by Shari Zachrich of Mars Horsecare US, Inc.
Many of our horses today are overweight. As in humans, obesity can cause health problems, especially in older horses. Reasons for obesity can be a result of excessive caloric intake, not enough exercise, or certain medical conditions. Problems associated with obesity may include laminitis, founder, insulin resistance and possibly heart disease. Obese horses also have higher occurrence of joint and ligament disease, tendon strains, and birthing problems. In many cases, more than one problem can result. Insulin resistance, also known as Equine Metabolic Syndrome, interferes with the way insulin breaks down glucose and other sugar molecules, thus elevating blood sugar levels. Research has proven that increased blood sugar levels can interfere with the circulation around the lamina of the hoof causing laminitis.
Today’s most well-known body condition score method was developed by Dr. Don Henneke from Texas A & M in the early 1980’s. It is utilized to estimate body fat in relation to muscle using a numerical ranking between 1 and 9. Excess energy in your horse’s diet can turn into fat deposits, which serve as a “back-up” for later energy deficits. Once energy reservoirs are depleted, your horse will lose those fat deposits and begin to extract energy containing compounds from muscle, making your horse appear weak and thin.
Body condition score is a useful tool in tailoring your horse’s diet to their individual needs. Proper technique for this method includes visual evaluation and physical palpation of fat and muscle. The score itself can be affected by a variety of factors such as food availability, reproductive activity, weather, performance, parasites, and even dental problems. There are six main areas of interest when it comes to evaluating your horse’s condition; the loin or top line, ribs, tail head, withers, neck, and shoulders. The top line is a good starting point in assessing fat and muscle. If the top line is weak and spinous processes are visible then your horse is probably too thin. If there is a noticeable crease down your horses back with deposits of fat around the backbone, the body condition score will increase significantly. The loin area is one of the first places to accumulate fat on the body. The ribs are the next area to observe. As a rule of thumb, ribs should be easily felt but not seen. The tail head area in extreme conditions can either be prominent and distinct or rounded and bulging. Your horse’s withers can be a tricky area to assess body condition score. You must take into account your horses breed standard, size, and age. For example, a thoroughbred has prominent withers as norm whereas quarter horses are a little more concealed. Neck and shoulders should be a point of reference in fine tweaking your final score. Places to look for fat deposits in these areas are on the crest of the horse’s neck and directly behind the shoulders.
A few examples of extreme body condition scores are as follows:
A score of “1” is considered extremely emaciated with spinous processes, ribs, tail head, hooks and pins projecting. Bone structures of withers, shoulders, and neck area easily noticeable with no fatty tissue to be palpated.
A score of “5” is moderate. The back is level and ribs cannot easily be distinguished but easily palpated. Fat around the tail head begins to feel spongy, withers appear rounded over the spinous processes, and the neck and shoulders blend seamlessly into the body.
A score of “9” is extremely fat. There is an obvious crease down the backbone with patchy fat surrounding the rib area. There is bulging fat around the tail head, along the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck. Fat along the inner buttock may rub together and the flank is filled in flush with the rest of the body.
There is no standard in what number is “overweight” or not, that is subject to the owner but the number itself serves as a guideline to which is universal among all breeds. Keep in mind that your horse’s purpose can give reason to a specific body condition score. For example, a broodmare is seen typically around a body condition score of 6 or 7 to give optimum reproductive performance. Athletic performance horses are seen typically around a 5. No matter what your preference on how you like to see your horses fit, this scoring system can easily be coordinated into your daily routine in caring for your horse and playing an active role in utilizing proper nutrition in your horses diet.