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Is my horse too fat?

Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota

While "beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder", determining whether a horse is fat does not have to be so vague. The answer lies in the body condition score. A body condition scoring system was developed by researchers at Texas A & M based on the location and amount of fat stores underneath the horse's skin. The scoring system uses a number scale from 1 - 9. A body condition score of 1 is 'poor' and the horse is emaciated, whereas a body condition score of 9 is given to a horse that is extremely fat. A body score of 5 is 'moderate'.

One characteristic of a score of 5 are ribs that cannot be seen, but can be easily felt. Visually examining your horse and then running your hands over the horse's side to feel its ribs can give you a good indication of your horse's body condition score. A score of 4, (moderately thin), allows a faint outline of the ribs to be seen, whereas a score of 6, (moderate to fleshy) is characterized by ribs that cannot be seen and fat over the ribs that feels spongy. Although a score from 4 - 6 is appropriate for most horses, the ideal score for each horse will vary, depending on differences in energy expenditure, frame size, physiological condition, diet history and the owner's personal preference.

Visually and physically examining your horse is the best way to establish its body condition score. Assessing your horse's body condition score on a routine basis allows for dietary adjustments to be made. How much you need to feed your horse will vary over time and is strongly influenced by changes in exercise, environmental conditions and quality of feedstuffs.

Trying to maintain your horse's ideal body weight is a constant challenge. Without frequent assessment a horse can lose or gain a significant amount of weight before it may be obvious to someone who sees the horse frequently. Altering your horse's body condition score takes considerable time and effort. Any increase or decrease must be accomplished gradually over time in order to be done safely.

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