Body Condition Scoring Horses – a Hands-On Project!

Most of you met our old horse, Fred, in an earlier blog post I did. Well, I am happy to report that Fred is flourishing in his new home and we like to think that he likes it here quite well.

However, our temperatures have been getting quite cold, in the teens and  mid 20s for highs, and I was concerned with how well Fred was holding his weight. The snow cover has been consistent, so I knew he was not doing too much in the way of grazing. He gets about 1.75% of his body weight in hay each day along with a ration balancer, but with his age and the cold weather I wanted to see how he was really faring.  With the short daylight hours of mid winter fully upon us, it is hard to see his exact condition during the work week when we are gone during the day.

So last Saturday I went out to check on him during daylight hours and was pleased to see that he looked pretty good – pretty fluffy with all that winter coat – but still pretty good from where I was standing (about 10 feet away). I went into the pasture and put his halter on and began to feel over his ribs and topline. Contrary to what he looked like from a distance I determined that underneath all that hair, Fred had lost some weight. I could feel his ribs fairly easily and after palpating along his topline I could tell he was just starting to lose condition there as well.

Viewing him from the fence was one thing, but getting my hands on him was a different story and I realized we needed to change his diet and replace his ration balancer with some senior feed to get additional calories into him. We are in the process of transitioning him onto his new feed and so far he is doing great.

I learned a valuable lesson, though – when evaluating the body condition score of your horses (especially under all that winter hair) you have to get your hands on them! I now have a reminder set on my calendar to body condition score Fred every month. I don’t want to have any springtime surprises when all that hair sheds off!

“It Must Be the Pellets!”

A couple weeks ago, I transitioned a large breeding farm from textured feed to pellets. Despite the farm manager’s reluctance, the feed program was changed. The horses were doing well and everyone seemed pleased.

Late one afternoon I received a frantic call from the farm manager. She said some of the horses were drooling and acting strange. She said they had just been fed an hour earlier and “it must be the pellets”. It sounded like possible choke issues.

I reviewed the feeding procedures with the manager, and she had fed hay prior to the concentrate. I suggested she keep a close watch on the horses and contact their veterinarian. About an hour later the manager called me again and said the choke issues had subsided, but now a few of the horses were presenting colic symptoms. She was awaiting the veterinarian, and again stressed “It must be the pellets”.

The veterinarian treated the horses, questioning water consumption, and feed changes. The manager called me to tell me that all seemed quiet. I encouraged her to keep me advised of any changes. A few hours later I received a call that two horses were on their way to the veterinary hospital. This time the manager did not hold back about her concern with the pellets.

The next morning I called the farm manager to check on the horses. She told me that both mares had colic surgery. I asked if the veterinarian had determined the cause, and was surprised by the answer. For the past few days the horses were not getting turned out due to the cold weather. While inside the horses did not receive any additonal hay to compensate for the round bales they consumed during turnout. With the lack of chew time and boredom, the horses had eaten their pelleted bedding, which had in turn caused the colic.

Today’s lesson: Feeding 1 ½ to 2% of a horses body weight per day in forage really is essential for a healthy horse!

Starch Levels in Feed

In my previous blog post on this topic, we explored the role starch plays in the horse’s diet.  After (hopefully) warming you up to the idea of how useful this nutrient can be, I’d like to now dig in to how you can compare and contrast the varying levels of starch (and sugar*)  in feeds and hopefully this information will  help you compare and contrast to choose the best option for your horse.

Contrary to what you may have been told or read, most horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.  If you have a horse that has been diagnosed with a form of equine metabolic disease, you will need to limit your horse to a ‘low’ controlled starch and sugar diet….which includes forage (hay and pasture).  Fructans, the sugars in forages, are too often overlooked when assessing the total diet of an EMS horse.  

Even if your horse has not been diagnosed with EMS, it is still important to understand the starch level in his diet and take it into consideration for your overall program. Think you know how to compare starch levels from one feed to another?  You might be surprised to find out that a bit of math is required. Simply comparing the percentage of starch on feed tags doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  To get to a true comparison, it is important to factor in the recommended feeding rate, which is, after all, what the horse experiences.

Let’s compare two feeds that are marketed as ‘low starch’; one has a starch maximum guarantee of 7% while the other has a maximum of 11%.  Pretty easy to tell which one is the lowest, right? 

Look beyond the percentage to find what's really in the feed

Not quite.  For our example,  let’s say we have a 1,000 pound horse at maintenance level activity.  Feed A, with 7% starch is recommended to be fed at a rate of 6 pounds per day, meanwhile, Feed B has a starch maximum of 11% and is recommended to be fed at a rate of 2.5 pounds per day.

Here is the formula to use:  Starch % * pounds fed/day *454 (converts to grams) = grams of starch fed/day


Applied to our example scenario, here’s how the math works out:

Feed A:  7% starch x 6 pounds fed x 454 = 190.68 grams of starch per day.

Feed B: 11% x 2.5 pounds of feed x 454 = 124.85 grams of starch per day.

Wow – a big surprise!  Not only is the 11% starch feed actually lower in grams of starch per day than the 7% product, the difference is actually rather significant given how different the percentages were.   It is important to keep in mind that it all comes down to what your horse actually ingests, so understanding the recommended feeding rate in pounds and then weighing your feed to hit that mark is what will make the difference.

It’s also important to understand that horses who do not experience a form of EMS have a higher tolerance for starches and sugar in their diet…and in fact, the performance horse will actually need those nutrients to support their activity levels.  It all comes to down to understanding what’s in your feed and how much you’re giving them.

*Though this blog article addresses ‘starch’ the same principles apply to determining the amount of other nutrients in a feed.