Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
Special Care & Nutrition
Horse ownership is a rewarding business. Many horses will eat more than they need if given the chance, which can lead to an unhealthy balance. Overfeeding your horse is a bad idea, no matter how much you love it. Overfeeding can put stress on almost every system. It is better to provide food and exercise for your horse in the right amounts.
It isn’t always easy to maintain the ideal weight. Horses are known as “easy keepers”. Horses require very little calories to keep their bodies in peak condition. Particularly horses, pony especially, store extra energy as fat. Due to a slower metabolism and reduced activity, many adult horses also retain excess weight. If the horse’s weight gains are extreme, they are considered obese.
HAZARDS TO OBESITY
Over-nutrition and excess weight can have many negative consequences, including:
- Stress on the heart, lungs and brain.
- Higher risk of founder or laminitis
- Young horses are at greater risk for developing orthopedic (bone- and joint) problems.
- Increased strain on feet, joints and limbs
- Worsening symptoms of arthritis
- Cooling body temperatures less efficiently
- Fat accumulation around key organs can cause impairments in normal function
- Reproductive efficiency is reduced
- More fatigue and lethargy
EVALUATING BODY CONDITION
Beauty is often found in the eyes of the beholder when it comes to horse’s ideal body condition. A show-fit halter horse may be leaner than a competition endurance horse.
Equine health professionals use a “Body Condition Scoring” system to communicate in relative terms, since “fitness” can be subjective. The horse’s physical condition can be assessed by visual assessment and palpation (feel), at six key conformation points. (See illustration) A- the amount or fat covering along the neck. C- the crease of the back. D- at the tailhead. E- ribs. F- behind the shoulder at girth. The scores range from 1-9, ranging from very fat to extremely poor.
Score of 1 Poor: Extremely emaciated animal with spinous processes and ribs, tailhead and tuber coxae, (hip joints), and ischia, (lower pelvic bone bones) pointing prominently. The bone structure of the neck, shoulder and withers can easily be seen; there is no fatty tissue.
Score of 2 Very Thin – Animal emaciated with a slight fat covering over the base of spinous process; transverse processes lumbar vertebrae seem rounded; spinous processing, ribs and tailhead, tuber xae (hip joint) and ischia, (lower pelvic bone), prominent withers and neck structure barely discernible
Score of 3 Thin : There is a slight fat buildup around the spinous processes; transverse process cannot be felt; ribs are visible but not identifiable visually. Tuber coxae (hip joints), appear round but can be easily identified; tuber Ichia (lower pelvic bone) cannot be distinguished; neck, shoulders and withers are highlighted.
Score of 4: Moderately Thin. There is a slight ridge at the back and a faint outline of the ribs. The prominence of the tailhead depends on how much conformation fat can feel around it. Tuber coxae (hip joints), not visible.
Score of 5 Moderate. Back is flat, ribs are not easily distinguished but can be felt; fat around the tailhead begins to feel spongy. Withers look rounded over spinous processes. Shoulders and neck blend seamlessly into the body.
Score of 6: Moderately Fleshy – May have slight creases down the back, fat over the ribs spongy and fat around the tailhead soft; fat starting to accumulate along side of withers behind shoulders, along sides, and along the neck.
Score 7- Fleshy : Can have a crease down the back; you can feel individual ribs, but there is noticeable fat filling between them. Fat around the tailhead is soft. Fat deposited behind shoulders and along the neck.
Score of 8 – Fat : Crease down the back; hard to feel the ribs; fat around the tailhead very soft; fat along withers and area behind shoulder full of fat; visible thickening of neck; extra fat along inner thighs.
Score 9- Extremely Fat : Obvious crease in the back; bulging fat around tailhead and along withers behind shoulders and down neck; fat may rub together along inner thighs; flanks filled with fat
WHAT’S THE IDEAL
Horses with body condition scores between 5 and 6 are best. The most common advice is to place your horse so that you can feel the divisions between their ribs, but not be able see them. Keep in mind, however, that your specific job will determine the appropriate weight for maximum performance. For success in the show ring, polo, endurance and race horses may need a body condition score between 4 and 7. You are pushing the boundaries of good health by feeding horses to 8 levels. Horses scoring 8 or 9 are good candidates for weight loss.
Your horse’s weight is your responsibility. To control your horse’s weight, you will need to ensure sound nutrition management. You should also be committed to regular exercise and restraint when measuring the ration.
It is important that you don’t stress your horse by implementing a weight-loss program. Both exercise and nutrition changes should be gradual.
You can increase the horse’s metabolism by increasing their exercise and consuming more calories. You can make the horse use its fat reserves for fuel by switching to a lower-calorie diet. The ration should contain fewer calories but still provide all of the necessary nutrients. Create a program to allow your horse’s weight to drop without side effects.
These guidelines will help you get started.
- Be patient. Be patient. Weight loss should be gradual and steady so that the horse is not stressed or irritated.
- Slowly make changes to the feed type and quantity. In a seven to ten day time frame, reduce rations no more than 10%
- A weight tape can be used to track your horse’s progress. These tapes are extremely accurate and can be used to measure weight loss. Reduce the horse’s ration gradually until it reaches a plateau.
- Increase the horse’s exercise routine. As the horse becomes more fit, increase the time and intensity. Horses can be natural pasture potatoes. You can ride, longe, drive, or work your horse on a treadmill, rather than relying on free exercise.
- Make sure the horse has plenty of fresh, clean water. This will ensure that his digestive and other systems work as efficiently as possible. It will also eliminate metabolic wastes.
- Choose feeds with high-quality fiber and low total energy. To determine the appropriate rations, weigh feeds rather than measure their volume.
- Choose lower fat feeds, as fat is an energy-dense source of nutrients.
- Reduce or switch the amount of alfalfahay that is fed. To reduce calories, replace with mature grass or oathay. This will satisfy the horse’s desire to chew, reduce boredom, and provide food for its stomach.
- Keep horses separate from each other so that the overweight horse does not have to share his food with his neighbours. Limiting pasture intake might also be necessary in extreme cases of obesity.
- Based on the horse’s age and level of activity, balance their diet. You must ensure that the horse has all of his vitamin, mineral, and protein needs met. To compensate for low-quality feeds that are less nutritious, a supplement can be added to the horse’s ration.
HELP WITH HAY BELLIES
True obesity may be associated with a “hay belly”. Hay bellies can be seen in many horses, particularly young horses. Hay bellies can cause abdominal distension due to excessive grass and hay consumption. To handle the load, the belly expands.
You must reduce the volume of feed being passed through the system to eliminate hay belly. You can reduce the total volume of feed without affecting the nutrients and fiber required for good digestion. Remember that parasitized horses can look the same as horses with a “hay belly” outwardly. Your veterinarian may be able to perform a fecal egg count and discuss the best deworming protocols for your horse.
MAINTAINING A PERFECT WEIGHT
Maintaining the correct weight for your horse is easy once he has achieved his ideal body condition. To stabilize your horse’s weight, you will likely need to adjust its ration. Horse owners should continue to exercise as a vital component of keeping their horse healthy. Keep in touch with your veterinarian as obesity can have a negative impact on a horse’s overall health. Regular check-ups are important, especially during weight loss.
For more information, contact your veterinarian.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!