To start - this does not talk about horses who are in heavy work and at the peak of their athletic ability. They will look completely different. This is for your every day run of the mill backyard pasture buddy and trust trail steed! This blog is also a continuation of our "supplementing diet" blog we posted - if you are looking for specifics on supplements to help out dietary needs, please check that one out.
Now, on to the topic.
If you have a horse that seems to be losing (or gaining) weight, or is struggling to put or keep weight on - then it likely means that you need to check out some things with their health and their diet. Horses can lose weight very quickly, and it can be very slow to put weight back on if you allow the weightless to affect their muscle tone.
There are two common ways to assess body condition of your horse. One of those ways is using the Body Condition Score (BCS) which evaluates the fat deposits under your horses skin in 6 different areas.
Neck, Withers, Behind the Shoulder, Along the Back, Rib area, Tail Head
The BCS scale uses the Henneke scale where 1=poor and 9=extremely fat. The ideal BCS for the majority of horse breeds will be about a 5-6, but heavier breed horses will be on the higher end of a 6, and lighter breeds may be at a 4. If your horse is scoring at a 3 or lower, then they are underweight and you should consult with a veterinarian and a certified equine nutritionist to work on a re-feeding plan and rule out any underlying health issues.
Extremely emaciated. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, hip joints, and lower pelvic bones project prominently; bone in withers, shoulders and neck are easily noticed. No fatty tissue can be felt.
Fat buildup about halfway on spinous processes. Transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat covers ribs. Spinous processes and ribs easily discernable; tailhead prominent but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually. Hip joints appear rounded but easily discernable; lower pelvic bones not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.
6. Moderately Fleshy
May have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs spongy; fat around tailhead soft. Small fat deposits behind shoulders and along sides of neck and withers.
9. Extremely Fat
Obvious crease down back. Patchy fat appears over ribs. Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck. Fat along inner thighs may rub together. Flank filled with fat.
In a very thin horse, you might be able to see the neck’s bony structures. As the horse gains condition, fat will be deposited on the top of the neck. At a condition score of 5, the neck blends smoothly into the body. Body condition scores of 8 and 9 are characterized by a neck that is thick all around with fat evident at the crest.
If a horse is very thin, no fat will be deposited between the top of the shoulder blade and the spinal vertebrae, making the two structures easily discernible. As the horse’s condition score increases, fat fills in between the top of the shoulder blade and spinal vertebrae; so, at a condition score of 5, the withers will appear rounded. As horses approach the high end of the condition scoring scale, the withers will be bulging with fat.
A BCS of 5 means the shoulder blends smoothly with the body. At increasing condition scores, fat is deposited behind the shoulder and becomes bulging. This observation is especially true in the region behind the elbow. The shoulder’s bony structures will become more visible as the scores drop below 5.
The loin is the area of the back just behind where the saddle sits. At a condition score of 5, the loin area will be relatively level—the spine is not sticking up, nor is there a dent or crease along the spine. At condition scores below 5, the spine starts to become prominent; this is sometimes called a “negative crease.” A very thin horse will have an obvious ridge down the back where the vertebrae of the spine become obvious. As the condition score increases above a 5, fat begins to build up on either side of the spine and a visible crease starts to appear.
A very thin horse will have prominent ribs—easily seen and felt—with no fat padding. As the horse gains weight and body condition, a little padding can be felt around the ribs. By score 5, the ribs will no longer be visible, but can be easily felt. Once the body condition score is above 7, the ribs become more difficult to feel.
CHECKING: Tail Head
In a very thin horse, the tailhead is prominent and easily discernible. Once the horse starts gaining weight, fat fills in around the tailhead. As the condition score exceeds 7, the fat will feel soft and begin to bulge.
The other way to track body condition is by body weight. We recommend monthly weight tracking of your horse, especially if you are getting a new horse - and even more so if you are getting a horse coming from a less than ideal condition, or at one time has experienced malnutrition in their past. You can create a chart and track to see how your horse is gaining or losing weight depending on weather, exercise and feed program changes. Weight will fluctuate just like humans, however you want to watch for drastic changes or if your horse is continuing to lose weight.
Horses will gain or lose weight for a large variety of reasons. Never be ashamed if you are struggling with a horse, but ensure that you are taking the steps and asking the right questions to make the changes.
As the base level, you need to ensure your horse has these things:
24/7 access to hay or quality pasture at all times. A full sized horse should be eating approximately 40-50 lbs of hay per day and be able to forage slowly rather than eating all at once. We highly recommend slow feed nets or feeders to encourage slow grazing.
24/7 access to clean water: streams, ponds, etc. are NOT safe for horses to drink from as they can contain parasites. Troughs should be cleaned a minimum of 1x a week during the summer months to avoid algae and parasite build up.
24/7 access to shelter: if your horse is expending energy stomping at flies or shivering from the cold, they will expel excess calories otherwise needed to keep themselves healthy.
If your horse has these three things and is continuing to lose weight or is still showing clear signs of struggles with the Henneke scale, ensure you consult your veterinarian to determine a game plan!
We personally recommend (and operate our program) a two-week rule. Change 1 item at a time (new feed, added supplement, added feed amount, etc.) and give it 2 weeks. If you do not see change, then change what you're doing. Don't get stuck in the same program and "hope" it works. Not every horse will fit the same feed program. Don't be afraid to change, look outside the box at supplements and feed brands. Ask us for our recommendations!