This title poses a challenging question for all horse owners. Recently, an editorial appeared in a veterinary publication discussing the issue of obesity in the horse industry.  While you might be quick to say, “My horse is an easy keeper, he’s not obese,” all owners need to step back for a minute and assess their horses. Consider what you see in the industry. Are over-conditioned horses becoming the norm? Are show ring standards leading owners to practices that keep their horses in a higher level of body condition, as in round and shiny vs. the slick and fit? Without guidelines on what normal should be or what is ideal we may have difficulty in making judgments on our horses or someone else’s horse.

The place to start is how we evaluate a horse’s condition. Can we use a method to determine if a horse is fat or not. In 1981, Dr. Don Henneke and coworkers from Texas A&M University published a Body Condition Scoring system (BCS). The system was based on selected anatomical areas that reflected changes in fat deposition. These changes were related to the total body fat of the horse. (See figure 1). The system is 1-9 scoring system with one being an extremely emaciated horse while a nine is considered to be obese. The original research was on broodmares and suggested that a BSC of five or greater was ideal. While the system has been used on a variety of classes of horses, the score of five is a good place to start. Horses in BCS of five do not have visible ribs and show some modest deposits of fat. This body fat can provide a source of calories to the horse, should it be necessary, but the horse blends together smoothly. Horses may move up or down the scale, related to the amount of stored body fat the horse has. A horse that moves to a six or seven BCS would indicate that more calories are being consumed than required with the extra calories being stored as fat for a later time. It is the excess storage that becomes a problem. Horses that are in a high BCS (greater than a seven) have an increased risk for developing metabolic problems such as insulin resistance, founder or laminitis. With the performance horse it has been noted that a BCS of less than four will affect performance due to reduced energy sources, while a BCS of greater than six can result in reduced performance due to impaired thermoregulation. The bottom line is horse owners need to assess their horses and formulate a plan to be in that BCS 5-6 range.

Why are people suggesting that there is an epidemic of obesity in the horse industry? Not long ago the primary concern was horses being too thin, now the over-conditioned horse is more common or so some would lead us to believe. There have been changes in how horses are kept that may be contributing to the situation. I prepared a presentation for this conference on managing pastures. The goal is to have a well-managed pasture to meet the nutritional needs of the horses in their care. However, as horse owners become better pasture managers, there is the potential to over feed horses by providing excess amounts of available forage with little control over intakes. The adoption of good pasture management practices means better species of plants being selected and used. The correct use of fertilizer and weed control will result in healthy vigorous stands of forage. The selection of high quality hay is a reasonably priced source of nutrients. The feed industry has provided a wide range of feed products for horse owners to use. Horses are often kept indoors or wear blankets to protects them from western Canadian winters. Each of these issues or management practices are things that good horse owners consider doing and they are generally recommended but can lead to horses being cared for better than they need to be.

What is a horse owner to do? Manage your horses is the easy answer. Horses gain weight when more calories are provided in the diet than are needed for normal activities. Horses at maintenance have minimal energy needs. Quality forage in controlled amounts with some supplemental salt minerals and water is all they need.

A horse kept in the barn and blanketed all winter does not have the same maintenance as its pasture buddy living outside. The performance horse that is ridden regularly vs. the horse used on the occasional trail ride has different requirements. I expect nothing noted above surprises anyone, but putting it into action can be a challenge. The first order of business is to meet nutrient needs. To do this horse owners need to be aware of how much feed is required and how much are they providing. Controlling the amount of feed provided is important because in many situations feeding for weight gain is much easier than feeding for weight loss. Putting a horse on a diet to reduce their body weight and use up fat stores is a challenge. It is slow to see results and there are some horses who are resistant to losing weight.

Is your horse too fat? Check out the attached score sheet and descriptions. Assess it and if your horse is a seven or greater, make adjustments now. If your horse is a 5-6 congratulations your goal is to maintain that condition and if less than a 4 you need to increase calorie intakes to help with an increase in the score. The use of the BCS system is an easy way to manage your horses it takes some time but is something all horse owners can and should do.