Horse owners may no longer adhere to the old credo that “fat is the best color.” However, let a few ribs begin to show and horse owners begin to fret. Stable owners may find boarders sneaking extra hay and grain for their horses or berating owners to other boarders for mismanagement. In the worst-case scenario, a visitor calls local humane authorities to report what they believe is a malnourished animal.
The automatic assumption most horse owners make when their horse drops weight is that the animal is not getting enough feed. Simply increase the horse’s calories, they believe, and everything will be fine again. But, as most horse professionals know, that is usually not the case. Ginger Rich, Ph.D., of Rich Equine Nutritional Consulting based in Eads, Tennessee, says thin horses often present a greater management challenge than overweight animals because temporary or chronic issues may interfere with their ability to utilize what they take in. Simply putting more feed in front of them will not resolve these problems. The solution for each individual horse must be tailored to its specific circumstances.
EVALUATE THE SITUATION
Rich recommends that stable owners take record photographs of any animals coming into their care as soon as they arrive. If a horse owner later complains about their horse’s weight loss, the horse’s current condition can be compared against these reference photos. Shoot at least one photo of a full side view that shows the horse’s topline and underline clearly. Other photos should be taken at angles that allow the lighting to clearly show any ribs (or patchy fat, as the case may be).
At the same time, use the Henneke scoring system (see page 28) to evaluate the horse’s body condition. Explain the scoring system to the owner and make sure that both of you agree on the horse’s score when it comes into the barn. If problems arise in the future, this gives the stable owner another objective reference point that will be useful in discussions with an owner or veterinarian.
Discuss the horse’s past health history with the owner, ask about the horse’s behavior patterns around other horses, and record the owner’s comments about the horse’s typical work schedule. These may provide clues later on if the horse begins dropping weight.
Finally, Rich recommends that barn managers weigh their horses or learn to use weight tapes accurately (see page 27) so they can weigh or tape the horses in their care on a regular basis. Weekly or monthly measurements taken at the same time of the day are best. Weight changes can occur so incrementally that they go unnoticed until they become a bigger issue. Rich also feels that taping horses regularly can help larger barns manage their feed programs more efficiently and save money.
ASSESS POSSIBLE CAUSES
Horse owners or barn managers need to assess the reason why a horse is losing weight or unable to hold its weight before they start pushing more calories into a thin horse, Rich says. For instance, putting rich grain mixes in front of a truly debilitated horse might literally kill it with kindness. In some cases, the cause may be digestive problems. Or, if the horse cannot chew well because of dental problems, not only will feed intake be affected but a lack of chewing may affect digestion of the feed the horse does eat.