Hopefully the formatting is not messed up Strategies for Keeping Weight On Horses
By: Karen Briggs
October 01 1998, Article # 538
A skinny horse is not a pretty sight. With ribs protruding, and hip bones threatening to serve as a hat rack for the next passerby, he gives an immediate impression of ill health... and it's no illusion. A too-thin equine is one who has no energy reserves on which to draw, and when push comes to shove, will not be able to perform to the best of his ability. At the very least, he'll be easily fatigued; at worst, his every system is compromised, and he'll be vulnerable to injury and disease. A very thin horse. Animal emaciated, very minimal fat covering. Spine visible but ends feel rounded; tailhead and hip bones obvious. Ribs prominent with slight depressions between them.
A lot of things can create a skinny horse: previous or ongoing injury or illness, poor dental health, parasite infestation, the serious physical demands of lactation (nursing a foal) or breeding (for stallions), excess work, the stress of a new environment or lifestyle change (such as separation from an established herd or a favorite companion), or just plain starvation. Sometimes physical problems, such as chronic laminitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (heaves), can compromise a horse's mobility and make it difficult for him to consume enough feed, especially if he is on pasture. For horses in their 20s or 30s, the combination of poor teeth, a less efficient digestive system, and a decreased appetite can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
Many of these reasons are the result of neglect, but it's important to point out that some horses seem determined to resemble Humane Society cases regardless of the good care they receive. Often (but not always), these are "hot" horses, built for speed rather than comfort; and while the Thoroughbred breed seems to include an inordinate number of these individuals, the syndrome is by no means limited to Thoroughbreds. Think of these horses as genetically programmed to be "hard keepers." Their DNA predisposes them to a nervous temperament, extreme sensitivity, and a tendency to stay "lean and mean."
The fast and efficient metabolisms of "hot" horses might make it an uphill battle to achieve a plump outline, since they tend to burn calories at a rate some would compare to a hummingbird. But it is
possible to help even a "genetically" skinny horse maintain a healthy weight--and a few simple nutritional strategies (coupled with comprehensive veterinary care) can help restore some needed flesh to a horse which has lost too much due to some sort of trauma in his life. What's A Healthy Weight?
Since horses, like humans, come in all shapes and sizes--from the "gets-plump-on-nothing" type (think Shetland pony) to those who can eat you out of house and home and never get those ribs covered, researchers have come up with a classification system called "condition scoring" to help us better describe our horse's physiques. The chart on page 82 gives descriptions of the nine categories; a quick glance should tell you that, ideally, you want your horse to be a five (although anywhere in the four to six range is healthy and might be appropriate for the type of lifestyle your horse has).
Assessing your horse's body by this condition scoring chart can give you a more accurate perspective on his health than actually weighing him. While we can make estimates on a horse's ideal weight based on his height, the reality is that horses come in so many types--from the fine-boned Saddlebred to the Schwartzenegger-esque Belgian--that such estimates are practically useless. The old horseman's rule that you should be able to feel
the ribs, with a firm press of the hands on the barrel, but not see
them protruding through the coat, is a good axiom, although it doesn't tell the entire story. If your horse displays any of the characteristics of categories four through (heaven forbid) one, it's likely desirable that you help him gain some weight.
Step one in achieving that goal is to assess his physical health from top to bottom. He'll never be able to devote any effort to storing food energy if he is battling an infection, is worn down by chronic pain from an injury or a debilitating arthritic condition, or if parasites are robbing him of the nutritional value of his feed. Nor will he be able to extract any goodness from his diet if his teeth make chewing so painful that he dribbles large chunks of poorly-ground grain and forage from his mouth in quids, or simply decides it's not worth the discomfort. Any number of dental conditions--from caps (lingering baby teeth that sit atop erupting adult molars and make chewing difficult) to abscesses (usually from food particles or foreign objects, such as wood splinters, which get lodged in the gums) to sharp dental hooks that develop when regular floating is neglected--can make correct grinding of his feed practically impossible.
For a horse with a chronic condition, such as COPD or arthritis, anorexia (loss of appetite) can come with the territory. Controlling the symptoms of the condition with medication will likely make your horse more comfortable, and thus more interested in his food. (Unfortunately for horses which need daily assistance from a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory such as bute, the drug which helps relieve his discomfort might eventually result in gastric ulcers, which make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.) Bear in mind that loss of appetite can be a first hint of disease; for example, it can signal that an EIA (equine infectious anemia)-positive horse is suffering an active bout of the infection and is running a fever.
A thorough physical by your veterinarian is the first step when you notice a horse has lost condition, and addressing any health concerns that surface as a result is absolutely necessary before you begin to improve his condition. And if you haven't already, institute a program of regular dental maintenance and de-worming for every horse in your care, skinny or not.
In addition, take a moment to assess your management program, particularly if your horse is the hot or nervous type. Are his surroundings, or his care, exacerbating stress and making it impossible for him to relax and put on weight? For example, is he stabled next to an aggressive horse which makes him perpetually nervous? Is he being shipped all over the countryside to a different show every week? Is he in a high-pressure training program? Does he get limited turnout--or none at all? Perhaps a change of scenery or routine--even just moving him to a stall in a quieter part of the barn or altering the time of day you work him--would make a difference in his NQ (neurosis quotient). It's possible he's a square peg in a round hole, as well; perhaps he'll never make a Western pleasure horse, but would be happy running and jumping around lower-level event courses. Consider giving your horse a companion, such as a goat or a pony, which might serve to soothe a nervous temperament and provide some healthy competition for dinner; this is a tried-and-true trick at the racetrack.
And take heart as you assess him--even most hot horses do eventually experience a leveling out in their metabolism as they age. Horses which were bone racks at five might become positively easy keepers as they mature.