Maintaining Your Horse's Weight: An On-Going Challenge

Winter weight loss is a common issue that arises every winter, and to some degree normal and to be expected. But how do you know what is a healthy weight range for your horse to lose and remain healthy? There is not a single weight range that’s ideal for all horses, as it will vary between breed, discipline, and individual, but here are a few guidelines to follow to help monitor your horse’s weight:

1) Make a goal to snap a few pics of your horse from several angles each month, and then compare the photos. Pay close attention to his back, ribs and croup, as these are the first three areas to lose weight.
2) Use an equine weight tape – you can also use a standard tape measure to capture your horse’s heart girth and length, and then calculate heart girth X heart girth X length, divided by 300, + 50 = weight.
3) Determine your horse’s body condition score. Vet’s use what’s called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system to determine when a horse is at his appropriate weight. Here’s what to look for:

1. Loin: A thin horse’s spine will stick up and he’ll have a ridge down his back. This is the first place you’ll notice weight gain or loss.
2. Ribs: You should be able to feel — but not see — a healthy horse’s ribs.
3. Tailhead/Croup: In a too-thin horse, the tailhead is prominent is easily seen.
4. Withers: This varies between breeds, but if your horse is too thin, the shape of the withers will be very visible.
5. Neck: you shouldn’t be able to see the bone structure of the neck; be sure your horse’s poll isn’t hollowed out.
6. Shoulder: As a horse loses weight, you’ll see more and more definition between the shoulder and the elbow.

As stated, weight loss during the winter months is to be expected but should be closely monitored. There are strategies that the owner should keep in mind to keep their horse as healthy as possible and minimalize the weight loss.

1. Schedule a dental visit with your veterinarian prior to winter months. Teeth play a big role in proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, and weight maintenance. Horses’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lives, so annual teeth floating should be done by your veterinarian.
2. Deworm your horse regularly, and schedule a fecal exam every six months. Halloween and Easter are easy to remember for seasonal evaluations.
3. Provide small meals fed at regular intervals throughout the day. Horses need to eat constantly to maintain a healthy digestive system. Aim to feed three or four small meals per day instead of just one or two. In addition to grain, on average, a horse should ingest 1.5- to 2.5-percent of its body weight daily in forage. High-protein hay such as alfalfa or a mix of grass/timothy hay and alfalfa will provide additional calories. Each horse requires a different grain mixture, but a high-fat grain will add surplus calories, and can be supplemented with an add-in like vegetable oil, stabilized rice bran or ground flaxseed. Senior horses should be fed a high-protein senior feed, which is more easily digested and will help him get the most nutritional benefit out of his feed. Probiotics and yeast will help keep the digestive tract healthy and effective.
4. Keep your horse hydrated - dehydration is a common cause of winter weight loss, so use a safe and effective water heater in your horse’s water source.

Maintaining a hard-keeping horse’s weight is not easy. Some horses are simply prone to fluctuations and seasonal weight loss, but that doesn’t mean your horse has to be a victim of compromised health. Close monitoring and good nutrition suited for an individual’s needs will avoid extreme weight loss and help keep your horse healthy and happy.

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