Care and Nutrition
Feeding is one of the
most rewarding chores of horse ownership. But many horses, given the opportunity,
will eat far more than they need, tipping the scale into an unhealthy balance.
No matter how much your horse enjoys eating, you do it a disservice by overfeeding.
Excess pounds put a strain on virtually every body system. A far kinder strategy
is to supply food and exercise in proper amounts to keep your horse fit and healthy.
Maintaining the ideal weight is not always easy however. Some horses are what
we call easy keepers. They require minimal calories to maintain optimal
body condition. Ponies, in particular, seem to store excess energy as fat. Many
adult horses too especially those in their middle years begin to
retain unneeded weight due to reduced activity and a slow-down in metabolism.
When weight gain becomes extreme, we classify the horse as obese.
Excess weight and over-nutrition
have a number of potentially negative effects, including:
- Increased stress on
the heart and lungs
- Greater risk of laminitis
- Increased risk of
developmental orthopedic (bone and joint) problems in young, growing horses
- More strain on feet,
joints and limbs
- Worsened symptoms
- Less efficient cooling
of body temperatures
- Fat build-up around
key organs which interferes with normal function
- Reduced reproductive
- Greater lethargy and
more easily fatigued
When it comes to a horses ideal body condition, beauty is often in the
eye of the beholder. For example, a competitive endurance horse is usually leaner
than a show-fit halter horse.
Because fitness is
subjective, equine health care professionals utilize a Body Condition Scoring system
to talk in relative terms. The horses physical condition is rated on visual
appraisal and palpation (feel) of six key conformation points: (See illustration)
Athe amount of flesh or fat covering along the neck, BThe withers,
Cdown the crease of the back, Dat the tailhead, Eribs, Fand
behind the shoulder at the girth. Scores range from 1-9, from poor to extremely
Score of 1Poor: Animal extremely emaciated;
spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae (hip joints), and ischia (lower
pelvic bones) projecting prominently; bone structure of withers, shoulders, and
neck easily noticeable; no fatty tissue can be felt.
Score of 2Very Thin: Animal emaciated; slight fat covering over
base of spinous processes; transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded;
spinous processes, ribs, tailhead. tuber coxae (hip joints) and ischia (lower
pelvic bones) prominent; withers, shoulders, and neck structure family discernible
Score of 3Thin: Fat buildup about halfway
on spinous processes; transverse processes cannot be felt; slight fat cover over
ribs; spinous processes and ribs easily discernable; tailhead prominent, bat
individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually; tuber coxae (hip pints) appear
rounded but easily discernable; tuber ischia (lower pelvic bones) not distinguishable;
withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.
Score of 4Moderately Thin: Slight ridge along
back; faint outline of ribs discernible; tailhead prominence depends on conformation,
fat can be felt around it; tuber coxae (hip joints) not discernible; withers,
shoulders, and neck not obviously thin.
Score of 5Moderate: Back is flat; ribs not visually distinguishable
bat easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear
rounded over spinous processes; shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.
Score of 6Moderately Fleshy May have slight
crease down back; fat over ribs spongy; fat around tailhead soft; fat beginning
to be deposited along side of withers, behind shoulders, and along sides of neck.
Score of 7Fleshy May have crease down back;
individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat; fat
around tailhead soft; fat deposited along withers behind shoulders, and along
Score of 8Fat Crease down back; difficult to feel ribs; fat around
tailhead very soft; area along withers filled with fat; area behind shoulder
filled with fat; noticeable thickening of neck; fat deposited along inner thighs.
Score of 9Extremely Fat Obvious crease down back; patchy fat appearing
over ribs; bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and
along neck; fat along inner thighs may rob together; flank filled with fat.
For most horses, body condition scores in the Moderate to Moderately Fleshy range,
(scores of 5 and 6) are ideal. However, keep in mind that the job of
your particular athlete also has a bearing on what weight is appropriate for
maximum performance. Polo, race and endurance horses might be perfectly fit
with body condition scores of 4 (moderately thin), while a body condition score
of 7 (fleshy) may be required for success in the show ring. However, by feeding
a horse to a level of 8. you are staffing to push the limits of good health.
Horses with scores of 8 and 9 are definite candidates for a weight reduction
You hold the keys to controlling your horses weight. Youll need to
enforce sound nutrition management, become dedicated to a regular exercise program,
and use restraint when measuring the ration.
When implementing a weight loss program, its important to do it in such
a way so as not to stress the horse. Changes in both exercise and nutrition should
By increasing the amount of exercise, you can rev-up the horses metabolic
engine and burn more calories. By shifting to a lower-calorie diet, you can create
an energy deficit so that the horse begins to utilize its fat reserves
as fuel. However, even though the ration provides fewer calories, it should
be balanced so that it continues to provide all the essential nutrients. Develop
a program that will allow your horse to reduce its weight without any negative
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
- Be patient. Weight
reduction should be a slow, steady process so as not to stress the horse or create
- Make changes in both
the type and amount of feed gradually Reduce rations by no more than 10% over
a 7 to 10 day period.
- Track your horses
progress by using a weight tape. The tapes are remarkably accurate and provide
a good way to gauge weight loss. When the horse s weight plateaus, gradually
cut back its ration again.
- Step up the horses
exercise regimen. Gradually build time and intensity as the horses fitness
improves. Some horses are natural pasture potatoes. Ride, long, drive or work
the horse on a treadmill rather than rely on free choice exercise.
- Provide plenty of
clean, fresh water so the horses digestive and other systems function as
efficiently as possible and rid the body of metabolic and other wastes.
- Select feeds that
provide plenty of high quality fiber but are low in total energy. Measure feeds
by weight rather than by volume to determine appropriate rations.
- Select feeds that
are lower in fat since fat is an energy-dense nutrient source.
- Switch or reduce the
amount of alfalfa hay fed. Replace with a mature grass or oat hay to reduce caloric
intake. This will also satisfy the horses need to chew, reduce boredom,
and provide fill for its stomach.
- Feed separate from
other horses so the overweight horse doesnt have a chance to eat his portion
and his neighbors too. In extreme cases of obesity, caloric intake may
also need to be controlled by limiting pasture intake.
- Balance the horses
diet based on age and activity level. Make sure the horses vitamin, mineral
and protein requirements continue to be met. A supplement may be added to the
ration to compensate for lower quality, less nutrient dense feeds.
FOR HAY BELLIES
A hay belly may or may not be associated with true obesity. Many
horses, especially the very young and old, may exhibit hay bellies without an
associated build-up of body fat. Hay bellies are a distention of the abdominal
area due to the volume of grass or hay the animal consumes. The belly expands
to handle the load.
To eliminate a hay belly, you need to reduce the total volume of feed that passes
through the system. A well-balanced complete feed may be a good way to reduce
total volume without adversely affecting the amount of fiber and nutrients required
for proper digestion and nutrition.
Once your horse has reached his ideal body condition, maintaining the proper
weight is a gentle balancing act. You will probably need to readjust your horses
ration to stabilize its weight. Exercise will continue to be a key component
in keeping the horse fit. Because obesity can effect a horses health, keep
a good line of communication open with your veterinarian. Schedule regular check-ups,
especially during the weight reduction process.
This brochure was developed by the American
Association of Equine Practitioners through a grant
from the following Educational Partners.
Bayer Corporation, Agriculture
Shawnee Mission, Kansas 66201
© 1996 Bayer Corporation
Purina Mills, Inc.,
Horse Business Group
1401 S. Hanley,
St. Louis MO 63144
© 1996 Purina Mills, Inc.