Some years ago, leading show producer Jayne Ross deliberately thinned down the horses that she shows for Carol Bardo. She felt they were too fat and reported that they went much better after getting the weight off.
This is noteworthy for two reasons. One, being overweight is just as bad for horses as it is for people, as Dr Sue Dyson, head of equine clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust, highlighted at the World Horse Welfare annual conference on November 10. And two, that a professional producer was making a stand against the show ring fashion for excess horse weight was laudable.
That was, I think, 2012. And Ross has stuck to her guns. But go to any show, anywhere, and you will see grotesquely fat horses and ponies. In the past few seasons, I have heard of judges marking down overweight animals, and telling the exhibitor why they are doing so. But the problem persists.
As Ross herself says: “I don’t think people are brave enough to make the stand that they should be making.”
Among those who should be making that stand are, first and foremost, the judges. A few years back, I was privileged to judge one of the supremes at the British Show Horse Association National Championships. I remember standing in the corner of the arena, watching a cob come hurtling down towards me at a ponderous gallop, and it was wobbling. I, and my fellow judges, marked it down. It was amateur champion, so I felt bad. But it should never have been in the supreme in the first place; it was obscenely overweight.
But it’s not just cobs, which, let’s face it, do tend to be on the chunkier side. I’m sure I’m not the only one to be horrified at some of the hunters on the county circuit, with their ripples of fat and loaded shoulders. Children’s riding ponies are another cause for concern, particularly lead-rein animals, which seem to get fatter (and more overbent, but that’s another subject) every season. Is this because people are afraid that if they are fit, they will get too strong for the child and the leader?
Native ponies, too, are often seen to be carrying too much “condition”. Britain’s mountain and moorland breeds were bred to do a job that is now, mostly, defunct, and there is always much discussion about keeping “type”. But type never meant fat. The M&Ms survived because they could grow fat on concrete, as the saying used to go, but their pampered 21st century lifestyles — like ours — mean that they never get to work off that excess weight.
So what is the answer? We know that excess weight is not good, and we must strive to re-educate and to practise what we preach. So as well as looking to the showing judges to make a stand and mark down obese animals, we must also expect the professional producers to set an example — as Dr Dyson called in her speech at the World Horse Welfare conference.
Because until professional producers produce leaner animals, the amateurs will continue to follow the fat fashion. “But the professionals have their horses big,” they say, anxiously, “so we have to, as well.”
“A lot of people have this bizarre feeling that you can improve a horse’s appearance by topping it up a little bit and giving it more topline and more backside,” says Ross. “But at the end of the day, if it’s not there through work and muscle and toning, it’s just lumps of lard.”