- Is your horse the correct weight?
Horses carrying excess weight are prone to a variety of health problems (just like humans), including an increased risk of laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, joint disease and reduced performance.
Knowing how much your horse weighs is very helpful, as this will ensure that you are providing the correct dosage of wormer and that you aren’t overloading a lorry or trailer when travelling your horse. In conjunction with body condition scoring your horse this will help you establish if your horse is overweight or not.
How to weigh your horse
You can use a weight tape, but this is generally quite inaccurate method as the calculations that weightapes are based on are taken from a 500kg Thoroughbred type of horse. It is a convenient, and low cost method and it is a useful way to monitor your horse’s weight on an ongoing basis, and it is certainly better than nothing.
The most accurate method is to use a weighbridge, which is basically a giant set of bathroom scales for your horse. Most veterinary practices have these at the clinic, or you can arrange for a set to be brought to your yard either via a feed company or some independent nutritionists have these as well.
Body Conditioning Scoring
Body Condition Scoring is simply assessing the amount of fat covering in specific bony landmarks on the horse. You work your way along the horse assessing the crest, the side of the neck, behind the shoulder, the ribs, the rump and above the tail and give each site a score out of 9, with an ideal score being 5.
If your horse is consistently scoring 6 or 7, or even 8 in some of these areas then it becomes very clear that your horse needs to lose some weight. Just like humans horses will lay down fat in different areas, and as an owner it is easy to be fooled into thinking that your horse isn’t overweight because you can feel it’s ribs. In some horses the rib area might score a 5 but the other areas might be a 7. This just means that the horse is still overweight, but that they are carrying this excess weight in different areas.
Be honest when body condition scoring your horse, can you really feel the the underlying structures easily or are you applying lots of pressure so that you can?
Once you have assessed the weight and condition for your horse you can see if your horse needs to lose weight, or simply maintain its current weight. If your horse needs to lose weight winter is actually an ideal time to do this. Remember seasonal weight loss is perfectly normal, and in ‘good doer’ types it should be encouraged. Try using less rugs, or no rugs and soaking hay as a great way to get your horse’s weight under control before the calorific Spring grass arrives.
- Use it or lose it- does your horse get enough exercise?
Horses are designed to be moving around and ‘trickle feeding’ for around 18 hours a day. Modern management means that they are often kept in small stables for anything from 8- 24 hours a day, and if stabled like this they can only eat what and when they are given.
Keeping your horse moving is so important for their physical health, and their mental wellbeing. Allowing sufficient exercise and turnout time will keep healthy movement of the guts, essential to help prevent winter colic, will reduce stiffness and will also keep your horse more ‘rideable’. Hopping onto a fresh horse who hasn’t left the stable for a few days on a frosty morning can mean that you are in for a bumpy ride.
The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 outlines Five Freedoms which all animals must be offered under British Law. These are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury and disease
- 4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
- Freedom from fear and distress.
Horses who don’t receive sufficient turnout are, in my opinion not able to express normal behaviour such as grazing, grooming with other horses and physical play behaviours such as bucking and rearing which we all see our horses do when they are out in the field. Likewise horses who don’t have the opportunity to move around enough, whether that is through exercise or turnout may not be free from pain because they might becoming stiff and uncomfortable when stabled.
During the winter months it can be very difficult to turn your horse out as much you might like to. Livery yard rules might mean that the horses are stabled more, your horse might suffer from mud fever, or very bad weather could all reduce turnout time.
So what can you do to keep your horse moving?
- Turnout in a school or arena if it isn’t possible to turn your horse out in the field
- Stable in a larger space such a ‘pen’ in a barn
- Pole work – simply walking over some ground poles in the arena, or riding over some challenging pole patterns this is a great way to encourage straightness and inject some fun into your schooling. Pole work can be just as useful completed in hand, and working your horse in-hand can be a great time saver.
- Make your hacking count- working up hills, performing simple lateral movements (when safe to do so) will add extra training to your hacking programs.
- In-hand work – as well as working over poles in hand lunging and long reining are very useful ways to keep your horse active and mentally engaged.
- Use of a horse walker can also provide a helpful ‘leg-stretch’ for your horse if turnout is limited.
Have they got a balanced diet?
Deciding what to feed your horse can be really challenging. There are so many products on the market, friends, yard staff and trainers will all have an opinion, and there is a lot of conflicting advice online.
Two key points you might like to consider are
Does your horse recieve all the nutrients it requires?
Feeding an overweight horse is difficult as you only want to give a very small amount of feed to limit the calorific intake, but this can mean that the horse is not receiving all the protein and vitamin and minerals it requires.
Do you feed the recommended amount of the feed? If you look at the back of the bag of feed you will see how much your horse should receive per day to meet it’s recommended daily amount of specific nutrients such as protein and essential vitamins and minerals. This is probably more quantity of feed that most horses actually need however.
To provide a balanced diet, without excessive calories, you might want to consider feeding a ‘balancer’ which is designed to be fed in a small quantity, rather than just providing a handful of a regular mix or cube product for your horse.
- Have you got the right horse for the job?
As part of recommendations for having a healthier happier horse in 2019 I think it is also worth highlighting how some horses are just not suited to particular yards, training regimes, equestrian disciplines and even owners.
If you have a horse who seems very stressed, or doesn’t enjoy their work maybe it is worth considering what you can change. Moving yards can be a big upheaval but horses can have such personality changes in different environments. Some horses love the hustle and bustle of a busy yard, others are happier in a small quiet yard. Likewise if your horse is a happy hacker and your ideal is to school most days then perhaps you need to see what you can alter? Maybe schooling on hacks would provide the best of both worlds for you and your horse.
Over the years I have met many lovely horses who were not thriving due to the wrong job or an environment that didn’t suit them. Some horses love living out, many enjoy the comfort of their stable. Yes of course you can train and condition a horse to accept a particular environment or work pattern, but ultimately knowing what suits your horse is key to having a happy horse.