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Obesity is not only a health risk in humans; it also has adverse health conditions for horses. An owner’s ability to know the appropriate body condition of their horse is vital to its health.
Use the Henneke equine body condition scoring system(BSC) to check if your horse is overweight. The BSC system places a numerical value on fat on a horse’s body and assigns a score. The scoring system provides objective results to determine if a horse is at a healthy weight.
Many horse owners cut back on feed to reduce their horse’s weight. Cutting back on calories is probably a good idea, but a proper feeding plan is only one factor in maintaining a healthy weight for your horse.
How to determine if your horse is overweight.
You can’t just look at a horse and tell if it’s overweight. What seems like a fit horse to one person may look like a fat horse to another. Different breeds, conformation, and coats make it difficult to determine if a horse is overweight by just looking at it. Source
To determine if a horse is overweight, an owner must evaluate body fat in relation to the horse’s body musculature. The Henneke system allows a person to do this by assigning a numerical value to fat in various places on the horse’s body.
The Henneke system
The Henneke system is the most reliable method to determine horse fitness. The Henneke system assesses a horse’s fat in six areas. The system assesses fat both visually and by touch in six areas.
The six areas examined are the loin, ribs, tailhead, withers, neck, and shoulders. A number is assigned based on the cumulative fat in all areas.
Here are some things to consider when evaluating your horse using the Henneke scoring system:
- Don’t deviate from the reference points for an accurate score when assessing body condition. Large-bellied horses are deceiving.
- Conformation differences make specific criteria challenging to apply to every horse. In these situations, those areas influenced by confirmation should be taken into consideration but not ignored.
- Horses with body scores higher than seven are evaluated for dangers associated with obesity, such as laminitis.
- You must score using a hands-on evaluation when a horse has a thick or long-haired coat.
- Advanced-aged horses will have decreased body scores because of muscle softening. You should add half a count.
- Pregnant mares commonly have decreased scores in the last trimester because the foal’s weight pulls down her loin area. Also, the hormones necessary for delivery make her tail head area flaccid, reducing that score. You should add half a score to her overall rating.
- Thoroughbred conformation has naturally more prominent withers and back than some other breeds and, therefore, typically score one-half score lower than other breeds.
- Pony and draft breed conformation is naturally fleshy and will score one-half score higher.
How to score using the Henneke body condition system.
Below is a simplified chart covering the fundamentals. A printable Henneke Equine body scoring chart can be accessed by clicking on the link.
The horse is extremely emaciated, and the backbone, ribs, hipbones, and tailhead are prominent. The bones of the withers, shoulders, and neck are easily noticeable. No fatty tissues can be felt.
The horse is emaciated. Slight fat covering over vertebrae. The backbone, ribs, tailhead, and hip bones are prominent. Withers, shoulders, and neck structures are discernible.
Fat built up about halfway on the vertebrae. The light, fat layer can be felt over the ribs, but the bones are easily discernible. The tailhead is noticeable, but the individual vertebrae can’t be seen. The hipbones can’t be seen, but withers, shoulders, and neck are emphasized.
Negative crease along the back. The faint outline of ribs can be seen. Fat can be felt along the tailhead. Hip bones can’t be seen, and the withers, neck, and shoulders are not obviously thin.
The back is level, and ribs can be felt but not easily seen. Fat around the tailhead feels slightly spongy; the withers are rounded, and the shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body.
The horse may display a slight crease down its back, and the fat on the tailhead feels soft. The fat over the ribs feels spongy. Fat is starting to be deposited along the sides of the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck.
The crease down the horse’s back is seen, and individual ribs can be felt, with a noticeable filling between ribs with fat. The fat around the tailhead is soft, with noticeable fat deposited along the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck.
The horse displays a prominent crease down its back. Its ribs are difficult to feel due to the fat in between. The fat around the tailhead is very soft. The area along the withers is filled with fat. Behind the horses’ shoulders is filled in flush with the barrel of the body. The horse has a prominent thickening of the neck and fat deposited along the inner buttocks.
The crease down the horse’s back is prominent, and fat is in patches over the rib area. The horse displays bulging fat over its tailhead, withers, neck, and behind its shoulders. The fat along its inner buttocks may rub together. Its flank is filled in and flush with the barrel of the body.
A BCS of 4 to 6 is ideal for a horse.
Body condition scores from 4 to 6 are ideal, and scores from 7 to 9 are overweight to obese. Overweight horses have become a significant health issue in the horse industry.
Overweight horses are more prone to developing diseases, overheating, and poor performance. When introducing a weight-reduction plan for your horse, begin slowly and routinely monitor its weight.
How to reduce your horse’s weight.
Horses lose weight by burning more calories than they eat. The secret to weight loss isn’t a secret: your horse needs to burn more energy (calories) than it takes in (eats).
So weight loss can be accomplished by decreasing the number of calories, increasing exercise, or combining both.
The approach that works best and is best for your horse is a combination of reduced calorie intake and increased exercise. As a horse owner, you are in control of your animals’ weight. Regular exercise, sound nutrition, and proper veterinary care are vital for a healthy horse.
Take your time, learn as much as possible about proper feeding, and reduce your horses’ weight intelligently. American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) is a useful resource if you have concerns.
A horse should lose weight slowly and steadily.
All equine weight loss programs should follow these guidelines:
1. Be slow and steady in your weight loss process. You don’t want to stress your horse out or create a metabolic upset.
2. Changes in feed should be gradual. If you change feed, mix a portion of the old feed with the new feed for the first week. If you intend to reduce the amount of feed, do it in a small amount and, over time, no more than 10 percent over seven days.
3. Monitor your horse’s progress using a weight tape. When you notice your horse’s weight has reached a plateau, gradually cut back its ration again.
4. Introduce more exercise to your horses’ routine. Slowly increase the time and intensity of activity as the horse’s fitness improves.
5. Always have plenty of fresh water available for your horse. Water helps the digestive and other systems function as efficiently as possible and rid the body of metabolic and other wastes.
6. Provide feeds with high-quality fiber but are low in total energy. Measure feeds by weight, not volume, to determine appropriate ratios.
7. Choose low-fat feeds for your horse.
8. You should feed an overweight horse mature grass such as Timothy or oat hay at two percent of total body weight, slowly declining to 1.5 percent of body weight, which is ideal. Some people believe that you should reduce or stop feeding alfalfa hay, which is rich, high in calories, and fattening. However, working horses need this.
9. Isolate your overweight horse during feeding time. Separation from other horses prevents it from eating other horses’ feed and allows you to control its intake of calories.
10. Consider your horses’ age and activity level when planning their diet. Ensure the horse’s vitamin, mineral, and protein requirements are met.
Exercise helps an overweight horse get fit.
Exercise benefits a horse in several ways; it decreases body fat by burning calories and enhances muscle and bone strength. Increasing turn-out time is one way for a horse to get more exercise and is beneficial for any horse’s overall health.
However, increasing turnout time isn’t an option for some owners and often isn’t the most optimal. Formal exercise plans are commonly used to optimize weight loss. Because overweight horses are typically unfit, any activity must be done slowly, probably no more than a 5% increase in duration or intensity every week or so.
We currently have a two-year-old in training that is staying heavy. He’s on the same exercise and diet as the other horses but is not progressing at a similar rate. Treating horses as individuals and adjusting their training and diet for each is vital.
Consider fitness level before exercising your horse
With the horses’ fitness level in mind, introduce exercise at a safe level to avoid injuries. The following is a suggested exercise plan for an overweight horse:
- 30 minutes of walking and slow trotting three times per week for one month,
- As you notice, your horse getting in better shape increases to five days per week for 30 mins a day. Continue this practice for a minimum of two weeks.
- As your horse becomes comfortable, increase exercise time to 1 hour per day for five days a week.
- During the hour of exercise, introduce more intensity as your horses’ fitness level rises;
- As your horse continues to lose weight and get more fit, you can increase riding to 7 days per week and also increase the intensity of the exercise.
Getting your horse in ideal condition takes time; horses that are overweight often take 5 to 6 months to get fit. It’s essential to monitor your horse because there is not a one size fits all exercise plan.
Some horses can be accelerated in the program, while others may need more time before advancing. But keep in mind that exercise and diet work together in all weight loss plans.
Monitor your horse to maintain a healthy weight
During the weight loss process, monitor your horses’ weight and perform body condition tests monthly. You want to maintain this level once your horse reaches an ideal body condition score.
Exercise and diet is the key to maintaining their fitness level. It will be a balancing act at first to keep your horse at the proper fitness level, especially for horses that easily put on weight.
Continue to monitor your horses’ weight and record their feed and exercise routine. If you notice movement in its weight, either up or down, adjust its weight loss plan accordingly. It’s been a long journey getting your horse in ideal shape, so take the time to keep it in shape.
If your pastures are rich and lush, limit your horses’ grazing time or place the animal in a grazing muzzle. Grazing muzzles work effectively in limiting the amount of grass intake while allowing turnout. You can click this link to read all about grazing muzzles.
Below is a helpful YouTube video about overweight horses.
Feed an overweight horse 1.5 percent of its weight in hay.
An overweight horse should be fed approximately 1.5 percent of its body weight if they are not eating other feed or forage. It is essential to make changes to your horses’ diet slowly. Drastic dietary changes could lead to colic or other ailments.
A horse that weighs 1,500 lbs and is on a weight-loss feeding plan should be fed 22.5 lbs of hay per day. 1.5% times 1,500= 22.5. For fit horses, it’s recommended they be fed hay at 2 percent of their body weight daily.
The method of feeding hay and the type of hay are keys to a healthy diet. Slow down the consumption of hay by using a hay net or slow feeder. Increased eating time helps the digestive system process the hay more efficiently and safer.
Not only is how you feed your overweight horse vital, but the type of hay given to an overweight horse is also critical. Certain forages have more calories than others. Most expensive hays are high in fat and calories, such as alfalfa.
Your overweight horse needs quality grass hay that is appropriately harvested. If your horse is on a diet of only grass or hay, it should be given nutrient supplements.
An overweight horse may need supplements.
Supplements for overweight horses
Eliminating grains and sweet feeds is a good step in reducing calories. However, it also removes some needed nutrients from your horses’ diet. Grain feeds, oats, corn, and other rations supply essential vitamins and minerals.
If you eliminate grain from your horse’s diet, look for a vitamin/mineral supplement designed to balance the deficiencies in the hay. The first step is to analyze the hay for protein, calcium, and phosphorus. The results from the analysis provide useful information so you can adjust your horses’ diet with supplements.
There’s a wide range of horse supplements on the market, so before you start spending money on supplements, get advice from your veterinarian. They can run a blood test on your horse and tell you what your horse needs. The following are supplements commonly used for horses on forage-only diets:
- Foxden Equine Linpro: This is a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement. It has vitamins A, D E and is a good source of biotin, methionine, and omega fatty acids.
- Horse Health Red Cell is a tried and true horse supplement at a reasonable price. We’ve used the liquid form for years. It provides iron to enrich a horse’s blood plus essential vitamins such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D3, Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin K, and Vitamin B12 Supplement.
- Gold Pellets is a supplement designed to treat horses with G.I. difficulties. If your horse is having G.I. problems after changing its diet, you may want to try Gold Pellets after consulting with your veterinarian.
- Source is a reliable brand that has been on the market for years. This product is made from seaweed and is marketed to support hair and hoof growth.
What can obesity lead to in horses?
According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, excessive weight gain in horses has several adverse effects, including:
Laminitis is a condition that affects the feet of horses and is one of the most common health problems associated with obesity. Laminitis occurs when the tissues that connect the hoof to the bone are inflamed, which can cause pain, lameness, and difficulty walking. Laminitis is often caused by a diet that is high in sugar and starch, which can lead to an increase in body weight.
- Reduced reproductive efficiency
An obese mare can have a number of health problems, including reduced reproductive efficiency. Fat horses are more likely to suffer from infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths than healthy-weight horses. They may also experience difficulty conceiving and carrying a foal to term. In addition, obese horses are more likely to experience difficulties during labor and delivery.
- Risk of developmental orthopedic problems in growing horses.
Obese horses are at a higher risk of developing orthopedic problems during their developmental stages. Obesity in young horses can cause problems such as joint dysplasia, which is an abnormal growth or development of the joints.
- Joint Problems
Joint problems are also common in overweight horses. The extra weight puts added stress on the horse’s joints, which can lead to pain and inflammation. Joint problems can also make it difficult for the horse to move around and exercise, which can further contribute to weight gain. Kissing spine is common in overweight horses.
- Respiratory Problems
Respiratory problems are another common health issue in overweight horses. The extra weight can put added strain on the horse’s respiratory system, making it difficult for the horse to breathe. This can lead to a variety of respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Digestive Problems
Digestive problems are also common in overweight horses. The extra weight can put added strain on the horse’s digestive system, making it difficult for the horse to digest food properly. This can lead to a variety of digestive problems, including colic and gastric ulcers.
- Stress on the heart and lungs Carrying excessive weight puts unnecessary stress on the horse’s heart and lungs, which can lead to serious complications over time. Fat build-up interferes with vital organ functions, making it more difficult for the heart and lungs to do their jobs, increasing the risk of heart and lung disease.
- Less efficient cooling their bodies Horses that are overweight often are less efficient at reducing their body temperatures, which can lead to health problems. The extra weight makes it difficult for the horse to cool down after exercise, and the horse is more likely to suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- More lethargic and fatigues easily. Having an overweight horse creates numerous problems. It will become considerably more lethargic and easier to fatigue. This is because the excess weight puts strain on their cardiovascular system, making it difficult to get oxygen to their muscles. This can not only make it hard for the horse to perform at their best, but it can also increase the risk of injuries.
Why is my horse overweight?
A diet that is too high in calories, a lack of exercise, or an underlying medical condition can all lead to a horse becoming obese. If you think your horse might be overweight, a veterinarian must check them out to determine the root cause and develop a treatment plan.
How long does it take a horse to lose weight?
It takes months, not weeks, for a horse to lose weight. It’s essential not to make drastic changes to their diets. In addition, ensure your horse has access to fresh water and gets regular exercise when reducing weight.
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I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.