There are a few different ways to score a horse’s body condition and weight. For most of us however, there really are three criteria—too fat, to thin and just right. Anything other than ‘just right’ is a cause for concern and a change in the animal’s diet, housing and workload is in order. Weight doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to a horse’s health, but is one indication of overall condition.
As I write this, my own mare is definitely ‘too fat’. This means she needs to eat less and work a bit harder. Since she doesn’t get any concentrates or grains, but is most often out 24/7 with a round bale of good quality hay, she needs to have access to the bale restricted. This we’ve done by keeping her stabled for portions of the day. Increasing her workload will help too, although during the winter time this is more difficult.
When we first met Trillium, she was definitely ‘too skinny’ or emaciated. She got too skinny from being underfed. With access to good food, her condition quickly changed to ‘just right’.
How do you determine if your horse is too skinny or too fat? There are some key areas to look at. The first area is over the ribs, between the girth area and loins. Here, you should be able to feel the ribs easily under your fingers, but not see them. It may be difficult to feel the ribs on a ‘too fat’ horse. A too fat horse may have a ‘crest’ or fat pad along the top or along the sides of the neck where the mane emerges. This is different than the crest developed by stallions, and may feel very hard. The back may be flat or there may be a pronounced dip along the spine. I’ve seen very fat horses with such a deep crease down their back you’d think it would catch water in the rain.
Very fat horses will develop fat pads on either side of the tail head, and behind the point of the elbow in the girth area. Over all the too fat will look rounded, have little muscle definition, with haunches that are ‘apple cheeked’ over the top. The horse may also have a ‘hay belly’, but skinny horses can have hay bellies too—distended bellies due to the intake of large quantities of fodder.
Too fat for a horse is not just a condition problem. Along with ‘too fat’ comes the risk of laminitis, EMS, more stress on joints and cardiovascular system and poor fertility. Too fat in mature horses is a health risk, but too fat in young stock is even more of a problem as joints and bones can be seriously and permanently damaged.
Without compromising the nutrition the horse needs, the too fat horse will need to lose weight. This is best done gradually, because just like people, horses can develop health problems if weight is lost too quickly. Horses still need grass or hay, but in smaller quantities at frequent intervals. Leaving a horse with an empty stomach can also lead to equine ulcers. Breeds like Quarter Horses and most ponies that are ‘easy keepers’ can become too fat very easily.
A too skinny horse will be boney, and muscle definition will be the only contour. On a very skinny horse, even the muscles will waste away, so the horse looks sunken and gaunt. It’s easy to confuse a too skinny horse with a horse in very fit, muscular condition like race horses and long distance horses. These horses do not carry very much body fat, but their muscles are well defined and strong. The too skinny horse may look ewe necked, the withers may appear very pronounced and the spine may be easily felt beneath the skin. The ribs and hip bones may be sharply visible and easily felt and the haunches appear sunken.
Horses become too thin for a number of reasons including lack of food, stress or illness. It’s important to discover why a horse is skinny, in order to provide the right feeds or treatment. If a stressed horse also has ulcers, the environment needs to be changed and the ulcers treated. Mares that are nursing foals can lose weight rapidly, especially when mothering happens when heat and biting insects are at their height. Some breeds like Thoroughbreds and Arabians can be ‘hard keepers’ and may become ‘too skinny’ easily.
The horse that is in the perfect has ribs that can be felt, but not visible. Muscle definition is visible, with no pads of soft fat over neck, girth area or haunches. The horse does not look gaunt or rounded, but smooth. The neck looks smooth without being cresty or gaunt.
There are a few systems used by veterinarians to score body condition. The most common method is the Henneke Body Condition Chart. Horses are scored on a scale from one to nine with one being ‘poor’ and nine being ‘extremely fat’. When we first met Trillium, she was about a 1.5. Currently she is about 7.5 and has been put on a diet. The University of Kentucky offers a useful PDF that describes how to use the Henneke Condition Chart and explains the methods of scoring.