Managing Your Horse’s Weight

Equine nutritionist Mary Beth Gordon, PhD, explains how to assess your horse's weight and condition and improve his fitness level.

Dressage demands equine athletes. If your horse carries extra weight, particularly if he’s a warmblood, he is more likely to suffer from insulin resistance, laminitis, colic or heat stress. Equine obesity can also thwart your training efforts, as an overweight horse is more prone to joint injuries and lameness. “I’ve heard judges criticize horses that were too thin,” says equine nutritionist and dressage enthusiast Mary Beth Gordon, PhD. “But, rarely have I heard a judge make a negative comment on an overweight horse. Dressage is all about training the horse and creating communication and harmony. We work so hard on building strength in our horses, but so many dressage horses are overweight, we never see those beautiful muscles.” Owners must ask themselves, What is the healthiest regimen for my horse?

Mary Beth Gordon, PhD |

Gordon explains that an analytical eye to your horse’s weight can keep your training goals on track and your mount in the best shape possible. Weight management in horses involves checking your horse’s current weight, looking at the content and quantity of his food and deciding how much exercise he needs in order to stay in a healthy range.

Assess Condition
Gordon says that, for many people, their horse’s weight is a sensitive topic and adds, “I was excused from a farm because people were insulted when I said a horse was a 9+ on the body condition score and an immediate founder risk.” Many professionals, like Gordon, use an objective body condition scoring system. This management tool can help determine if a horse’s weight falls into a healthy range. A score of 1 is an emaciated horse. Conversely, a score of 9 reflects extreme obesity. For an average performance horse, a healthy body condition score is between 5 and 6.5.

Gordon says that, like many owners, she struggles with weight management for her own horses. “I have a Hanoverian mare, Watusi, who is an easy keeper, so she is prone to gain weight. Unless I keep her in a stall or dry lot [a small pen without grass] for a significant amount of time in the summer, she naturally ends up at a body condition of 7 or 8. This is where many dressage horses are, but it’s not a healthy place.”

You can use a weight tape (found at most local tack shops) to estimate how much your horse weighs. Follow the directions, and take a measurement around the barrel, withers to girth.

Most overweight horses didn’t get that way simply because they were overfed. A research trial was conducted at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. It found that out of 300 horses 51 percent were overweight, with 19 percent qualifying as obese. Most were being fed a small amount of concentrated feed. These horses were overweight because all of the factors of weight management weren’t being taken into consideration: content and quantity of food and exercise. These are the keys to a weight-loss program.

Make a Plan
Managing a successful equine weight-loss program is not easy and, to further complicate planning, some warmbloods have slower metabolisms (developed over time to survive harsh European winters) than other breeds. The first step is to consult your veterinarian to make sure there are no health problems contributing to weight issues.

Nutrition: Research has shown that just cutting calories can lead to loss of muscle mass and nutrient deficiencies. When horses are on diets, or in a negative caloric balance, it is important that their nutrient requirements are still being met. Look for a feed that is high in protein and fiber, low in fat and contains the appropriate vitamins and minerals, especially zinc and vitamins A and E. Otherwise, your horse’s metabolism could slow down further and weaken his overall health. Gordon and her team did extensive research on weight management (published in independent veterinary journals). Then, they developed feed that addresses these and other issues.

Gordon says that many horses maintain their weight on free-choice grass or hay. But, if your horse is overweight, bringing him into a healthier weight range may mean going against traditional horse management practices, such as free-choice hay. One trick she uses is spreading one horse’s allotment of two flakes of hay over a dry lot. “He has to work for every little piece and it lasts a lot longer,” she says. Gordon also suggests feeding hay in mini-meals and switching from alfalfa to a moderate-quality grass hay.

Exercise: This is an important component of any weight-loss plan. Turnout encourages natural exercise, but the amount of grass the horse takes in is a factor, as good-quality pasture is one of the easiest ways to put weight on a horse. Gordon recommends grazing muzzles or limiting time in the pasture. “I have a Shetland pony who gains weight easily,” she says. “So, to keep her weight in check, she wears a grazing muzzle while turned out 12 hours a day, or she goes in a dry lot without the muzzle.” Watusi also wears a grazing muzzle or spends time in a stall during the summer when the grass is lush.

Gradually building up a vigorous exercise program to five or six days a week is a great way to accelerate the weight-loss process for your horse. Gordon says her research shows that horses doing 60 minutes of trot work three days per week lost a lot more weight than those that were just on a diet. The study used two groups of horses: one on a weight-control feed but no exercise program and the other group on both a weight-control feed and increased exercise. The first group of horses lost an average of 50 pounds and decreased their body condition scores by 1.2 points on weight-loss feed alone. The second group lost an average of 90 pounds and decreased their body condition scores by 2.5 points.

“Do yourself a favor and keep your horse lean,” Gordon advises. “Fat and shiny isn’t the healthiest place for a horse to be. Sweat is a good thing, too.”

Body Condition Scoring
Many physiological functions in horses are influenced by body condition, including a horse’s maintenance, reproductive and exercising requirements. A system called Body Condition Scoring can be used to rate ideal body condition. This condition scoring system is based on visual appraisal and palpable fat cover on six areas of your horse’s body.

A. along the neck
B. along the withers
C. crease down back
D. tailhead
E. ribs
F. behind the shoulder

Individual Condition Scores

Bugatti Hilltop scores 5 to ?6.5, the ideal condition ?for a dressage horse. |

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.

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.

3. Thin: fat buildup about halfway on spinous processes; transverse processes cannot be felt; slight fat cover over ribs; spinous processes and ribs easily discernible; tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually; tuber coxae (hip joints) appear rounded but easily discernible; tuber ischia (lower pelvic bones) not distinguishable; withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.

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

5. Moderate: flat back (no crease or ridge); 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.

6. Moderately Fleshy: may have slight crease down back; fat over ribs spongy; fat around tailhead soft; fat beginning to be deposited along the side of withers, behind shoulders and along sides of neck.

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.

8. Fat: crease down back; difficult to feel ribs; fat around tailhead very soft; area along withers and behind shoulder filled with fat; noticeable thickening of neck; fat on inner thighs.

9. Extremely Fat: obvious crease down back; patchy fat over ribs; bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck; fat along inner thighs may rub together; flank filled with fat.

Understanding Hay
The best way to determine hay quality is to have it analyzed by your local agricultural extension office, but that’s not always practical. Educate yourself so you can identify quality hay. Before your next purchase, understand:

  • Types: Alfalfa, clover and lespedeza hays are “legume” hays and higher in calories. Grass hays include Bermuda grass, timothy, bromegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, prairie grass, fescue, orchardgrass and cereal grasses.
  • Quality: Good quality hay should have lots of leaves on narrow stems with few seed heads or blooms. The hay should smell and look fresh and be free of debris, weeds and dust.
  • Maturity: Hay cut earlier in the summer is more likely to be higher in quality. But, if it is cut very early in the growth stage, it may be too rich in calories for easy keepers. If cut too late, the hay will probably be stalky, less palatable and lower in nutrition.
  • . Storage: Make sure your is kept dry and indoors. Rain and sunlight deplete vitamin content. For example, hay that has been stored for over six months will have a lower vitamin content than when it was baled. You can still feed it, but balance it with a fortified feed served at a recommended rate.

Mary Beth Gordon, PhD, is director of research and new product development for Purina Mills’ horse feed division, where she works with her project team. She also monitors operations at Purina Mills’ equine research unit at LongView Animal Nutrition Center and visits research facilities where her division has trials underway. She has published papers in scientific journals, including The Veterinary Journal, the Journal of Animal Science, and Equine Comparative Exercise Physiology. She has five horses on her farm in Dutchess County, New York, including three warmblood dressage prospects.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Dressage Today magazine.






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