With equine obesity levels in the UK sky-high, discussions about weight should be one of the most common topics covered by vets, farriers, physios, nutritionists, instructors, and many other healthcare professionals. Of course, this is not an easy conversation to have, and many vets across equine and small animal medicine report being unsure how to approach the topic, particularly if the owner seems like they might be easily offended, or is overweight themselves.

Nevertheless, improving how we talk about obesity is vitally important. Using results from a three-year PhD about equine obesity funded by the Horse Trust, and insights from behaviour change science, I will provide insights into how to speak with owners about weight.

Should we bring up the issue of weight every single time we see an overweight horse? Many vets say that it is difficult and disheartening to do so. However, the data showed examples where owners suggested that, because professionals had not commented on weight, they felt that their horses’ weight must therefore be acceptable. While it may be difficult, we need to comment on overweight equines every time we see them, so as not to inadvertently endorse an overweight horse.

One of the strategies professionals sometimes use to overcome the potential difficulty of bringing up this topic, is to use euphemisms around equine weight: “he’s looking a bit well”, “he’s been on the grass”, or “certainly in show condition”, to name but a few. While these euphemisms are common parlance for equestrians, it is evident from the interviews that they can still be confusing for owners who are desperately hoping to be told that their horse is indeed an adequate weight, and therefore take the sayings literally, reporting that they had been told that their horse was in appropriate condition.

So, how can we bring up the issue of weight? Behaviour change science suggests that one of the most important things in helping people change is to empower them by discussing a topic together, rather than informing them of facts. Therefore, initiating a weight management discussion by asking the owner a question: “what do you think of his/her weight at the moment?” or “has anything change in your management? I noticed he/she’s put on some weight since the last visit” brings the owner into the discussion as an ally, rather than simply telling them “your horse is obese”.

Once the issue has been broached, owners across the data described appreciating it when professionals showed them the areas of fat relevant on their particular horse both by sight and by feel; this enabled them to be able to identify for themselves in future, and also engaged the owner in the discussion. This is important, because owners consistently spoke about how difficult they found it to identify whether the heavier breeds, such as natives and cobs, were overweight or were “meant to be this shape”, particularly when referring to crests and “apple bottoms”. Therefore, taking the time to identify fat versus muscle was important in engaging owners in the topic.

Finding a weight management strategy which works for the owner, for their horse, and for their yard can seem difficult, but one strategy that can work here is to encourage the owner to be the expert on their situation and find the right solution – you can inspire them to find the right solution for them, rather than advise them on your own idea. Every owners’ situation is different, and what works for one may not work for the other. The University of Liverpool’s weight management guide helps divide the topic of weight management into four areas: reducing grazing, increasing exercise, reducing supplementary feed, and using the horse’s metabolism, in order to reduce weight. Splitting the management strategies into these key areas will help owners to conceptualise their weight loss, and help to overcome common barriers; for example owners who cannot exercise the horse because of a health condition can simply remove that section of the guide, but can still see that there are three remaining areas for them to consider weight loss strategies.

The guide contains over sixty diverse strategies collected from across the project, ranging from the obvious things, such as soaking hay, through to more unusual ideas such as turning the horse out with youngsters in order to encourage movement, and has received outstanding feedback from horse owners and professionals alike.

Monitoring change is another area which depends entirely on the owner; some owners preferred to use a simple piece of string around the girth area, others prefer condition scoring, while still others like making spreadsheets and graphs of change over time; again, empowering the owner by asking what they think will work for them can be useful to encourage them to keep up the weight management. A commonality among owners was appreciation of vets and professionals who took a specific interest in their horse, so asking owners to check back in with you and send texts, emails, or photos of their progress may be appreciated by them; some vets mentioned successfully encouraging ongoing weight management by teaming up with the farrier, who can monitor the change in the horse at regular intervals.

From a behaviour change point of view, one of the important things is to highlight the good. If you go to a yard and see a native pony or gypsy cob looking fit and at the right weight, even if it’s not the horse you’re there to see, it will always pay to make a comment to the owner about how good that horse looks. The owner of the horse in question is likely to be pleased and share this information, which could spread the view that this horse in indeed the appropriate weight. Similarly, if you notice that a previously overweight horse is now a better weight, commenting on the achievement and how much better the horse looks will pay dividends; even better would be to empower the owner, by asking how they achieved this weight loss in order that you can use their example to help other owners of overweight horses. In this way, we can fight the standard view of overweight horses.

With thanks to The Horse Trust and the University of Liverpool for funding this project, and the participants who made it possible.