Variation in body condition in small groups of horses

Sarah L Giles, Patricia A. Harris, Christine J Nicol, Sean A Rands

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference Contribution (Conference Proceeding)


espite growing concern about levels of obesity in domestic horses worldwide, variation in body condition (BC) within groups of horses has not previously been measured. Our aim was to investigate the contribution of different factors to observed variation in BC. We propose new hypotheses to account for some of the unexplained variation. A cross sectional study of 127 horses and ponies was conducted in Somerset during February 2011. At recruitment, horses lived at pasture for ≥6h a day with at least 3 individuals per herd. BC was assessed using a 9 point Body Condition Score (BCS) and the 5 point Cresty Neck Score (CNS).

The prevalence of obesity was 27.56% (BCS 7-9; 95% CI; 19.79%–35.32%). The prevalence of cresty neck was higher, 48.82% (CNS 3-5; 95% CI; 40.12%-57.52%). Obesity was slightly higher in horses (29.63%) than ponies (26.39%). Cresty neck was more common in ponies (58.33%) than horses (37.04%; P = 0.01). There was a linear association between number of months in the grazing herd and odds of obesity (P = 0.01). There was 2.84 times as much variation in BCS between, as opposed to within, groups but horses within herds still varied by 1.79 BCS. Final logistic regression models for both CNS and BCS contained breed and age. The model for BCS also contained worming frequency and minutes in trot per hour of ridden exercise and explained 33% of variation in BCS (R2 = 0.33) The model for CNS also contained height, plus method of feed distribution, and explained 38% of variation (R2 = 0.38). The obesity prevalence measure of 27.56% at the end of the winter months is a welfare concern. Well-meaning winter management strategies may be masking natural seasonal trends in BC. The amount of variation in individual BC explained by final regression models was small and suggests other factors may be acting. Traditional factors plausibly affecting BC were measured and only partially explained variation in individual BC. Some unexplained variation could be due to factors such as differences in digestibility or spontaneous activity. However, behavioral interactions, socially mediated interference and social position may play a role. All of these will be investigated in future studies.

Factors affecting body condition (BC) and obesity were examined in herd-living horses and ponies and obesity levels of 27.56% detected. Much of the observed variation in BC could not be explained by classic management factors (e.g. food and structured exercise). It is hypothesised that within-herd factors such as social behavior may play a role.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJournal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013


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