Body condition and proper feeding

Body condition scoring is a wonderful management tool. It’s easy to learn, and a subjective way to determine the best feeding program for your horse.

Riders are always concerned about proper equine nutrition, and rightly so. It can be difficult to know exactly how to feed your horse, since his requirements are based on his physiological state and body condition (whether he’s a maintenance horse, working horse, or lactating broodmare, etc.). Feed requirements are quite variable from horse to horse.

Energy deficiency or excess can be identified in most cases by weight loss or weight gain. A scale can be a good tool for keeping track of body condition, but livestock scales are often quite costly. Many riders rely on weight tapes, which can be purchased at most tack and feed stores. Keep in mind, though, that a weight tape is usually off by 50 pounds in either direction.

Whatever system you choose, it’s a good idea to use it regularly so you develop knowledge of your horse’s body condition, which will change seasonally. A horse’s hair coat can also have an effect on accurate observation, since a long winter coat can mask changes in body condition. I recommend measuring body condition at least every three to four weeks so you can detect changes. Check points The body condition score is measured by visually appraising the horse. The rider examines the following six areas to determine the amount of body fat deposited there:

• neck
• withers
• shoulder
• ribs
• loin
• tailhead

A score is determined for each of the six areas, based on the parameters in the chart opposite. The six scores are then averaged to determine the horse’s overall body condition score. A quick score can be done by using the ribs and loin only. You should use your eyes to observe, and hands to palpate, the fat content of the six areas. Be sure to score both sides of the horse, since there could be a muscle deformity or atrophy on one side that may be misleading.

Ideal ranges

It is undesirable to have a horse fall into a body condition score of 3 or less. Most horses who fall to a score of 1 do not survive. If a horse is this low, care must be taken in adjusting the diet to avoid health problems and an equine veterinarian should be consulted. Remember that body fat represents energy reserves that a horse can rely on when stressed. A horse with a body condition score of 3 or lower has almost no reserves to depend on. Instead, his body will be forced to break down protein (muscle tissue).

To help a horse gain weight, in addition to increasing feed, you might consider reducing exercise and limiting activity, and reducing environmental stressors. This could include providing shelter during cold, wet weather, moving the horse to a pasture where he is higher on the pecking order or hierarchy and/ or feeding him individually. As an extremely emaciated horse rebuilds his reserves, deposits will first be made in the bone marrow, then in the viscera (organs), and finally subcutaneously where you can see it. This is why you may not see results right away when you are feeding more.

• Broodmares are more apt to conceive if their body condition score is kept at 5 or higher.

• Most riding horses should be kept at a score of 5 or 6, depending on the desires of the caretaker.

• Polo horses, endurance horses, and other horses in heavy work are usually maintained at a score of 4.

• Horses at body condition scores of 7 to 9 tend to be less athletic, tire faster, and are more prone to colic and laminitis. They may be easy keepers and require more exercise, and/or their feed may need to be reduced to keep them at a healthier score of 5 or 6. Extremely fat horses may have reproductive problems or be hypothyroid and have a different metabolic rate.

Body condition vs. fitness level

This system will not tell you how fit your horse is for your intended use. Fit horses tend to burn up their energy reserves and have less fat deposit. However, the fat level itself is not associated with cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone or other parameters of fitness. It also does not distinguish between fit fat, which is relatively firm and made up of yellow fat cells and less water, versus the white, soft, flabby fat a resting horse will deposit. Over time, as you use body condition scoring regularly, you will probably begin to develop a feel for the difference between these fat types.

Body condition scoring is a good management tool that any rider can use. It is easy to learn, and a subjective way to determine the effectiveness of your feeding program. Using it regularly can save you money in feed and veterinary bills, because it can help you become more proactive in preventing problems associated with weight gain or loss.

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Dr. Jenifer Nadeau is an Associate Professor and the Equine Extension Specialist for the University of Connecticut (UConn). She has worked for UConn since 2001, and grew up riding and working with horses including trail, hunter/jumper, draft, and race horses. She rides both English and Western, and drives. Her research focuses on equine health; she teaches animal nutrition for undergraduates and works in extension outreach with adult horse owners and 4-H horse project members. She is a native of Schenectady, NY. She graduated from the State University of New York at Morrisville College with an Associate’s in Applied Science degree in 1993 and received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in 1995 from the University of Kentucky. She received her Master’s degree in Comparative and Experimental Medicine from the University of Tennessee in 1997 and her Ph.D. in Animal Science in 2001 from the University of Tennessee. Jenifer is a member of the American Society of Animal Science, American Youth Horse Council Publications Committee, Teaching/Extension Committee for the Equine Science Society, superintendent of the Horse Bowl Committee for the Eastern National Horse Roundup and secretary of the National Equine Extension Executive Council.