aesthetically appealing, a horse that’s undeniably obese is galloping down the road to health problems.

Perhaps the main problem facing chronically overweight horses is equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), a condition that includes insulin resistance. That means the horse is unable to process glucose (blood sugar), a problem that can eventually lead to chronic laminitis. Any horse that is a so-called “easy keeper” is at risk of becoming insulin resistant. An easy keeper is a horse that maintains its weight on minimal amounts of standard rations of hay, pellets, cubes or pasture. This type of horse gets along just fine without the extra calories provided by molasses-based feeds and treats.

But how do you know if your horse is overweight or merely pleasingly plump? The best indicator is the Henneke Body Condition Scale. Equine veterinarians refer to the scale, which rates the amount of visible and palpable fat on a horse’s body, and assess a number from 1 to 9 that correlates to the horse’s condition. This number is known as the Body Condition Score (BCS). A horse that scores 6 or above needs to have its diet re-examined. Some of the BCS warning signs of an overweight horse include a crease down the horse’s back, fat deposited on the sides of the neck and withers, and the inability to feel the horse’s ribs due to a covering of fat.

Besides the danger of EMS, overweight horses also have a low tolerance for exercise, which makes them less desirable as recreational trail mounts and performance athletes. They’re also more likely to develop soundness problems, as extra weight takes its toll on joints and supportive tendons and ligaments. To keep your horse in suitable shape, consult with your vet. He or she will help you design a diet that will ensure that your horse maintains its ideal weight. There is a way for your horse to look sleek and fancy without it also facing the perils of being too fat.