Managing Equine Body Condition with Forage

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horse body condition scoring chart standlee

Many horse owners struggle with the body condition of their horses. Some horses seem to gain condition easily, and others seem to eat and eat while not gaining body condition and becoming thin.

A Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system has been developed to help horse owners visually determine if their horses are overweight, underweight or in ideal condition. It assigns values from 1 to 9, to classify horses from underweight to overweight in each of the following areas: the loin, ribs, tail head, withers, neck and behind the shoulders.

Horses with a BCS of:

  • 3 or less are underweight
  • 4-6 are ideal
  • 7-8 are overweight
  • Greater than 8 are obese

So how do we manage the body condition of our horses? 

If we want a horse to lose condition, we need to feed fewer calories and expend more calories through exercise. Horses eat from 1.5% to 3% of their body weight per day in feed. For a 1,000-pound horse, this equals 15 to 30 pounds of feed per day. Most horses will consume more forage (hay/pasture) in their diet compared to grain. Horses on a weight loss program should never be fed less than 1.2% of their body weight.

Forage type can dictate calorie content. Grass hays such at timothy and orchard grass contain fewer calories compared to legumes such as alfalfa. Mixed hays containing a combination of both are intermediate in calorie content. A horse in a low body condition would benefit from some alfalfa in the diet. A horse that is overweight would benefit from more grass hay in the diet. 

This article was written by Dr. Stephen Duren, Performance Horse Nutrition and Standlee Premium Western Forage Nutritional Consultant.