Horses have played a significant role in our history and culture, but have we kept up with evolving standards for their housing and care?

The role of horses in society has evolved significantly from the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. While there are still horses used for commercial purposes such as sports, military, and police work, as well as for riding schools and ceremonial events, the majority of horses today are kept for leisure and companionship. This shift in purpose raises an important question: has the way we house and care for our horses kept up with these changes? 

Over the past several decades, horses' lives have undergone remarkable transformations. They have transitioned from being crucial working animals to cherished companions, even regarded as pets by some. This shift in perception and purpose underscores the need to reevaluate how we provide for their well-being. When considering the drastic changes in horses' roles, it becomes evident that their living environment should correspondingly adapt. Traditional stables and turnout areas may not suffice anymore, given the shift towards a more leisure-based horse-keeping approach. 

As horse owners, we must ensure that our facilities and management practices suit the horses' needs or our understanding of their needs as the research evolves. It is worth reflecting on whether our current housing arrangements adequately address modern-day horses' physical, mental, and emotional requirements. The transformation in their role implies a greater emphasis on their overall health and happiness. Thus, we need to reassess and update our practices accordingly. 

Maintaining a suitable environment is crucial for the well-being of our equine companions. Horses thrive when they have access to ample space for movement and social interaction. Additionally, their housing should protect from inclement weather conditions while promoting good air quality. A well-designed stable and turnout area can contribute to the horses' physical fitness and mental stimulation. 

Maintaining a suitable environment is crucial for the well-being of our equine companions

As horse owners, we are responsible for ensuring that our equine partners receive the best possible care. This includes providing them with a living environment that supports their natural behaviours and meets their specific needs. By keeping pace with the changing role of horses and acknowledging their status as cherished companions, we can ensure their overall well-being and enhance our own enjoyment of their company.

Horses used for commercial and competition purposes are often considered athletes, so their diet and exercise regimen are carefully managed to ensure optimal performance. On the other hand, leisure horses tend to receive less exercise and are often inactive in stables or left to graze in lush or muddy fields. This sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity in horses, much like the obesity crisis seen in inactive humans who don't have to work physically as their ancestors did. Recent estimates indicate that a significant percentage, ranging from 27% to 72%, of horses and ponies in the UK are classified as obese. Various equine organisations widely recognise this alarming issue as a pressing welfare issue.


Assess Weight and Body Condition Score

The first step in managing equine obesity is to assess the horse's weight and body condition score. This allows horse owners and veterinary professionals to determine if the horse is overweight or obese and in need of weight management.

To assess weight, a scale or weight tape can be used to measure the horse's actual body weight. This provides an accurate measurement and serves as a baseline for tracking weight loss progress.

In addition to weight measurement, assessing the body condition score (BCS) is crucial in evaluating the horse's overall body fat and muscle condition. The BCS scale typically ranges from 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely thin and 9 being extremely obese. By visually evaluating the horse's fat deposition and palpating the key areas, such as the neck, withers, and ribs, an appropriate body condition score can be assigned.

Both weight measurement and body condition scoring help identify the level of excess weight or obesity the horse may have. This assessment is essential for devising an effective weight loss or management plan tailored to the individual horse's needs.

Always consult with a veterinary professional to accurately assess weight and body condition score, as they can provide expert guidance in interpreting the findings and determining the most appropriate course of action.

Step one is to measure your horse frequently to ensure you understand their weight. 

You can use a weight tape specifically designed for horses to measure a horse's weight. Follow these steps: 

1. Position the horse: Ensure that the horse is standing on level ground with all four feet squarely positioned. 

2. Placement of the tape: Place the weight tape around the horse's girth, just behind the horse's withers and in front of the horse's elbow. 

3. Proper positioning: Make sure that the weight tape is snug but not too tight, allowing for the horse's breathing and movement. 

4. Record the measurement: Read the measurement on the weight tape in pounds or kilograms, depending on the tape's unit of measurement. 

The body condition scoring method is another valuable tool to assess a horse's body condition. This method evaluates the amount of body fat and muscle cover on the horse's body. Here's how to use the body score method (also see the below World Horse Welfare demo): 

1. Assess key areas: Examine the horse's neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, back, loin, tailhead, and hips. Pay attention to the visibility and feel of fat deposits in these areas. 

2. Scoring system: Use the standardized body condition scoring scale, typically ranging from 1 to 9. Score 1 represents an extremely emaciated horse, while score 9 represents an overly obese horse. 

3. Evaluating fat deposits: Observe the amount of fat present and the ease of feeling the horse's ribs and other bony structures. A moderate amount of fat and the ability to feel the ribs with slight pressure usually indicate a healthy body weight. 

4. Comparing with the ideal: Compare the horse's condition to an illustrated reference chart or guidelines provided by equine experts to determine the appropriate body score. 

By measuring your horse's weight and using the body condition scoring method, you can gain valuable insights into their overall health and manage their weight effectively.



Seeing them every day can mean that you don't notice weight increases. Juggling life and work can mean increasing ridden work is difficult, or your horse may be unfit for ridden work for various reasons, so increasing activity is not always possible. You can work with your vet or nutritionist to manage their feed intake accordingly. But for this article, we want to explore some alternatives for grazing.


Alternative Grazing Methods

Alternative grazing methods are gaining popularity among horse owners as effective strategies to improve equine welfare and manage weight. A recent study conducted by the University of Liverpool in the UK, titled "The Use of Alternative Grazing Systems," sheds light on this topic. The study collected 758 responses from horse owners throughout the country, showcasing the widespread adoption of alternative grazing methods.

According to the study, the most widely used alternative grazing method is the track system, which was favoured by 56% of the respondents. This method involves creating dedicated paths or tracks within the grazing area, allowing horses to move freely while controlling their access to different areas. The track system promotes increased exercise for the horses and helps them manage their weight by limiting their access to excessive forage.

The Equicentral system was the second most popular choice, selected by 19% of the respondents. This approach focuses on creating a well-designed central area with access to water, shelter, and supplementary feeding. Horses are then rotated onto different grazing areas to prevent overgrazing and encourage natural movement, leading to improved weight management and overall equine welfare.

Other alternative grazing methods mentioned in the study include Moorland, Woodland, and Rewilding systems, although they have a smaller percentage of users. These methods can mimic natural grazing environments, providing horses with a diverse range of forage and encouraging more movement and exercise.

The findings of this study highlight the growing recognition among horse owners of the importance of alternative grazing methods in improving equine welfare and managing weight. By implementing these alternative strategies, horse owners can provide their animals with a more natural and stimulating grazing environment, while also facilitating weight control.


Track Systems

Track systems are popular for horse owners looking to promote movement, enrichment, and weight management for their equines. Typically positioned around the perimeter of a field or multiple fields, these systems consist of low or no grass areas that encourage horses to navigate between feed and water stations, as well as shelters and enrichments strategically placed along the track. The concept of a track system is largely influenced by Jaime Jackson's book, 'Paddock Paradise,' which advocates for grass-free, surfaced tracks that contribute to the overall well-being and hoof health of horses.

According to a survey, 56% of respondents who implemented a track system identified several key benefits. These included increased movement opportunities, enhanced enrichment for the horses, efficient utilization of available space, and effective weight management. It is worth noting that track systems are commonly utilized for horses with conditions such as Laminitis and Arthritis. However, the benefits of track systems are not limited to these cases, and all equines can experience positive outcomes from such setups.

By offering an environment that encourages constant movement and provides various resources along the track, owners can actively contribute to their horse's overall health and well-being. Track systems are a valuable tool that promotes exercise, mental stimulation, and weight control, resulting in healthier and happier horses. It is important to recognize the potential benefits of implementing track systems not only for horses with specific conditions but also for the general equine population.


Equicentral Systems (part of Equiculture)

Equicentral, a concept developed by Stuart and Jayne Myers, focuses on land management strategies that prioritize horse welfare, while also benefiting horse owners in terms of saving time and money, and promoting biodiversity and soil health. This innovative system involves dividing the land into separate paddocks that are frequently rested to ensure the health of both the grass and the soil. Additionally, a designated "loafing" area is often surfaced to keep horses off the grass for a portion of the day.

Respondents who have implemented the Equicentral system (19% of them) have reported several notable benefits. Firstly, this approach promotes the care of the land and the preservation of the environment, increasing the presence of wild plants and wildlife. By preventing overgrazing, Equicentral supports the flourishing of diverse ecosystems. Furthermore, the system supports herd living, allowing horses to socialize and interact with their companions, which is in line with their natural behaviour. Another advantage highlighted by respondents is the reduced presence of mud, which is a common issue in many horse keeping practices.

However, it is worth mentioning that some respondents have expressed concerns about weight management when using the Equicentral method. They worry that horses may be prone to "binging" on grass when turned out on the grass paddock, potentially leading to weight gain and related health issues. While these concerns are valid, it is important to note that proper monitoring and management protocols can mitigate this risk and ensure that horses maintain a healthy body condition.

Overall, the Equicentral system offers numerous benefits for horse owners, prioritising horse welfare, environmental sustainability, and cost-effective land management practices. By implementing this approach, horse owners can create a harmonious balance between the well-being of their horses and the preservation of the natural environment.


Rewilding/Wilding Systems

While rewilding may not be practical for all horse owners, it is a growing movement that offers a unique approach to keeping horses in a holistic and natural environment. One successful example of rewilding can be seen at the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Here, horses are allowed to roam freely over large areas with diverse terrain, grasses, and plants, emulating a wild habitat.

This approach is particularly beneficial for native horse breeds that are prone to weight gain, such as Shetland, Exmoor, and New Forest ponies. Owners of these breeds have reported positive outcomes, with their ponies thriving on the varied forage available in the rewilding system. Additionally, the horses naturally lose weight during winter, aligning with their natural behaviour.

When implementing rewilding, the core principles are centred around the three F's: Forage, Friends, and Freedom. The emphasis on providing ample forage, allowing horses to socialize with other equine companions, and granting them the freedom to explore their surroundings contributes to their overall well-being.

The benefits of rewilding are undeniable, and it's understandable why any horse owner would aspire to provide their equine partner with an environment that encompasses these advantages.


Horses Forage Friends freedom
Forage, Friends, Freedom

The Reality

In the UK, around 60% of horses are kept at livery, which means that owners often have limited control over how their horses are turned out or stabled. However, there is some good news. Liveries throughout the country offer different management systems, such as track systems, Equicentral setups, and hybrid approaches. As horse caretakers become more familiar with these methods, they can proactively engage with livery owners to discuss making changes for the better. 

It's important not to wait until obesity-related issues arise. The need for change is growing to address welfare concerns, including obesity, and effectively manage land to combat the challenges posed by climate change, summer droughts, and winter mud.


What is Equine Metabolic Syndrome?

Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a condition that affects horses and is characterized by a combination of obesity, insulin resistance, and a predisposition to laminitis, a painful condition affecting the hooves. Horses with EMS typically have an increased accumulation of adipose tissue, especially in the crest of the neck, and may exhibit abnormal fat distribution throughout their bodies. 

Insulin resistance is a key feature of EMS, where the horse's body becomes less responsive to the effects of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. This leads to elevated levels of insulin in the bloodstream, which can have various negative effects on the horse's health. 

EMS is often linked to excess weight and poor body condition, as well as to overconsumption of carbohydrates in the diet. Pasture grazing, especially on rich grass, can contribute to the development of EMS in some horses. 

Other risk factors include breed predisposition, genetic factors, and hormonal imbalances. Horses with EMS are at an increased risk of developing laminitis, a painful and potentially debilitating condition that affects the hooves. 

Laminitis involves inflammation and weakening of the laminae, which are responsible for the attachment between the hoof wall and the coffin bone. This can result in severe lameness and even permanent damage to the feet. 

The management of equine metabolic syndrome involves a combination of dietary modifications, exercise, and veterinary care. It is important to provide a balanced diet with controlled levels of carbohydrates and to monitor the horse's body condition closely. Regular exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity and promote weight loss in affected horses. 

Veterinary professionals play a crucial role in diagnosing and managing EMS, as well as providing guidance on weight management, hoof care, and overall horse health. In conclusion, equine metabolic syndrome is a complex condition characterized by obesity, insulin resistance, and a predisposition to laminitis. It requires careful management and veterinary involvement to ensure the well-being of affected horses.




Equicentral More information and eLearning courses at

Track systems Paddock Paradise (Jaime Jackson, 2007)

Rewilding Read more about some example projects at

Weight management and monitoring,Weight,Management.pdf