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Saddle Fitting and the Overweight Horse

We all know a good doer when we see one, they live on fresh air and seem to be able to gain weight overnight resulting in that squishy adorability you might associate with a Thelwell Pony.

Globally we know that equine obesity is a growing concern and is linked with significant health implications such as EMS and Laminitis. One way owners attempt to combat the extra pounds is to increase the horses workload by riding so of course you need to make sure your saddle fits and that you can find a long enough girth to get around that tummy.

Something many horse owners and perhaps even other equine professionals may not realise is that fitting a saddle to an obese horse is no mean feat. Typically the obese horse will have a back profile similar to that of a coffee table with little to no wither definition and extend out in all directions as far as the eye can see. While we say this light-heartedly and with the upmost love and respect it really is a serious issue and one which can cause problems as we have highlighted above.

Assuming your vet has cleared your horse to start ridden work there are several risk factors to consider when fitting a saddle to an overweight horse.

By obese we mean a horse with a condition score of 5 on a 0-5 chart. Further information on condition scoring can be found here How to body condition score your horse | Dengie Horse Feeds

Firstly, there is the financial component. Finding a saddle to fit a horse scoring 4 or above is like ordering a very expensive outfit just before starting a vigorous weight loss plan yourself – it’s not going to fit for very long at all. Your saddle once fitted will need very regular check ups and adjustments as your horse loses the extra pounds and there is a limit to how much a saddle can be tweaked to fit. It is very likely that as the horse gets leaner his shape will change so drastically that the saddle can not be adjusted to fit your new svelte pony.

Let’s assume money is no object and we are happy to adjust or replace the saddle every few weeks. When saddle fitting we are always bound by the laws of physics. When fitting an obese horse (especially those who are naturally broad and flat through the back, think cobs and ponies) there is a significant risk that the saddle will not be stable. Fitting broad horses is something of a knack in itself, we need to make sure the saddle tree has an open head and that the rails and overall shape is flat and broad enough to match the horses working back shape. Add on those few extra pounds and we are looking at a saddle which is roughly modelled on a pancake. Side to side stability is always going to be an issue not to mention the fact that the rider will feel like they are doing the splits – not conducive to an optimal riding position.

Both stability of the saddle and the riders ability to sit correctly are essential to correct saddle fit and maintaining back health – if we cannot achieve this due to the laws of physics should we really be fitting the saddle and riding the horse?

‘So how do we get our horse to lose weight if we cannot find a saddle to fit?’ I hear you asking! Fear not, there are so many constructive ways to shed extra pounds than ridden work. As humans we believe that hitting the gym for an hour a day is the only answer to weight loss but this is often not the case. Yes it helps but it is not the most important aspect and it’s where many people go wrong in reaching their own goals. There are 24 hours in a day and that 1 hour spent on the treadmill will do little if the other 23 hours are spent in tucked up in bed (or a cosy stable).

Weight loss can only be achieved through a calorie deficit i.e. consuming less calories than the body needs to function. The majority of these calories are consumed by the body in just keeping it alive. That’s right, if you did in fact lie in bed all day but were in a calorie deficit you would still lose weight. It sounds crazy but it’s true.

We know that our horse needs to have constant access to forage so we can only restrict their caloric intake by so much. Therefore, we need to look at ways of increasing what is called the Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE. This can be in the form of structured exercise and there are many ways to incorporate this without riding such as;

  • In hand hacking

  • Lunging

  • Long Reining

  • Horse Walker

  • Treadmill

  • Liberty Work

On top of this the most effective and overlooked aspect is what’s called Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT – this is the amount of calories burnt through things we do not consider as exercise so things like foraging for food, walking to and from the field, grooming field mates, playing, rolling and generally bimbling about – essentially being a horse.

Implementing things such as track systems, pasture enrichment, friends, obstacles and interactive toys can be a great way to burn extra calories. The very last thing we want to do is restrict our horse to a small enclosed area when trying to shed weight as this massively decreases the TDEE. A well designed grazing muzzle may be essential as part of the weight loss program and of course close attention needs to be paid to the type of forage they can access. The key is to encourage movement without adding surplus calories so rather than treat balls think scratching posts, jolly balls and mirrors.

In addition to this horses burn a lot of calories keeping themselves warm so the winter months provide a great opportunity to help your horse regulate their body weight, there is nothing wrong with your horse getting a bit cold and wet – it is perfectly natural and a important part of their natural weight and hormone regulation system.

When attempting to get your horse in shape it is important to work with your vet, physio and nutritionist to develop a suitable plan. An obese horse will need a careful and considered plan before starting any exercise program and it is beneficial all round if you can hold off from having a saddle fitted until your horse is a healthy weight and shape.

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