If you are glancing out at your pasture and wondering if your horse is looking a little chubbier, you aren’t alone. You are on the right path as a good horse owner and figuring out if your horse is overweight is the next step to take.
Checking your horse’s fitness (or lack thereof) isn’t hard so even an untrained eye can recognize the signs. I’ll help you spot the most obvious indications of an overweight horse. On top of that, I’ll address another part of the issue; should you be concerned? Join me, and we’ll find out together.
5 Easy-to-spot signs your horse is overweight
Determining if your horse is overweight doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to be an expert to check for excess fat and you don’t need any special tools. In fact, there are 5 easy-to-spot signs anyone can recognize and check if a horse is packing on some extra fat.
1. Start with a visual inspection.
Every horse is built slightly different but a quick glance at your horse’s conformation and body condition will tell you a lot. Start by looking at your horse from his rear end (standing a safe distance away). A horse’s rump should have an oval, pear shape that narrows slightly from the top down towards the legs. A round apple shape without any taper hints at a little extra weight.
In addition, you should only be able to make out the slight curve of your horse’s belly when looking from the rear. An overly wide belly visible from behind suggests that a stricter diet is in order. Keep in mind that a pregnant mare might also look equally distended so make sure to rule that out.
2. Check for fat along the ribs.
If you do notice that your horse looks a little wide around the middle, take a closer look at his ribs next. You should be able to run your hand over the ribs and feel them. Take a step back and look from the side. Can you see your horse’s ribs? If so, that is a good sign he is at a healthy weight. Your horse is fat if you need to push hard to feel the ribs.
3. Examine for flabby shoulders.
Next, move towards your horse’s front shoulders and look closely at the muscle contours and bone structure. Don’t see well defined muscles? Horses with extra fat often develops pads of fat over their shoulder muscles or a big deposit right behind the shoulder that makes their shoulders flush with their ribs. Both cases are a solid indication your horse needs to loose weight.
4. Feel for a fatty tail dock.
Horses verging on obesity eventually develop bulbous fat deposits around their tail dock. You should not be able to feel any fat deposits along the length of a horse’s tail dock if he is at a healthy weight.
5. Look for a neck crest.
Finally, a horse with a crest of fat on top of his neck muscles is definitely considered overweight. A healthy horse’s neck line is visibly straight with muscles firm to the touch. Anything above the neck muscle means your horse is fat.
Vet approved ways to monitor body fat
A simple body check looking for unwanted fat on your horse is a great start. However, it is tough to judge just how overweight your horse is by visual examination alone. Is your horse 50 pounds overweight, 100 pounds or something in between? After all, you need a more refined estimate of the extra fat in order to setup an appropriate diet and exercise regime.
Luckily, there are some official body fat scoring systems for horses that are generally recommended by veterinarians. These are tests you can do yourself or with the help of a horse nutritionist or vet.
Body Condition Score
Since 1983, the Body Condition Score (BCS), also know as the Henneke Condition Score, is a system widely used to determine the relative obesity or emaciation of virtually any breed of horse. Its brilliance is in its simplicity and ease of use by any horse owner.
In a nut shell, the BCS system utilizes a numerical score (1-9) to asses fat deposits in 6 key areas on a horse. These include rib, shoulders, withers, loin, tailhead and neck. By referencing a scoring chart, you can quickly asses where your horse’s condition lies on the spectrum from dangerously thin to extremely fat. Ideally, a healthy horse should score between 4 and 6.
There is a great article at thehorse.com that I use as a guide to score my horse’s body weight regularly. They have excellent instructions for precisely how to score your horse.
Another quick way to gauge your horse’s overall fat level is the girth:height ratio. This method looks less at specific fatty areas of the body and instead provides a more holistic look at fat distribution. As a bonus, results from the girth:height ratio measurement correlate well with the Body Condition Score.
All you need to do is measure your horse’s girth and height. Each measurement should be taken at the top of the withers. You’ll need a good measuring tape like the Tough 1 Sure Measure available on Amazon.
Once you have those two measurements, calculate the ratio by dividing your horse’s girth by his height. A horse with a healthy weight should have a ratio of less than 1.26. For ponies, a good score is less than 1.33. A horse or pony with ratios equal to or above those values is considered overweight.
Ideal Body Weight Equations
Both the Body Condition Score and the girth:height ratio are powerful and accurate tools to determine if your horse is fat. But neither quantify it. That is where the ideal body weight equations come in. In order for you to implement a diet and/or exercise regimen, you need to know more specifically how many extra pounds your horse is packing.
Ideal body weight equations use a height and length measurement from your horse to calculate a healthy expected weight. There are a couple variations of the formula geared toward different breeds. See the equations below and for a quicker way to calculate your answer, use the Healthy Horse app.
Use this equation for stock horses, ponies and Arabians:
Use this equation for draft horses and warmbloods:
Once you get the ideal weight calculated, you’ll need to use a body tape to estimate weight or an actual scale. A body weight estimate will probably be close enough for most of you. If you need a more specific measurement of how many pounds your horse is, then seek out an equine scale. Some stables or a vet should have one.
Compare your horse’s actual weight with the ideal weight to see how many pounds of fat your horse should loose.
Is it bad for a horse to be overweight
The effects of mild to moderate obesity for a horse are not always readily apparent. Yet, there are serious health risks that make it bad for a horse to be overweight for prolonged periods. Some of the most likely long term health issues caused by equine obesity include:
- Hoof, joint and limb strain or injury
- Poor body temperature management
- Increased lethargy and poor stamina
- Rapid worsening of arthritis
- Higher lung and heart stress
- Development of laminitis or founder
- Growth problems for young horses
- Poor reproductive efficiency
Most of these problems occur as a result of chronic obesity, so keeping your horse on a well balanced diet and a controlled grazing protocol will help your horse avoid the tendencies to gorge on feed.
Keep in mind that inactivity during winter months has the potential to allow a horse to pack on a few extra pounds. Although it will likely be easily worked off as the weather improves and you restart normal activity with your horse.
How do I help my horse loose weight
Controlling your horse’s diet and exercise routine are crucial to warding off fat. Maintaining a healthy weight starts with determining the amount and type of feed your horse needs and how much exercise it will take to balance your horse’s intake with the calories burned.
On the flip side, if your horse is fat then you need to cut back on feed, grazing time and increase exercise. However, you don’t want to make a random guess as to how much feed to cut and how hard to work your horse. Your vet or an equine nutritionist is an invaluable resource for creating a workable regimen that will help your horse loose weight.
Here is a weight loss plan for horses that served me well:
- Use the BCS and girth:height ratio combined with the ideal body weight equations to quantify your horse’s fat level.
- Determine how much hay, grain and treats you are feeding him each day.
- Consult a vet for recommendations on a new diet including how much to cut back. (Also, check out my article on how much hay to feed a horse for optimum health.)
- Devise an exercise plan to slowly increase your horse’s level of fitness.
- Stay consistent with diet and exercise while monitoring your horse’s weight loss. Use the BCS system weekly until your horse is in a healthy range (4-6).
- Adjust your horse’s diet to help maintain their new and healthier weight.
Just like we work hard to improve our health, we should work equally hard to monitor and care for the health of our equine friends. It really is quick and easy to measure obesity in a horse and critically important that you do something about it. We are all stretched for time, so implementing a plan to help your horse loose weight can seem daunting. All the while, we love to spoil our pasture pets with treats and ample food.
But an overweight horse is cause for concern, so I am glad you read this article and are well on your way to solving the problem.