How to estimate the body condition of your horse ?

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How to make my horse fatter ?

How to make my horse lose weight?


To know if the nutrition we are giving to the horse is correct, there is a tool known as Body Condition Score, which is very valuable since it allows us to evaluate if the ration we are providing to our horse is adequate, insufficient or excessive.


When performing physical work, the horse suffers physical wear and therefore requires higher levels of nutrients than a horse in maintenance; If the horse is not receiving the correct amount of nutrients, it will begin to consume its body reserves, that is, it will begin to lose weight, which will affect its performance, and conversely, if it is a horse that does not perform any physical activity and food is provided in large quantities or with high levels of nutrients, it will gain weight and it will present problems associated with obesity.


Because determining whether a horse is fat, skinny, losing weight, etc., based on visual observation, is most of the time a subjective assessment, since for some it may be a fat horse, while others will appreciate it as a horse in good condition, tools have been developed to get a more objective idea about it. One of these tools is weighing the horse periodically, but rarely is a special scale for horses available.


It is important to note that there are other methods that can help us in this situation. One of them is to estimate weight according to body measurements, since there is a relationship between the horse’s chest circumference and its weight, however this system has a margin of error which is sometimes considered very high. The other system that we can use is to determine the body condition of the horse based on a method developed in 1983 by Dr. Don Henneke of Texas A&M University, which consists of evaluating and assigning a score to the different reserves body fat that is accumulated in the body of the horse.


As mentioned above, the first method provides an approximation of the horse’s weight but does not account for small variations in body weight, in addition, there are situations in which it cannot be used as in females in the last gestation period. In such a way that the second method offers greater advantages by giving us a more exact approximation, since it indicates the amount of fat reserves that the horse has, which allows monitoring if the feeding that is being given to the horse is correct. If the horse receives more energy than it requires, its body will begin to store this excess energy as fatty tissue, increasing its body reserves and improving its body condition. In the opposite case, the horse will not be able to generate body reserves and there will be no changes in its body condition, making this method more sensitive.


Although the determination of the horse’s weight by means of a tape to weigh or to determine its body measurements offers some disadvantages, it is important to use both methods for the evaluation and formulation of the rations.


There are two mathematical formulas that can help us determine the weight of the horse if we do not have a tape to weigh, in which case we can use any tape measure, although the most recommended are the “tailor” type (those that are colored, yellow or blue) to take the body measurements of the horses. The formulas that can be used are:


Weight (Kg) = [(PT) 2 x L] ÷ 11000


PT is the thoracic perimeter at the height of the girth and L is the horse’s length measured in a line parallel to the ground from the point of the shoulder to the height of the tip of the ischium, in centimeters.


Weight (kg) = (PT x PT x PT) x 80


PT is the thoracic perimeter at the height of the girth expressed in meters.


Regions Determining Body Condition

This system gives the horse a rating that ranges from 1 to 9 according to the amount of fat stored in certain places in the body. The body condition of 1 is an emaciated horse, that is, in the bones, and the highest, 9, corresponds to an extremely obese horse.

The areas that must be inspected by palpation and visually to determine the body condition of the horse are the following:


  • Loin (lumbar area): In this area the horse begins to deposit fat by improving its body condition. In very thin horses, the spinous processes (tips of the vertebrae) become very prominent. When the horse begins to gain weight, these structures disappear, since the fat begins to accumulate around him.


  • Ribs: This place is of great importance, as it can be easily and clearly evaluated. On very thin horses the ribs can be clearly seen and touched; as the horse gains weight, fat is deposited around it until they can no longer be seen or felt. In horses with a condition 5 the ribs are not seen but they are palpable. In the case of brood mares in the last period of gestation, it is necessary to take some precaution when evaluating this area, since the weight of the foal causes the belly to drop and the skin to stretch, making the ribs more evident.


  • Tail base: When the horse is in the lowest levels of body condition, the base of the tail stands out as there is no fat around it. As the horse improves its body condition this region is filling with fat, even a bulge can form, however, when evaluating this region, it is important to consider the horse’s own conformation, since there are breeds that have an insertion lower than others and this can lead to errors during the evaluation.


  • Withers: When evaluating this region, care should also be taken, since there are some horses that have a defective conformation in this area and in the case of adult horses there is also some prominence of it. As fat accumulates, the cross becomes more or less visible and in obese horses the cross is bulged by fat; at levels 6 to 8 you can feel the fat in different degrees and at level 5 the cross is rounded with little fat deposit


  • Neck: In extremely thin horses you can see the bone structure of the neck and its upper profile will be very thin (area of the kennel). As the horse improves its body condition by accumulation of fat, it is deposited in the upper part of the neck. It is important to consider the breed and conformation of each horse; since in the case of Spanish horses it is very important that the neck has a good fat deposit. In a horse with a body condition of 8, the neck is thick throughout and with an evident fatty deposit on the upper profile.


  • Shoulder: This place is very useful to better define the body condition, especially in those cases where due to the horse’s own conformation we can fall into error. As the horse increases in body condition, fat is deposited behind the shoulder and elbow.


Body Condition

Below is the description of the different body condition ratings as well as their description:

  • Condition 1 (Poor): This is an extremely emaciated animal, that is, too skinny, its bone structures are easily noticeable, and on the neck, cross and shoulder, on the back and base of the tail, the spinous processes (tip of each vertebra) are clearly seen. Fat tissue cannot be felt.


  • Condition 2 (Very Thin): Emaciated animal, the bony structures of the neck and cross are slightly discernible. The spinous processes in the lower back are still prominent but begin to have palpable fat at their base, and the transverse processes (portion of the vertebra projecting laterally) are felt rounded. The base of the tail is prominent, the ribs are slightly discernible and a light covering of fat is felt on palpation.


  • Condition 3 (Slim): The neck, cross and shoulders are accented. The fat is at a medium height in the spinous processes but even these are easily discernible and the transverse processes are not palpable. The base of the tail is pointed but the vertebrae are not appreciated individually. The ribs are the same as in the previous condition.


  • Condition 4 (Moderately Thin): The spinous processes in the lumbar area protrude slightly above the adjacent structures, the ribs are seen as a slightly discernible line. The base of the tail is prominent depending on the conformation of the horse but the fat can be felt. The neck, the cross and the shoulders are not obviously thin.


  • Condition 5 (Moderate): The neck and shoulders have a smooth transition with the rest of the neck, and the cross is rounded. The fat around the base of the tail is felt spongy, the ribs cannot be seen but can be easily felt.


  • Condition 6 (Moderately Fleshy): Fat begins to be deposited on the neck, on the withers and behind the shoulder. The fat at the base of the tail begins to feel soft and fluffy on the ribs. The loin may have a slight indentation due to the fatty accumulation around the spinous processes.


  • Condition 7 (Fleshy): At this point there is a fat deposit on the neck, on the withers and behind the shoulder, at the base of the tail the fat is felt smoothly. The ribs can be felt but between them there is a clear layer of fat. The indentation on the back becomes clearer.


  • Condition 8 (Obese): Cleavage in the back due to the fatty deposit, the ribs are difficult to feel. The neck is thick, with fatty deposit in the area behind the shoulder and follows the same line of the body. The cross is full of fatty deposits around it.


  • Condition 9 (Extremely Obese): Obvious indentation in the loin product of the fatty deposit, in the area of the ribs, fat is felt irregularly. Behind the shoulder, cross, neck and base of the tail you can see a bulge of fat.


The optimal body condition will depend on the activity carried out by the horse, as well as the condition for a breeding mare with conditions less than a rating of 4, it has been determined that they have a delay of 3 or 4 weeks in the first ovulation in reproductive season compared to mares with body conditions of 5 or more, they also require more cycles to be pregnant and there is a higher proportion of losses at the beginning of gestation. Horses with very high body conditions have long-term problems, for example, obese horses have a predisposition to suffer endocrine problems, colic, laminits, etc. On the other hand, horses with sports activities will perform poorly in sports if they are in extreme body conditions.


In the case of mares in reproduction, it is recommended that they enter the reproductive season with a condition 6 or 7, since the nutritional demands at foaling and lactation are very high and can reduce their body condition. Stallions must have a similar body condition, since if their mare book is extensive, intensive use during the breeding season will lead them to lose weight.


For the horses that carry out some sporting activity, the body condition should be 4 to 5 if they practice a very strenuous exercise and 5 to 7 if the work is not very intense; a charro horse must have a body condition of 5 to 6. Remember that a horse with poor or little body fat reserves will not have enough energy and, on the contrary, a horse with large body fat reserves will be a less agile animal.


If we consider that our horse is not in the required body condition, we must make adjustments to its diet and exercise regime, and all these changes should be made gradually; You cannot pretend to change the body condition of a horse in a short period of time and it should be considered a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks to go from one body condition to another. The best option to improve body condition are energy supplements, which have high levels of fat, helping horses to improve this condition without risks to their gastrointestinal health.


As mentioned in the previous paragraph, when you want to modify the body condition there are two major variables to consider, the diet and the activity of the horse. In horses with less activity it will be easier to gain body condition but it will lose physical condition, being the most appropriate in this case, to decrease the activity and increase it according to the improvement of the body condition, obviously together with the energy increase of the ration. If body condition is excessive, you should gradually increase the level of exercise or decrease the energy level of the ration.


It is important to keep in mind that any change in the ration must be progressively and respecting the horse’s physiological restrictions, such as: maximum concentrate consumption, minimum and maximum forage consumption.


Animals that are in extreme body conditions, and there is no obvious reason for them to be in that state, it is advisable to ask for a veterinarian’s review as there is probably an underlying pathology that led our horse to that condition.


What is sought when evaluating body condition is that the horse is in its best shape, with good muscular development, not very skinny or very obese. Body condition is visually assessed and must be supplemented by palpation of the different structures and regions in which body fat stores are deposited.

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