The harsh conditions of winter can present a challenge to some horses in maintaining an adequate body condition. Colder temperatures require increased calorie intake to maintain body warmth. Loss of body condition is often a very gradual process, occurring over several weeks to months, the problem can “sneak up” on horse owners if they are not proactively observing and maintaining their horse’s body condition.
To make things less subjective, an equine body condition scoring system was developed by Texas A&M University using a 1 to 9 scale with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. A chart can be found at ozarksfn.com. A healthy horse should fall into a body condition score of 5 to 6 with a smooth blend from neck to shoulders, moderate fat cover over the ribs, and some fat present over the tailhead. Routinely observing your horse and assigning a body condition score will help owners actively monitor and maintain their horse in a proper weight.
Certain practices can help to minimize or eliminate weight loss in the winter. The most important factor second only to proactively monitoring body condition, is providing adequate nutrition. Pasture and hay can vary significantly in nutritional value. High quality hay is high in energy, has adequate protein and high levels of vitamins and minerals. As a rule, the more mature the forage is at the time of harvest, the lower quality the subsequent hay. Additionally, the conditions under which hay is harvested and stored can affect the nutritional quality substantially. The only true way to know the nutrient levels and digestibility of the hay you provide your horse is to have it tested. However, hay that is soft (more leaves and less stems), has a good color (more green and less brown) and a fresh smell (not moldy or dusty) is often of at least reasonable quality. For many horses, an adequate amount of moderate to high quality hay will meet their nutritional needs and allow them to maintain a proper body condition. If feeding a lower quality forage or for horses with higher maintenance requirements, supplementing with a concentrated ration can fill in the gap.
Other factors besides nutrition can greatly influence a horse’s ability to maintain a proper body condition. A few of the most common factors include dental health and parasite control. Because horse teeth grow continually and require balanced wear, dental abnormalities are common and an oral exam should be performed at least annually by your veterinarian. Consultation with your veterinarian can also assist with developing an acceptable parasite control and monitoring program for your particular farm. The average horse requires deworming 3 or 4 times per year.
Ultimately, if your horse appears to be getting thin this winter, consider improving their nutritional status or contact your veterinarian to assist in addressing any underlying health concerns.
Dr. Darren Loula, DVM, is owner of Christian County Veterinary Service, LLC, a mobile large animal vet clinic.