How can you tell if your horse is too fat or too skinny? A vet or nutritionist will give you a more accurate assessment, but for getting a general idea you’re really using a simple scale of too fat, too skinny and just right.
Anything other than ‘just right’ is a cause for further attention and usually an adjustment to your horse’s diet, housing or amount of exercise.
Weight is an indication of your horse’s overall condition but doesn’t tell you the whole story. For more information you need to get your vet to do some blood work if the simple adjustments you do at home don’t correct your horse’s weight.
Is my horse too fat?
To determine if your horse is too fat or too skinny, there are a few key areas to look at.
The first thing is the area over the ribs, between the girth and loins. When you run your hand gently over the area you should be able to feel the ribs but not see them.
On a horse that’s put on too much weight, the ribs will be difficult to feel. An overweight horse will also develop a fat pad along the top of the crest, from where the mane grows. Stallions can develop a crest that isn’t caused by excess weight and feels very hard.
If your horse is piling on the weight, his back may become flat or develop a pronounced dip along the spine. I’ve seen some horses that had gotten so fat, I was expecting the rainwater to collect in the gully between the back fat.
If your horse is a real fatty, she’ll have developed fat pads on either side of the tail head and just behind the elbow where the girth sits. Like other overweight horses, she’ll look round, have little muscle definition and have chances that look like she’s wearing apple cheek jeans.
“Hay belly” makes a horse look fat no matter if she’s overweight or underweight and is not a sign of obesity but of problems with the food.
Being overweight isn’t just a weight problem for your horse
Just like for humans, being overweight comes with a host of other problems for your horse. Extra stress on the joints and cardiovascular system (heart), laminitis, EMS and poor fertility all accompany obesity.
Being too fat is a problem for a horse of any age, but it’s particularly bad for young horses that are still growing. Not only can the weight seriously and permanently damage bones and joints, it also affects how the whole body develops.
Without compromising good nutrition a fat horse needs to lose weight. This is done slowly over time because crash dieting will cause other health problems. Your horse also needs to have food constantly available so that she doesn’t end up with an empty stomach.
Horses have evolved to eat for most of the day, feeding in a constant stream of food into their gut. A healthy horse has a gut that’s constantly bubbling away, an empty stomach will quickly lead to equine ulcers.
Breeds that are “easy keepers”, meaning that they’re easy to keep because they don’t eat a lot, are at the highest risk of becoming fat very quickly.
Because they’ve evolved to survive in a place where food is scarce or have been bred to be efficient with food (e.g. Shetlands, Quarter Horses), feeding them too much food or food that is too rich, will make them gain weight very quickly.
Is my horse too skinny?
On a very skinny horse, even the muscles will waste away and the horse will look gaunt and sunken.
Don’t confuse a skinny horse that is underweight with a slim horse that is in a very fit and muscular condition, such as a racehorse. These horses don’t have a lot of body fat but their muscles are strong and well-defined.
An underweight horse will usually have pronounced withers, look ewe necked and have a spine that can easily be felt under the skin. The ribs and hip bones can be sharply visible and the haunches may be sunken.
Horses can become too thin for many different reasons, such as stress, illness or lack of food. It’s important to figure out why a horse has lost weight in order to provide the right treatment and feed. If a horse has ulcers, the treatment and diet need to focus around treating them.
Mares that are nursing foals can lose weight quickly, especially when they’re caring for their foals in the summer heat when the amount of insects is at its peak.
Some breeds, like Thoroughbreds and Arabians, can be “hard keepers” and may become skinny very easily, and need additional calories to keep fit.
What is the right weight for a horse?
The horse that is at just the right weight has ribs that can’t be seen but can be felt, muscle definition but without fat pads and soft far over the neck, girth area or haunches.
The healthy horse doesn’t look too round or too gaunt but is smooth and well-proportioned.
Body condition scoring is used to determine what condition a horse is.
Vets use a few systems to score the body condition of your horse. The most commonly used is the Henneke Body Condition Chart where horses are scored on a scale of one (poor) to nine (very fat).
The areas highlighted in the picture are examined for fatty tissue and scored on a scale of either 1-5 (Carroll and Huntington) or a scale of 1-9 (Henneke et al.).
The overall score will then be used to determine whether the horse is underweight, ideal or overweight.
These numerical systems can be easily used by anyone, because they do not require any special equipment, but make use of visual assessment and palpation (feeling the area by hand).
In the Carroll and Huntington system, the ideal weight is between 2-3, whereas in the Henneke system the ideal weight is between 5-7. Below these scores means underweight and above means overweight.
How to body condition score your horse
Look at the area in question and run your hand over it to feel how much fat you can feel under the skin.
- The crest of the neck.
- The withers.
- The girth area.
- The ribs.
- The back and along the spine.
- The croup and around the top of the tail.
Using the scale below, score every area of your horse.
Body conditions scoring sheet
|Extremely emaciated; no fatty tissue; vertebrae, ribs, tail head, and bones of withers, shoulder, and neck are visible.
|2. Very thin
|Emaciated; slight tissue cover over bones; vertebrae, ribs, tail head, and bones of withers, shoulder, and neck are visible.
|Slight fat cover over body; individual vertebrae and ribs no longer visibly discernible; withers, shoulders, and neck do not appear overly thin.
|4. Moderately thin
|Ridge of spine and outline of ribs are visible; tail head may or may not be visible depending on the breed; withers, shoulders, and neck do not appear overly thin.
|Spine and ribs cannot be seen however ribs can be felt; tail head is spongy; withers, shoulders, and neck are rounded and smooth.
|6. Moderately fleshy
|Slight crease down spine; ribs and tail head feel spongy; fat deposits along withers and neck and behind shoulders.
|Crease down spine; ribs have fat filling between them; tail head spongy; fat deposits along withers and neck and behind shoulders.
|Apparent crease down spine; ribs difficult to feel; soft fat surrounding tail head; fat deposits along withers, behind shoulders, and on inner thighs; neck is large.
|9. Extremely fat
|Obvious crease down spine; patchy fat on ribs; bulging fat on tail head, withers, behind shoulders, and on neck; fat fills in flank and on inner thighs.
Free printable body condition scoring sheet
Download and print this body condition scoring sheet to use at your stables and with your horse. The table will allow you to easily and quickly mark down the correct score.