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Caring for the overweight horse

Quick facts

  • Horse obesity is a major health issue in the horse industry
  • Overweight horses are prone to disease, overheating and poor performance
  • Restricting diets and easing into regular exercise can help horse’s reach a healthy body weight
  • Routinely monitor your horse’s body weight
  • Body condition scores of 4 to 6 are ideal

Is my horse overweight?

Several methods are available to help determine if your horse is overweight. If more than one of these methods indicates your horse is overweight, work with an equine nutritionist and veterinarian to plan a body weight loss program.

Body condition score

Body condition scoring (BCS) evaluates the fat deposit under the horse’s skin in six areas.

  • Neck
  • Withers
  • Behind the shoulder
  • Along the back
  • Rib area
  • Tail head

BCS uses the Henneke scale (1=poor; 9= extremely fat) where horses scoring:

  • 4 to 6 are ideal
  • 7 to 9 are overweight to obese

For more information on body condition scores visit Purina Animal Nutrition’s website. To learn how to figure out your horse's body condition score watch our video.

drawing of a horse with identifiers to use in assess body condition score.
Six areas to assess body condition score

 

chart showing body condition score on health and performance.

Learn how to figure out your horse's body condition score

Girth to height ratio

The girth to height ratio estimates overall fat deposits and ties in to the body condition score. To calculate the girth to height ratio:

  1. Measure the girth and the height of your horse from the top of the withers.
  2. Divide the girth measurement from the height measurement.

Overweight horses have a girth to height ratio equal to or greater than 1.26, while overweight ponies have a girth to height ratio equal to or greater than 1.33.

drawing of six horse heads with cresty neck scoring on each of them.
Cresty neck scoring system

Cresty neck score

The cresty neck score evaluates the amount of fat in the neck region of the horse. The cresty neck scores range from 0 (no visible crest) to 5 (large crest that droops to one side).

Aim to keep your horse at a cresty neck score of 2 or lower. A score of 3 or greater is usually a cresty neck and the horse is likely to be overweight and prone to metabolic disorders.

Ideal body weight equations

Researchers at the University of Minnesota developed ideal body weight equations to help determine your horse’s ideal body weight based on his or her overall frame.

To calculate your horse’s ideal body weight you need the following measurements:

  • Height, from the top of the withers
  • Body length, from the point of the shoulder to a line perpendicular to the point of the buttock. Don’t wrap the tape measure around the buttock.

Calculating ideal weight for different horse breeds

Horse breed type Ideal weight equation
Arabian ((Length * 23.52) + (Height * 15.58)) - 1,344
Draft ((Length * 27.55) + (Height * 25.98)) - 2,092
Miniature (3+ years) 23.25 * (Length 0.79 * Height 1.74) /868
Miniature (<3 years) 33.92 * (Length 1.92 * Height 1.26) /18,209
Pony ((Length * 23.52) + (Height * 15.58)) - 1,333
Saddle-type 20.34 * (Length 1.37 * Height 1.01) /359
Stock ((Length * 23.52) + (Height * 15.58)) - 1,269
Thoroughbred ((Length * 10.69) + (Height * 23.76)) - 1073
Warmblood ((Length * 27.55) + (Height * 25.98)) - 2,235

Impacts of obesity

Disease

Overweight horses are more likely to develop disorders and diseases. Some diseases they are more prone to include:

  • Laminitis
  • Equine Metabolic Syndrome
  • Insulin dysfunction
  • Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol

Poor performance

When a horse gains excess body weight as fat (adipose tissue), their performance and use declines.

  • Bearing excess body weight impacts hoof health by weakening the hoof wall, heel buttress, and bars of the foot.
  • Obesity is a risk factor for developing osteoarthritis and other joint problems.
  • Excessive body weight increases muscle strain, which can make it harder to function normally.

Overheating

Obese horses can have trouble controlling their body temperature. This comes as a result of the excess fat both directly under the skin and surrounding vital organs that traps in heat. This is a concern in warmer weather, as horses can quickly become dehydrated. Overheating can also be a large factor in poor performance.

Reaching a healthy weight through diet and exercise

Restricting your horse’s caloric intake and increasing exercise is key to body weight loss. Neither done alone is as effective as a combination of the two.

Although overweight horses are at risk for numerous health problems, they can also face health problems from losing body weight too quickly. When caring for an overweight horse, make sure the horse loses body weight slowly and steadily over time. This will also help make sure the excess body weight will stay off your horse in the future.

You can use the Healthy Horse App or weight tapes to help track your horse’s body weight loss. A scale is the best predictor of body weight. But the app and weight tapes can track body weight changes over time if used correctly and frequently.

Diet

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Exercise

Exercise accomplishes several tasks. It will

  • Decrease the amount of body fat being gained by burning the calories taken in daily
  • Burn up or use fat in the body, resulting in weight loss
  • Enhance the health and capabilities of muscle and bone

Overweight horses are usually unfit horses. You should slowly and steadily increase the activity level of an overweight horse to prevent injuries.

A common exercise plan starts with a 30-minute combination of walking and slow trotting two or three times weekly. Work up to light work or visible sweat three to five days weekly for ½ to 1 hour a day. The exercise intensity, duration and frequency can increase as the horse loses body weight and gains fitness.

A seven-day light exercise program burns almost six times more calories daily than seven days of no exercise. This is similar to the calories in 4 to 5 pounds of grass hay or 2 to 2.5 pounds of a grain product. Exercise and diet can have a powerful effect on body weight loss that can’t always occur with exercise or diet alone.

As with humans, when horses burn off body weight and then return to their former activity level, they may start gaining weight again. A similar result may occur when they return to a maintenance-level diet. Watch for these changes and adjust diet and workload accordingly.

Devan Catalano, Marcia Hathaway, Krishona Martinson, Rachel Mottet, Abby Neu

Reviewed in 2018

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