In recent years the media has been filled with messages about obesity and this message and indeed the problem, is one that affects our equine population too. Although many of the horse owners that I speak to seem aware of the problems associated with excess weight gain, we are still seeing large numbers of overweight horses and because of this, sometimes find that the perception of ‘ideal’ is skewed.
Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is an objective and effective way of assessing if and where the horse is carrying body fat and in many respects, is of greater importance than the horse’s actual weight. The 1-9 scale assesses 6 main areas which should be scored individually before calculating an average. For leisure horses, a score of 5 (described as ‘moderate’), is considered ideal. A ‘perfect 5’ is defined as:
· No crest, neck blends smoothly into the body
· Shoulder blends smoothly into the body, no fat pads behind the shoulder
· Withers ‘defined’ but smoothly rounded
· Back level, no fat pads behind the ‘saddle area’
· Ribs can be easily felt but not seen
· Fat around the tailhead beginning to feel spongy
However when using the BCS system, there a few important considerations, one of which is the horse’s breed and another being the natural cycle of seasonal weight loss/ gain. For example on a TB horse, you can often see a faint outline of the last two ribs (particularly when they turn), even when they are at an ‘optimum weight’ or in ‘ideal condition’.
Ponies and other native breeds evolved to gain weight in spring and summer and lose it again over the winter, ready for the return of better grazing in the following spring. Allowing natives to slim down and enter spring a little on the ‘lean’ side as nature intended (perhaps a score of 4.5), helps to prevent excess weight gain. Provided that the horse or pony is otherwise fit and healthy, seeing ribs is not automatically something that we should be concerned about, even for natives! In addition to whether or not you can see the horse’s ribs, consider other areas on the BCS chart as well as factors such as general health and fitness, skin and coat condition and hoof quality/ health. Whilst ‘ideal condition’ and seeing ribs can go hand in hand, owners of such horses can sometimes be faced with conflicting advice from other liveries, particularly if there are several overweight horses on the yard.
Like people, horses come in different shapes and sizes and for natives particularly, the natural cycle losing and gaining weight is very important. This considered, is being able to see your horse’s ribs a problem? Not always!