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The fatter the horse, the upper its rating: concern over judging at prime US present

  • SHOWING judges in the US favour ponies who are overweight, a study has revealed, and “the fatter the pony, the higher the score”.

    Researchers assessed animals at the US Equestrian Federation (USEF) Pony Finals national championship event, a major and prestigious show for which entrants have to qualify, last August. They found that there was a judging bias in favour of ponies carrying more weight.

    Lead researcher Shannon Pratt-Phillips, who had been behind a previous study that found US judges were more likely to be lenient towards overweight than to leaner horses – and not always able to identify when an animal is carrying excess fat – told H&H the results are concerning.

    “It’s the elite ponies who win here; it’s the most important competition for ponies,” she said. “And we found that, ultimately, the fatter ponies were the ones getting the higher scores.”

    Dr Pratt-Phillips explained that the ponies are judged under saddle, over fences and on conformation. As the ridden phases’ marks were influenced by the rider, the researchers concentrated on the conformation phase.

    Two researchers experienced in body condition scoring assessed each pony, on the one to nine scale in which five is ideal, then the average of their scores was compared to the judges’ marks.

    “All the ponies were essentially overweight,” Dr Pratt-Phillips said. “Not a single one was in what I’d consider ideal body condition. The highest was 8.5 and for every level fatter [than ideal] it’s more and more dangerous; the eights are at significant risk.”

    She added that there was a “significant positive relationship” between the ponies’ excess weight and higher marks, adding: “The fatter the pony, the higher the score.”

    She said the very obese ponies did not score very highly, but “if you took a pony that was a six and fed it up to a seven, it would probably do better, and that’s a very unfortunate finding. I don’t want people to think, ‘Here’s more evidence for why I should feed up my pony,’ I want judges to say, ‘You’re doing a disservice to your ponies, and our industry.’”

    Another interesting finding, Dr Pratt-Phillips said, is that there were very few ponies in ideal condition, leading her to ask whether these animals are passed over for qualification in favour of those with more weight.

    “That’s the worry,” she said. “It’s one thing to have an overweight animal and realise, and struggle to do the right thing, but it was obvious from chatting to owners that many of them are doing it on purpose. There’s also the Devon Horse Show, for young horses, and I know some breeders who won’t take their horses there as they don’t want to have to fatten them up.”

    Dr Pratt-Phillips would like to see USEF and other governing bodies and breed societies recognise there is an issue.

    “The H&H articles [on equine obesity] have been great but there hasn’t been much done on this in the US, but this is a problem and we need to do something about it,” she said.

    “I’d love to set up educational webinars for judges and work with them to help them realise how bad obesity is from a health perspective, and how to recognise it. Judges do such a good job but if they keep seeing overweight horses winning, it becomes the norm.”

    A spokesman for USEF told H&H horse welfare is a “top priority” for USEF, especially at licensed competitions across the country.

    “It is important that we continue to provide educational resources to our members which underline the negative impact of equine obesity and the coinciding health effects it can have on horses and ponies,” he said. “We will continue to review available research and strongly encourage all owners to consult with their veterinarians annually on all aspects of their horses and ponies’ wellbeing including their weight.”

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