Evaluating Body Condition in Exercising Horses as an Effective Tool to Assess Daily Energy Needs

Dennis H. Sigler, Ph.D
F-R-M Horse Nutritionist and Consultant
Extension Horse Specialist
Texas A & M AgriLife Extension, Texas A&M University

For many horse owners, trying to assess their horse’s daily energy needs based on size and level of work is a frustrating concept to master.  Even after you have made a reasonable determination of their energy needs, how do we accurately estimate energy intake in the daily diet and compare that to the actual needs?  Fortunately, the horse’s body condition score (BCS) over a period of time, will give you a fairly reliable indicator of whether you are meeting their energy needs on a daily basis.

The BCS is a rating system of 1-9, with a #1 being poor and #9 being extremely fat (shown on the next page).  The riding horse should ideally be around a BCS of 5.  The BCS of 5 is reached when we can no longer visually distinguish the ribs, but we can still feel them quite easily.  If the horse remains at a BCS of 5 over a period of weeks, this indicates it is in a static energy balance, neither losing nor gaining.  This is ideal.  As we start to exercise the horse more, we must increase its daily caloric intake or it will begin to lose weight or condition.  Conversely, if the horse’s daily exercise load is reduced but feeding rate remains the same, it will gain weight.  Over time, BCS, for the mature horse, gives us a good indication of whether the daily feed intake meets the basic caloric requirements for that given amount of exercise.

The average 1100 lb. horse requires about 16.7 Mcal of digestible energy (DE) per day.  This requirement can be met by feeding about 6 lbs. of a good quality feed such as FRM Paradigm 12 plus 10 lbs. of grass hay per day.  Compare this to the requirement of 26.6 Mcal of DE per day for the horse in “heavy” exercise, which would require 14 lbs. of FRM Paradigm 12plus 16 lbs. of hay.  So, as exercise level increases, total energy intake in the diet must go up substantially or the horse will begin to loose significant body condition.  A loss of body condition means that the horse will have very little reserve energy for unforeseen bouts of heavy exercise and will put them at a big disadvantage in the performance arena.  Feeding feeds which are higher in fat, which provide a more concentrated form of energy, also is suggested for the horse at intense levels of work.  By feeding higher levels of fat, more energy can be provided with less total pounds of feed.

When you begin an exercise program for your previously sedentary horse, it is imperative to look at your horse every day and evaluate its BCS.  Slight adjustments then can be made in the feed and/or hay intake to prevent a large loss in body condition as exercise level gradually is increased.  It is also important to actually weigh your feed and hay, so you can accurately determine how many pounds of feed the horse is getting per day.  Many times when the horse owner requests help from a professional nutritionist to assess their underweight horse’s condition and try to figure out why they can’t put weight on their horse, it is simply a matter of not feeding enough total pounds to meet the high energy demands of the exercise.

Just remember FEED to meet the ENERGY needs!

The Body Condition Score System (Henneke, et al., 1983)
Score and Description:  See illustration below for reference.

SCORE                                     DESCRIPTION
  1
Poor. 
The horse is emaciated. The spinous processes (backbone), ribs, tailhead and hooks and pins all project prominently. The bone structures of the withers, shoulders and neck are easily noticeable, and no fat can be felt anywhere.
  2
Very Thin. 
The spinous processes are prominent. The ribs, tailhead
and pelvic bones stand out, and bone structures of the withers, neck and shoulders are faintly discernable.
  3
Thin. 
The spinous processes stand out, but fat covers them to midpoint. Very slight fat cover can be felt over the ribs, but the spinous processes and ribs are easily discernable. The tailhead is prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be seen. Hook bones are visible but appear rounded. Pin bones cannot be seen. The withers, shoulders and neck are accentuated.
  4
Moderately Thin. 
The horse has a negative crease along its back and the outline of the ribs can just be seen. Fat can be felt around the tailhead. The hook bones cannot be seen and the withers, neck and shoulders do not look obviously thin.
  5
Moderate. 
The back is level. Ribs cannot be seen but can be easily felt. Fat around the tailhead feels slightly spongy. The withers look rounded and the shoulder and neck blend smoothly into the body.
  6
Moderate to Fleshy. 
There may be a slight crease down the back. Fat around the tailhead feels soft and fat over the ribs feels spongy. There are small deposits along the sides of the withers, behind the shoulders and along the sides of the neck.
  7
Fleshy. 
There may be a crease down the back. Individual ribs can be felt, but there is noticeable fat between the ribs. Fat around the tailhead is soft. Fat is noticeable in the withers, the neck and behind the shoulders.
  8
Fat. 
The horse has a crease down the back. Spaces between ribs are so filled with fat that the ribs are difficult to feel. The area along the withers is filled with fat, and fat around the tailhead feels very soft. The space behind the shoulders is filled in flush and some fat is deposited along the inner buttocks.
  9
Extremely Fat. 
The crease down the back is very obvious. Fat appears in patches over the ribs and there is bulging fat around the tailhead, withers, shoulders and neck. Fat along the inner buttocks may cause buttocks to rub together, and the flank is filled in flush.

Illustration:

Download a pdf of this information below:

Evaluating Body Condition in Exercising Horses as an Effective Tool to Assess Daily Energy Needs-Sep2016-Dr Dennis Sigler.pdf

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