Ain't Misbehavin': Researchers Find Link Between Pony Behavior Problems and Obesity

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Being overweight is not just a problem in human health; a new study suggests that fat horses and ponies are more likely to misbehave than their more svelte counterparts. The research has raised particular interest as it draws parallels with the obesity crisis in humans.

Is an overweight pony more likely to misbehave© Australian researchers asked Pony Clubbers to keep track of pony misbehavior mishaps and compared the results with pony body scores.

Is an overweight pony more likely to misbehave© Australian researchers asked Pony Clubbers to keep track of pony misbehavior mishaps and compared the results with pony body scores.

Studies in the US have suggested links between being overweight with behavior problems and lower academic performance in young children. Could ponies be illustrating a similar "acting out" because of a physiological condition?

The equine study,?Misbehavior in Pony Club Horses: Incidence and risk factors1, was published last month by The?Equine Veterinary Journal (EVJ) and is the first of its kind to quantify the incidence of misbehavior in a population of horses.

The research, conducted by Petra Buckley, Senior Lecturer in Equine Science at Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, involved 84 Pony Club horses from seven different Clubs in rural Australia. Over the period of a year, owners kept daily records of horse management including nutrition, healthcare and exercise; they also recorded any misbehavior.

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The horses were checked by a veterinarian every month to investigate any relationship with pain, such as lameness and back pain with the misbehavior.

The study's data indicates that 59 percent of the horses studied misbehaved at least once during the study year, either during handling or when ridden. The occurrence of misbehavior during riding was low, at three percent of horses in each month. However, in more than half of these cases the misbehavior was dangerous, and posed a serious injury risk to horse and rider. It is possible that the low occurrence reflects the elimination of misbehaving horses out of Pony Club by concerned families.

Risk of misbehavior was higher in horses that were fat or obese and in those that were ridden infrequently. Horses exercised more than three times each week had lower odds of misbehavior.

The odds of misbehavior during riding were more than twice as high when horses were fed daily supplements, such as roughage, concentrates and/or grain. Access to "good grass" was also associated with increased risk of misbehavior, independent of any supplementary feed provided; horses and ponies that were excessively fat were roughly three times more likely to misbehave.

Horses and ponies that were excessively fat were
roughly three times more likely to misbehave.

This all suggests a link between nutrition, exercise, body condition scores and misbehavior. In this case, "higher body condition scores" reflect a dietary intake that exceeded a pony's requirements, a problem that can be exacerbated by infrequent exercise. It was also interesting to note that misbehavior was more likely when horses were competing--a time when riders may have higher expectations of their horses and subject them to greater physical and mental challenges than during leisure riding. This may result in horse-rider conflict and subsequent misbehavior.

The study includes recommendations to help prevent misbehavior, such as exercising at least three times a week and maintaining an optimal physique by more closely matching pasture and supplementary feeding to horses' exercise levels and resulting energy requirements. "Our day-to-day management lays the foundations for healthy horses and highlights the important role and responsibility of every horse owner," concludes Petra Buckley.

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Does this research explain Ed, the notoriously naughty pony? I wonder where these two are now, and if they ever worked it out. If you read the article carefully, you will see the ponies in the study were all evaluated by a vet to make sure they had no lameness or back pain. It's pretty hard to say why some ponies are so naughty. Ross really is a determined little boy to keep getting back on his pony.

The US studies, conducted for the National Institute for Healthcare Management Foundation (NIHCM), were based on data from an educational study of children as they enter school. The study shows that obese girls are significantly more likely to exhibit behavior problems and that overweight children have significantly lower math and reading test scores compared to non-overweight children. In line with the equine research, the studies also suggest that an increase in exercise could reduce the numbers of overweight girls and thus the related behavior problems.

Professor Celia Marr, BVMS, MVM, PhD, DEIM, DipECEIM, MRCVS, and editor of the EVJ said: "It seems that the behavior of Thelwell's iconic fat pony, and even Greyfriars' Billy Bunter, may have some scientific basis!? There are numerous studies demonstrating the damage that excess weight can have on equine health and thanks to this research, we can now highlight the importance of considering body condition, nutrition and exercise in misbehaving horses.

"Meanwhile, vets and horse owners can use the recommendations to help minimize the chances of misbehavior; and perhaps parents might think about the repercussions of giving in to their children's demands for that extra doughnut: making sure the horse is healthy and well-behaved by keeping its food intake down and its exercise level up might even be an important life lesson for all the family."

1Misbehaviour in Pony Club horses: Incidences and risk factors P Buckley, DJ Buckley, School of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, JM Morton, GT Coleman, School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia?Equine Veterinary Journal, doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.2011.00541.x

Photo credits: Pony face by IAOHJ; Thelwell pony books by Queenie and the Dew.

Basic information for this article was supplied in a press release provided by the British Equine Veterinary Association, which was edited for The Jurga Report.Please note that the word "misbehaviour" represents the British spelling of the word and was changed for US audiences..

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