Spring Feeding Horses

Too fat, too thin: how is your horse looking after the winter months? Under that fluffy coat, there lurks a horse somewhere, but it's hard to tell what condition he is in with all that hair covering his ribs! How do you know if your horse needs to be fattened up, or if he is ready to sign up for the 'Jenny Craig Spring Special'!

As the weather turns warmer, yippee, you get to go out and ride more often! But do you need to change what your horse is getting to eat to make sure he doesn't lose weight? Won't all that lovely fresh spring grass be enough to keep him fat and healthy? How should you go about introducing your horse to the richer forage of spring without causing scouring? Hopefully some of the answers to these questions will become clear as you read on.

Condition Scoring - the horse lover's best friend

Without access to horse weigh scales, it's hard to estimate body weight, and when you see him every day it's difficult to judge whether your horse has lost or gained weight. Yet it is extremely important to keep track of changes in body weight and to pick up on weight loss or gain before it becomes a problem. The solution: condition scoring.

Knowing your horse and recognising changes in body weight and condition are extremely important in maintaining a happy and healthy horse. Every horse owner should understand the principals of condition scoring and be able to critically assess their horses at least every two weeks to keep a track of changes. Condition scoring is the best way to assess whether your horses diet is correct, and whether you need to make any changes.

Condition scoring is not about estimating weight exactly, there are many ways to estimate body weight, most involving measuring the horse's girth and length before getting out the calculator and doing the maths! Condition scoring is different in that you don't take any actual measurements, you just take a good critical look at the horse, taking special notice of specific areas and give them a score according to a set of guidelines. These guidelines are designed to show you what a skinny horse and a fat horse really look like and how to decide where your horse falls. In Australia the horse is scored out of five, with 0 being critically skinny and 5 being obesely fat. Areas can be given half scores if they fall between two descriptions when you really can't decide whether it should be a 2 or a 3!

To practice condition scoring it's a good idea to have a go at appraising a few different horses. Try getting some friends together, or ask at your pony club if you can have an hour or so dedicated to learning about condition scoring. It's a good idea to get yourself a little condition scoring notepad so that you can write down your observations and keep records to look back on, this way you can compare your horse's condition from month to month and year to year.

You need to get the horse outside in good light, either tied or with someone else holding him on level ground. Have him standing up, not with his head in a bucket or grazing so that you can see his neck and shoulders properly. Start at the head and work backwards, making notes of what you see in your notebook and giving each area a condition score of its own as described in Table 1.

Here's what to look for:

1. The neck

Does the horse have a crest (does the line from withers to poll curve upward like a rainbow) or is the neck straight? If the horse has a ewe neck (shaped with an downward curve) then make a note, but look at whether the neck looks fleshy despite the ewe neck or if the ewe neck is caused by a general lack of condition. Some horses are born with a ewe neck that will always look like this to some extent whether they are skinny or fat!

2. The ribs

Some people use the ribs alone as an indicator of condition, claiming that as long the ribs can be felt but not seen, the horse is in good condition. This method is a little too simplistic and does not take account of the rest of the horse. Although the ribs help to build a picture of condition they are not reliable when viewed alone as an indicator of condition. Note whether you can see the ribs standing out when viewed from the side and when viewed at an angle. Run your hand along the horse's side to see if you can feel the ribs, especially if your horse has a thick winter coat. If you have to really press hard to find the ribs, or you cannot feel them at all, then write this down in your notebook.

3. The belly

For the purpose of condition scoring, it is not reliable to look at the belly for the following reasons: the belly is a bit tricky because a horse with a big round belly is not necessarily a fat horse. The belly is where the majority of the horse's guts are located and if the horse is fed mainly roughage, the guts are likely to be quite full, giving the appearance of a big round belly. If the horse is mainly grain fed then he will have a leaner, more greyhound-like appearance even if he is not a skinny horse.

4. The pelvis

When you look at the rump of the horse from the side and from the back, is the pelvis visible and sticking out, or round and covered? Can you feel the hip bones when you press in or not? Is there a depression in the rump on either side of the croup just below the spine and if so, how deep is it? At the point of the buttock, are the bones prominent, or does the rump curve smoothly on either side of the tail? How hard are the bones to feel either side of the tail?

5. The back bone

When you look at your horse directly from behind (being careful to stay out of the 'kick zone') can you see the horse's backbone sticking up, or is it buried in flesh and round looking? Can you see a V-shaped gutter where the buttocks join at the top or is it smooth and round? Does this gutter extend up the spine?

6. The tail and dock area

At the root of the tail, is the area smooth and flat, or is there a bulge where fat is deposited? When you lift the tail, is the cavity quite deep, or fairly flush just beneath the tail?

Once you have made notes on all these areas, and have used the table to give each area a condition score, compare the scores to one another and decide on an overall condition score for your horse. If you have recorded mainly 2's with a couple of 3's you might want to give the horse a 2½ for example. Record the date and the score and write down when you next need to repeat the process - mark it on your calendar too so you don't forget.

If your horse falls between a score of 2½ to 3½ and you are happy with the way he looks, then you can rest assured that you are doing a good job balancing his diet to the work he is doing. If he falls outside this range you may need to think about what you are feeding him.

Getting back into shape - the spring cleanup

If you have scored your horse and found his condition score to be on the skinny or fat side, you probably need to review and cleanup your feeding schedule! Firstly write down everything that you feed the horse each day and how much. If the horse is too fat, look at cutting down grain and hard feed first of all. Unless you are doing some hard work, if your horse is too fat, he's telling you he doesn't need the grain. Most horses in light work can work off grass and hay alone (unless they are of Thoroughbred descent, and that can be a completely different matter as any Thoroughbred owner will tell you!!).

Make sure you have a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement and plenty of access to good quality hay and/or pasture, and your horse will slowly slim down and stay healthy. You can increase his exercise a bit too to help him burn those extra kg's more quickly! If he is extremely fat, or an extremely good doer you may need to restrict grazing and supplementary hay also, but make sure he is getting at least 1.5% of his body weight in hay and grass per day (about 7.5kg for a 500kg horse) to keep his digestive system healthy. Once your horse has lost the weight you can increase feed intake very slightly to prevent further weight loss and keep him at a steady condition score.

If on the other hand you find you have a coat-rack standing where your horse used to be, he obviously needs more energy for the work you are doing with him. The best place to start is to increase his access to hay and chaff or pasture. If he is in quite hard work or cannot maintain his weight on hay and grass alone, then you can start to look at the alternatives. A small amount of grain with a fat supplement such as oil or stabilised rice bran may well be enough to turn him around. To gain weight it is best to feed slightly more than the horses daily requirements until he is at the weight you want, and then drop back to keep him at a steady body condition.

During times of weight gain and loss it is more important than ever to keep a track of condition score, that way you will know when the horse is reaching the goals you have set and when to change the diet again. You will also be able to monitor the success of your diet changes more accurately.

Spring in the air

A word of caution: with spring comes lots of green grass. Whilst it may be tempting to let your horse gorge on this gift of nature to replace some of the weight he may have lost over the winter, you must be very careful. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous when it comes to lush green grass and the love of your life! Just as feeding too much grain can make your horse founder or colic, so can too much good grass. If the grass in your pasture is really starting to look yummy, it might seem cruel, but it may be best to restrict grazing, either by using a muzzle or by putting your horse in doors for a few hours each day, or by fencing off a small area of the pasture to restrict roaming and prevent gorging.

If you are moving your horse from a tired winter pasture to a fresh spring green paddock, then the key is to start slowly. Only let him at it for an hour or two for the first few days, then start to build up gradually to give the bacteria in his hind gut a chance to get used to the new grass. This way, your horse will not suffer stomach-ache from overeating and the bacteria will not be upset enough to make him scour. Be aware also, that coming into spring your horse will naturally gain some weight not just through the new grass, but simply because he doesn't need so much energy to keep warm any more. If you are starting to ride more often, then feed intake may need to be increased to compensate for the extra energy requirement. Increasing hay or adding a small portion of grain and fat to the diet may be needed in these situations.

A happy ending

So the moral of this story, get out there and take a good hard look at your horse! If you have gotten through the winter with a horse who is still in good condition, give yourself a good pat on the back, winter is a challenging time for all horse owners and it takes a bit of skill and foresight to have horses in good condition ready for spring. If on the other hand your horse is looking a little scrawny, then don't panic! You can feel confident that armed with your new knowledge of condition scoring you can get him back to blooming in no time, and what's more, you can make sure that next year, you will be able to prepare yourself and monitor his condition to ensure that he emerges in spring as a beautifully conditioned horse who's ready to take you wherever the trail leads.

Table 1

Condition Score Neck Ribs Pelvis Back Bone Tail and Dock area
0
Very Poor
Extreme ewe neck, narrow when viewed from the front and slack at the base of the neck Skin tight over ribs, easily visible, very prominent viewed at any angle Skin tight, very visible angular bones, visible deep recesses below the croup Spine sharp and easily seen from side and back, no muscle either side of the spine No muscle or fat around the base of the tail, deep recessed cavity beneath tail
1
Poor
Ewe neck, narrow when viewed from the front and slack at the base of the neck Easily visible and prominent viewed at any angle Rump sunken, but skin supple, pelvis easily visible, shallow recesses below the croup Skin sunken either side of back bone, easily visible spine No muscle or fat around the base of the tail, marked cavity beneath the tail
2
Moderate
Straight but narrow, firm to the touch with some muscular support Just visible when viewed from the side or at an angle Croup well defined with some fat, hip bones can be felt, smooth curve from croup to point of hip viewed from behind Well covered, spine bones can still be felt but does not protrude Some fat around the buttocks and tail base, slight cavity beneath tail
3
Good
No crest (except in stallions) firm muscular neck Ribs just covered, can be felt but not seen Bones can be felt but not seen, smooth round rump viewed from behind, no gutter either side of croup Well covered, spine bones can still be felt with pressure, smooth curve, no gutter Some fat around the dock, buttocks more rounded, no cavity beneath tail
4
Fat
Slight crest, thick neck with some fat deposited on the underside Well covered, need firm pressure to feel Covered by soft fat, bones can be felt only with firm pressure, v-shaped gutter visible above the croup from behind Clearly visible gutter along the back bone, spine bones can only be felt with firm pressure Fatty deposit bulges above tail base, guttering extends to base of tail, buttocks fatty and round
5
Very Fat
Marked crest, neck very wide and firm with folds of fat Ribs buried- cannot feel Deep gutter along rump, bones cannot be felt, skin stretched fatty lumps over rump Deep gutter along spine, back wide and flat Large deposit of fat around root of tail, fatty lumps along buttocks
  Contributors:   Sonja Vandermark  

By Kentucky Equine Research - Last updated 1 September 2016

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