By: Dr. Clair Thunes, Ph.D.
When determining whether a diet is working for a horse, one of the first things I do is look at the horse. How does he look? Does he look generally happy and healthy? Is he in good condition? To truly determine the horse’s condition takes more than just looking, though, as sometimes what you see can be deceiving, especially for a horse with a winter coat. You need to put your hands on the horse.
To properly assess condition, you will need to conduct a condition score. Body condition scoring is a way of assessing the level of fat cover that a horse has. In the United States, the most common way of doing this is to use the Henneke body condition scoring scale, which assigns numbers 1 through 9 to six areas of the horse’s body. A score of 1 means that this region is extremely emaciated, whereas a score of 9 would mean the area is showing excessive obesity. Ideally, most horses should have a score of 5 for each region.
To condition score your horse, you will need to stand your horse up squarely and then look at each of the six regions, as well as manually palpate each region. You then compare what you see and feel to the description given for each region and assign a score before moving to the next region. When I condition score a horse, I start off by asking myself whether what I see and feel can be described by a score of 5. If not, I go up or down from there based on the level of fat that I am finding. Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether what you are feeling is fat or muscle. If it feels like memory foam when you press into it, it is most likely fat.
Some consideration will need to be given for breed. For example, when assessing the withers to be awarded a score of 5, the withers need to be rounded over spinous processes. However, if you are assessing a horse with very high angular withers, it may never develop fat over the spinous processes.
At the end of the assessment, add together and average all the individual assessment scores to get an overall score. It is interesting to pay attention to whether there is wide variation between the different areas of the horse’s body. For example, if the horse has a lot of fat on the neck and around the tail area, but not in other areas, this can be an indicator that there may be underlying metabolic issues. It would be advised in this instance to reach out to your vet to discuss what you are seeing and whether the horse requires further diagnostics. If they concur, and diagnostics confirm that the horse is insulin resistant, you may need to make dietary and management changes. If not doing so already, one change would be to consider adding a source of omega-3 fatty acids to the diet. There is research showing that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids may help improve insulin sensitivity in horses with insulin dysregulation.
Horses that appear to be in good weight overall and that have good coverage over their ribs but that lack coverage over the topline may not need additional calories. A better source of protein in the diet may be needed to help support muscle development. Depending on the horse’s job, an overall condition score of more or less than 5 may be fine. Those competing in speed-based disciplines tend to have a score slightly below 5 as carrying extra weight may not be desirable. Broodmares on the other hand typically have a slightly higher score as the extra fat cover helps sustain conception and lactation.
If your horse scores less than 4 or more than 6, you should consider making changes to your horse’s diet and management plan to bring your horse to a more ideal condition. Being overweight is the result of consuming more calories than are being burned, so the solution is typically to reduce calorie intake or burn more calories by increasing work. Conversely, the underweight horse is not consuming enough calories. Determining a solution for the underweight horse can be trickier, though, as the root cause may be harder to decipher. The horse may be consuming enough calories but is unable to utilize them fully. Ideally, you need to get to the bottom of what is causing this to ensure that you are utilizing the best solution. If you determine that your horse is not in ideal condition, consider consulting with your vet or an equine nutritionist. Equine nutrition consultations are available through EnviroEquine & PET.
For overweight horses and those with insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome that need a source of omega-3 fatty acids, EveryDayBalance by EnviroEquine is a great solution. The flax base in this daily supplement provides ample omega-3 fatty acids and the mineral and vitamin fortification provides necessary minerals and vitamins without adding significant calories. For those horses in need of a quality protein source, consider Builder by EnviroEquine. The hemp protein in Builder provides all essential amino acids and will help support topline development and overall condition.