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Evaluate your Horse’s Physical Condition, by Ken McNabb



Ken-McNabb-horse-trainingHow do you judge your horse’s condition and weight? Being too fat or too thin is not good for a horse, and either extreme can lead to health problems. This month, we will discuss evaluating your horse’s condition, and what to do if you determine that he is over or underweight. There are a few areas to look at when evaluating a horse’s condition. First, check the crest of your horse’s neck. If it is thickened and has fat developing along the top, your horse is probably getting too heavy. The crest should be firm and free of fat deposits. Next, look down the spine along your horse’s back. The spine and back muscles should lie flat, with the spine neither protruding above nor sunken down below the muscles. If the muscle is falling away from the spine, and the spine sticks up, your horse is probably too thin. However, if the spine is sunken below the muscle, creating a groove in the center of the back, your horse is probably too fat. Check the base of your horse’s tail and muscles on either side of the tail for lumpy fat deposits. Overweight horses will start developing fat in this area. Then run your fingers along your horse’s side to feel his ribs. You should be able to feel the ribs when you press firmly. You don’t want ribs sticking out where your hand bumps along them easily, but you do want to be able to feel them when you press with your fingers.
The reason you need to beware of getting your horse too fat is that overweight horses can develop insulin resistance. If he becomes resistant to insulin, your horse will just keep gaining weight and gaining weight – the obesity that results can lead to Cushing’s disease and other potentially life threatening problems.
If you live in a cold climate, there is nothing wrong with your horse carrying a little extra weight through the winter months. Especially if he lives outside, some extra weight will help him winter much easier. Whether your horse is thin or fat, you can moderate his weight by changing your feeding program.
When I want to change my horse’s weight, I change the amount of hay he is getting, not the amount of grain. It is very important to remember that you should never make a sudden change in your horse’s diet. Changing his weight will take time, and his diet should be adjusted slowly so his system has time to acclimate.
My rule of thumb for my horses is to feed 2% of their body weight in hay per day. So, a 1,000 pound horse would get 20 pounds of hay per day. If you have a thoroughbred or a breed that is especially anxious, you will have to feed more to make up for the energy they burn worrying all day.
Many people ask me what type of hay is the best to feed. There is pure grass hay, grass-alfalfa mix, and pure alfalfa. The most important thing is that your hay is free of mold and dust. Whatever you can get in your area that meets these criteria is the best hay for you. Grass hay has less energy than alfalfa, so if you are feeding 100% grass, you will need to feed more than you would if you were feeding alfalfa or a mix. However, you can’t hurt a horse feeding too much grass hay, and because alfalfa can have such a high-protein content, you do need to be more careful when you are feeding that. If you feed too much high-protein alfalfa hay, you can run in to problems with founder and colic, just like the problems you would have if you fed too much high-protein grain.
Remember, each horse is different, and their needs will vary based on how much you are working them, if the weather is cold, if they are blanketed, how old they are, their breed and personality, etc. Your best gauge is to visually evaluate your horse’s condition each day, and make little adjustments to your feeding program as you see the need arise. If your horse is blanketed in the winter, be sure to take his blanket off regularly to check his condition. It’s easy for a horse to gain or lose a lot of weight under that blanket without you noticing.
What I have given you here is some general advice and rules of thumb. Use your judgment and consult with your veterinarian to get the specifics figured out for your particular horse. Enjoy your horses, and until next time, may God bless the trails you ride.

Enjoy your horses and until next time, may God bless the trails you ride. For more information on Ken McNabb’s programs call us at 307-645-3149 or go to

[This article was published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 2, Issue 6.]


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