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Seasonal Variation in Horse Body ConditionBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 6, 2015

A recent survey* of horse owners revealed that despite having a good overall knowledge of equine nutrition, there are some gaps when it comes to assessing body condition score (BCS). For example, 46% of the survey respondents said they routinely used BCS to monitor their horses’ weight, but used a weight tape to do so. An additional 10% of respondents stated they did not know what BCS was.

Why is it so important to know your horse’s weight and/or condition?

“Achieving and maintaining an appropriate body weight is becoming increasingly important for the equine population because equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance are on the rise. Those two conditions occur more frequently in obese equids. Therefore, avoiding obesity could avoid nutrition-related conditions,” explains Bryan Waldridge, D.V.M., head veterinarian at Kentucky Equine Research.

There are three main ways to assess your horse’s weight/condition:

  • An equine scale that gives the horse’s actual body weight in pounds or kilograms;
  • A weight tape or formula that provides an estimate of body weight using girth circumference and sometimes also distance from the point of the shoulder to the point of the hip; and
  • BCS, which assess fat deposits in key areas using a grading system such as the Henneke chart.

It is important to note that scales and tapes simply indicate body weight (mass) and do not give any information regarding adiposity (fatness).

“It is the adiposity that is particularly important for nutrition-related disorders and assessing adiposity requires the hands-on approach that BCS provides,” Waldridge notes.

Once an owner understands and implements some kind of system to monitor a horse’s weight/condition, the next step is to appreciate the natural seasonal variation in BCS.

“Feral and native horse populations experience natural seasonal variations in BCS. For example, they end the summer in good condition, a BCS of 7–9, which makes them capable of withstanding a lower plane of nutrition and weight loss through the winter months,” says Waldridge.

In highly managed horses, however, owners often maintain their horses at the same BCS year round, and that BCS is often excessive. Owners are encouraged to reassess their idea of an appropriate BCS, recognizing that most horses should be in the 5–7 range and that natural variations in BCS within that range are acceptable and well tolerated by horses at certain points of the year.

*Murray, J.D., Bloxham, C., Kulifay, J., et al. Equine nutrition: a survey of perceptions and practices of horse owners undertaking a massive open online course in equine nutrition. J Eq Vet Sci. In Press.