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Medical Index
Feeding Horses
First Posted: June 9, 2007
Aug 1, 2011

Obesity In Horses

by Debora Johnson
Video: How to Measure Your Horse (to Estimate His Weight)
Horse Weight Calculation

Whether you need to know how much dewormer to give your horse or how much you should feed him, knowing how to estimate his weight in pounds is helpful.

Horses are not any different than people. They like to eat. If given the opportunity they will eat much more than they need. Excess pounds puts a strain on their body systems. Like people, horses have predispositions on how they metabolize their food. For example, some horses are called "easy keepers." Easy keeper is a term used to describe a horse who requires a minimal amount of caloric intake to maintain optimal body condition.

Problems Caused by Obesity

  • Increased stress on the heart and lungs
  • Greater risk of laminitis or founder
  • Increased risk of developmental orthopedic (bone and joint) problems in young, growing horses
  • More strain on feet, joints, and limbs
  • Arthritis
  • Temperature regulation problems
  • Fat build-up around key organs which interferes with normal function
  • Reduced reproductive efficiency
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue
  • Insulin Resistance (EMS/Equine Metabolic Syndrome)
Body Condition

Subjective or objective? That is the question. Body condition can be quite subjective. However, a Body Condition Scoring System has been compiled to help us humans take our subjectivity out of the equation! The score for the horse's condition is based on a system that uses our visual appraisal and our touch. The following are the 6 areas that are checked. This is quite standard in the industry. In the gym the trainers check our body fat, too. They check our upper arms, excess skin around our hip bones, and our fat deposits above our knee or on our thighs. This is the same principle that is used in measuring your horse.

  • The amount of fat or flesh on the neck
  • Fat over withers
  • Crease of the back
  • Flesh around the tail head
  • Can the ribs be seen or felt?
  • Amount of flesh behind the shoulder at the girth

The scores are rated numerically from 1 to 9.

Body Condition Scoring

Score of 1 Poor: 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 2 Very 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 faintly discernible

Score of 3 Thin: 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 but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually, tuber coxae (hip joints) appear rounded but easily discernable, tuber ischia (lower pelvic bones) not distinguishable, withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.

Score of 4 Moderately Thin: Slight ridge along back; faint outline of ribs discernable; tailhead prominence depends on conformation, fat can be felt around it; tuber coxae (hip joints) not discernable; withers, shoulders, and neck not obviously thin.

Score of 5 Moderate: Back is flat; ribs not visually distinguishable but easily felt fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear rounded over spinous processes; shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.

Score of 6 Moderately 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 7 Fleshy: 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 neck

Score of 8 Fat: 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 9 Extremely Fat: Obvious crease down back; patchy fat appearing over ribs; bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck; fat along inner thigh may rub together; flank filled with fat.

Healthy Condition Scores

It is generally considered that if a horse scores in the moderate (5) to moderately fleshy (6) range you should smile. This is considered healthy. It would be wonderful if life were this simple. There are other factors that have to be considered, too. How are you using your horses? Is he a polo horse, a race horse, an endurance horse, a show horse, a trail horse, etc.? These scores may vary when his use and breed are factored, too. Some breeds are heavier than others. Some horses have more bone than others. Horses were bred for different purposes. Keeping this in mind, if your horse is being used in a really athletic way a moderately thin score (4) may be fine. Show ring horses will often have a fleshy score (7) because this may be considered desirable in that discipline for success. Horses with a score of fat (8)and extremely fat (9) are definitely overweight.

Weight Maintenance and Reduction

Enter the lifestyle and weight of your horse and this will tell you how many calories a day your animal needs.

Whether an easy keeper or not you can control the weight of your horse to some extent. It may not be easy, but may be in your horse's best interest and yours. Sound nutritional management, regular exercise, teeth floatings, good quality hay such as orchard grass, minimal sweet feed (if any) supplements (if necessary), Pasture Management  Feeding Stabled Horses Farm Management turning your horse out for several hours at a time in early morning or late evening when the starches are not at their peak, and of great importance is having a sacrifice area for your horse. A sacrifice area is a place where your horse can have the freedom to move around outside of a stall, but does not have access to grass, etc. It is important to make changes gradually. Minimize stress for your horse. It may also be helpful to have toys for them to play with such large balls, hanging objects that they can play with, etc. You can find these in the tack stores or catalogues and they are safe for your horse.

Getting Started on Weight Reduction
  • Be patient.
  • Weight reduction should be a slow, steady process so as not to stress the horse or create metabolic upsets.
  • 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 horse's 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 horse's exercise regimen.
  • Gradually build time and intensity as the horse's fitness improves. This can be done by riding, longing, mechanically.
  • Provide plenty of clean, fresh water so the horse's 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 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 horse's need to chew, reduce boredom, and provide fill for its stomach.
  • Feed separate from other horses.
  • In extreme cases of obesity, caloric intake may also need to be controlled by limiting pasture intake.
  • Balance the horse's diet based on age and activity level.
  • Make sure the horse's 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.
  • 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.

It is always advisable to contact your vet when this weight reduction process is taking place. Just like for people, a doctor's help is always best. Also, periodic check-ups and proper care go a long way to reduce diseases and metabolic problems down the road. Founder, laminitis, Cushing's Disease, arthritis, etc., should be avoided at all costs.

The following visual will help you see how to measure the girth of your horse:

For More Information:

Weighty Issues
Obesity in Horses Extension/A comprehensive article.
Obesity in Horses-The Horse
What Horses Need in Their Diet
Feeding Horses
Horse Weight Calculation
Horse Weight Problems? Possible Causes.
Stretching Horse Hay Supply

Medical Index