Background: Equine obesity is considered one of the most serious welfare concerns in UK leisure horses, yet little is known about how horse owners conceptualise their horse’s weight as part of its health, or how they plan and carry out weight management.
Objectives: This study aimed to further our understanding of leisure horse owners’ perceptions of equine health and awareness of excess fat in order to clarify our understanding of successful strategies for managing equine weight.
Study design: This study used a qualitative research methodology.
Methods: Data comprised 16 threads from online UK equine discussion fora, 28 individual interviews with leisure horse owners, 19 interviews with equine professionals such as vets and nutritionists, and two focus groups with a further 21 horse owners. Data were anonymised and analysed using a grounded theory approach.
Results: Awareness of excess fat was a complex issue, with owners finding it difficult to differentiate equine obesity from the shape they thought the horse was “meant to be”, particularly if the horse was a heavier breed such as a native pony or cob. Owners were not necessarily “aware” or “unaware” of fat, but instead equine body fat was constructed as an integral part of the equine body. For example, owners might say that they thought their horse was an ideal weight yet describe their horse’s overall body shape as “like a Thelwell”. When owners became aware of fat as a changeable part of the horse’s body, and/or a threat to health, the presence of fat was articulated as a strong-willed adversary, and weight management was considered a “battle” or “war”. Owners found weight management difficult because they perceived that it had immediate negative welfare implications for the horse, and this therefore interfered with their preferred ownership practices and the horse-human relationship.
Main limitations: Interview data are self-reported, and people may not always do what they say they do.
Conclusions: This study has provided valuable insight into how owners conceptualise weight and weight management, yielding important information about communicating with owners about weight, tailoring weight management strategies, and promoting positive welfare.
Equine Vet J. 2021 Jul;53(4):752-762.doi: 10.1111/evj.13360. Epub 2020 Oct 30.
1Institute of Infection, Veterinary and Ecological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Leahurst Campus, Neston, UK.2Institute of Population Health, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK.