• Suzannah Povey-White

Show judges can't identify an obese horse, research says

Obesity is recognised as an epidemic in human terms – with 250 million people in the world now considered obese, have we reached similar percentage levels with our equine friends?

A recent research project undertaken by North Carolina State University looked at industry professionals, specifically show judges, and their ability to recognise adiposity in horses. The research broadly showed that those surveyed were unable to correctly identify obese horses, with several people incorrectly scoring well-covered horses as 'thin' and interestingly these horses would receive harsher penalties in the show ring than their overweight counterparts.

This obviously is a cause for concern in the veterinary community, with many painful, chronic and in some cases, fatal conditions being associated with obesity in horses. Read our articles on obesity here.

Researchers recently surveyed 211 show hunter judges to determine their professional experience and their opinion on body condition, making special note of consequences they assign when presented with thin or obese horses. Respondents were highly skilled, with almost half having more than 20 years of judging experience. As part of the survey, judges were sent 13 photos of horses to categorize as thin, average, overweight, or obese. (Kentucky Research, 2021)

About 95% of the respondents indicated that having too much or too little fat covering compromises an animal’s score in competition. Judges disclosed they were more likely to penalise a horse or pony if they were deemed too thin rather than too fat. In other words, judges were more accepting of extra body weight. Some judges also suggested they were more accepting of extra fat coverage on á pony than a horse.

The 13 photos included five obese, three overweight, two average, and three thin horses, as classified by experts. While a minority of judges correctly identified the obese horses, most judges indicated these were simply overweight. The majority of judges also identified the three overweight horses as average. In the same vein, average horses were subsequently, and therefore incorrectly, viewed as thin by most judges.

These data show that not only are judges less able to identify average—and therefore healthy—horses, but, average horses incorrectly viewed as thin receive harsher penalties than overweight and obese horses.

This clearly indicates that incorrect perception of fat covering is not just confined to horse-owners, with equine professionals also struggling to correctly assess coverage. Jane Buchan from Baileys Horse Feeds says 'as a company we work very hard to educate all horse owners about how to score horses' body condition, the importance of measuring levels of body fat and how to provide optimum nutrition to promote and support healthy condition'.

Baileys have this useful guide to body scoring here.

See the full research here


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