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Is My Horse Overweight? A Plan To Reduce Weight Safely.

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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.

To check if your horse is overweight, use the Henneke equine body condition scoring system(BSC). 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 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

Then 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:

figure showing areas of fat in a horse
  • When assessing body condition, don’t deviate from the reference points for an accurate score. 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 of higher than seven are evaluated for dangers associated with obesity, such as laminitis.
  • When a horse has a thick or long-haired coat, you must score using a hands-on evaluation.
  • Advanced aged horses will have decreased body scores because of muscle softening. You should add half a count.
  • In the last trimester, pregnant mares commonly have decreased scores 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 hipbones are prominent. Withers, shoulders, and neck structures are discernible.
Fat built up about halfway on vertebrae. The light, fat layer can be felt over 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, shoulder, and neck are emphasized.
Negative crease along the back. The faint outline of ribs can be seen. Fat can be felt along tailhead. Hip bones can’t be seen, and the withers, neck, and shoulders not obviously thin.
The back is level, and ribs can be felt but not easily seen. Fat around 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 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 fat in between. The fat around the tailhead is very soft. The area along 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 either by decreasing the amount of feed or increasing exercise, or a combination of 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 clean, 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 is low in total energy. Measure feeds by weight, not volume, to determine appropriate rations.

7. Choose low-fat feeds for your horse.

8. Reduce or stop feeding alfalfa hay feed. Alfalfa is rich, high in calories, and fattening. Instead, provide mature grass or oat hay at two percent total body weight, slowly declining to 1.5 percent of body weight, which is ideal.

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.

Picture of a horse walking

However, for some owners, increasing turnout time isn’t an option, 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.

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 will take time, often horses that are overweight 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.

Picture of a horse galloping.

Monitor your horse to maintain a healthy weight

During the weight loss process, monitor your horses’ weight and perform body condition tests monthly. If your horse reaches an ideal body condition score, you want to maintain this level.

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 muzzle works effectively in limiting the amount of grass intake while allowing turn out. You can click this link to read all about grazing muzzles.

Feed an overweight horse 1.5 percent of its weight in hay.

An overweight horse should be fed approximately 1.5 percent of their 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 and 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.

Obese horses are prone to founder

According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, excessive weight gain in horses has several adverse effects, including:

  • Stress on the heart and lungs
  • Risk of laminitis or founder
  • Risk of developmental orthopedic problems in young, growing horses
  • The strain on feet, joints, and limbs
  • Worsened symptoms of arthritis
  • Less efficient cooling of body temperatures
  • Fat build-up interfering with vital organ functions
  • Reduced reproductive efficiency
  • More considerable lethargy and more easily fatigued

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