Body Condition Scoring vs. Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) and Topline Evalutation System (TES) are two methods of evaluating the overall health and nutritional status of a horse.

Body condition scoring is a system where a horse is ranked from 1 – 9 on its level of fatness. This score indicates if we need more or less CALORIES in the horse’s diet. Owners may also use a simplified system that looks primarily at the fat cover over the ribs to place the horse in one of three simplified score categories.
Topline evaluation is done by measuring the musculature along the spine, and giving a grade of A, B, C, or D. This score indicates AMINO ACID status and muscle quality.

Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Score

These two measurements must be evaluated independently of one another. To learn how to measure each, refer to the tools below.

Assess Your Horse’s Topline:

To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual of the three areas to evaluate in the chart below. Then assign a grade for each area. Add up the number of areas that are adequate-to-good to determine your horse’s TES grade.

All 3 areas adequate to good = TES score of A
2 of 3 areas = B
1 of 3 areas = C
0 of 3 areas = D

Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.

Step 1. Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s withers. Does it fall inward? If so, some muscle is gone. If it remains flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area, unless the horse is obese. When palpating, note the presence of muscle or fat (muscle will feel firm, while fat is spongy).

Step 2. Place your fingertips on the horse’s backbone with your palm facing downward, toward the ribs. Use the same assessment above to evaluate the muscles.

Step 3. Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.

Assess Your Horse’s Body Condition:

To evaluate a horse’s body condition score, utilize this simplified method that looks at the fat cover over the ribs, which is a primary indicator area of overall condition. Hands on evaluation is key, particularly for horses with long hair coats.

If your horse has easily visible ribs that you can feel, then the BCS is a 4 or lower.
If you can feel your horse’s ribs but cannot see them, then the BCS is a 5 to 6.
If you can’t see OR feel your horse’s ribs, then the BCS is a 7 or greater.
The ideal BCS for most horses is 5-6, but individual horses will vary based on metabolic needs, breed, level of fitness and conformation.

To help identify the nutritional needs for your horse’s topline, visit Topline Balance and take the asssessment tool to get a customized nutrition plan.

Why are Amino Acids for Horses Important?

In order to fuel, repair, and recover muscle, equine diets must optimally contain a superior amino acid profile, including all 10 of the essential amino acids. Most horse owners can quickly name the crude protein level in the feed they provide their horses. But, what horse owners really need to know about is the amino acid content. Protein is made up of amino acids, similar to how a chain is made up of links. There are two basic categories of amino acids: Essential and nonessential. Essential amino acids must be provided in the diet, as the horse cannot create them on its own in the digestive tract, where the nonessential amino acids can be made. Nutrena products that include Topline Balance help to provide the right kind and ratio of amino acids in each formula.

Another key point is that some amino acids are known as “limiting” amino acids. This means that if a horse runs out of this type of amino acid, it can’t utilize any of the remaining amino acids present in the feed. If the horse has enough of the first most-limiting amino acid, but then runs out of the second most-limiting amino acid, it can’t use the remaining amount of the third most limiting, and so on.

In horses, the first three most-limiting amino acids, in order, are lysine, methionine and threonine. Generally speaking, if these three amino acids are present in sufficient quantities, the ingredients used also provide the remaining amino acids in sufficient quantities. It is increasingly common to see these three amino acids listed on the guaranteed analysis of horse feed tags, as it is an indication of the quality of the protein sources and the balanced nature of the feed.

If you are looking for a feed that may help impact topline, be sure to look at the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag. In specific Nutrena feeds – SafeChoice products, ProForce products, and Empower Balance – the amino acid levels are called out and guaranteed on the tag. The amino acids included in Nutrena’s Topline Balance products are included in specific amounts and ratios. Research has shown that this specific combination and type of amino acids help to support a healthy topline when fed correctly.

Guaranteed amino acids on the tag is a good starting point. You then need to let the horse tell you if the feed is working by regularly evaluating and noting changes in topline condition.

Ask the Expert: Testing for Moldy Hay

Our friends at the University of Minnesota Extension have helped to answer the question, how do you know if your hay is moldy? Equine expert Krishona Martinson, PhD, offers some tips below when it comes to hay testing.

Question:  I recently purchased some hay. I thought it was good quality, but I think the hay might be a little moldy. Can I test my hay for mold?

Response: Most forage testing laboratories can test hay (and other feed stuffs) for different types and amounts of molds. The costs average $40 and takes about one week to complete. The sample is collected and submitted similar to a hay analysis for nutrient value. Watch a YouTube video on how to collect a hay sample.

All hay will have some mold; no sample will have zero mold. Mold spore counts are given in colony forming units per gram (cfu/g). Hay with less than 500,000 cfu/g of mold is considered good quality. Hay with 500,00 to 1 million cfu/g is relatively safe, while hay with over 1 million cfu/g of mold should not be fed to horses due to the risk of respiratory issues. Most people can start to detect mold around 500,000 cfu/g.

If your hay is between 500,000 and 1 million cfu/g of mold, use precaution by pulling flakes apart before feeding, feeding outside or in a well-ventilated area, using a hay net to restrict the horses ability to bury their nose into the hay, and wetting the hay to reduce the amount of mold spores inhaled. Alternatively, you could look for a better quality hay or ask your hay supplier to exchange the hay for bales with a lower mold count.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Colic: Pinpoint the Pain

HorseBlanketWhat is it?
Colic is defined as abdominal pain. It could be associated with any organ in the abdominal cavity. Generally, it refers to pain originating from the digestive tract. Colic is one of the most common causes of emergency treatment in horses. It also is the leading disease cause of death in horses.

What causes it?
Causes are many and are classified according to the contributory causes, disease present and the location in the gastrointestinal tract where the problem occurs. Examples include: ileus from intestinal spasms, gas colic resulting from nonstructural carbohydrates (starch and sugars) overloading the small intestine, obstructive colic which may be an impaction of the small or large intestine, enteritis or colitis which is inflammation of the small or large intestine, displacement, strangulation and gastric or intestinal ulcers.

What are contributory factors? (Excluding parasites)

  1. Starch overload. The feeding of cereal grains with high levels of starch that exceed the capacity of the small intestine’s ability to enzymatically break down starch and sugars, undigested starch and sugars that reach the cecum create acidosis which result in gas production, death of fibrolytic bacteria, rapid multiplication of pathogenic bacteria, destruction of the intestinal mucosa and the absorption of toxins. Gas production can contribute to displacement of the colon and strangulation. The amount of feed presented to the horse, the starch level in the feed, the source of the starch, the processing of the feed and the rate of intake are factors that can contribute. There are individual differences among horses but starch levels should not exceed 0.2% of body weight per meal.
  2. Impaction – This occurs within the lumen of intestine and may be associated with poor quality hay, lack of water consumption, large meal size, poor dental function and feeding high levels of starch. It is recommended not to exceed 0.5% of bodyweight per meal on the concentrate fed.
  3. Lack of forage – Forage should be available free choice preferably but should be fed at 1.5 – 2% of body weight per day.
  4. Pasture – Lack of access to pasture can be a contributory factor. Grass contains 70%+ moisture and the grazing process allows for exercise and trickle consumption.
  5. Change of diet – Changing hay or feed should be done gradually to allow the microflora to adapt. Sudden abrupt changes in feed or hay can be contributory factors.
  6. Feeding management practices – if possible feed individually. Competitive group feeding can cause horses to ingest too much and too rapidly. If horses are fed in groups use feeders that are spread out.
  7. Feeding routine should be consistent. Try and space the meals out and not feed meals close together.
  8. Feeding routine should have hay put out first before the feed. This will slow feed intake which is desirable.
  9. Avoid moldy feed and hay. Feed and hay should be stored properly and should be examined for the presence of mold.
  10. Inadequate water consumption is a contributory factor. Fresh clean water should be readily available at all times.
  11. Free choice salt preferably in loose form.
  12. Avoid alfalfa hay with blister beetles, black walnut shavings as bedding. Feeding management should address the prevention of sand ingestion where sandy soils occur.

Content provided by: Dr. Jim Ward, DVM, Equine Management Consultant, Cargill, Inc.

The Road Less Travelled

tevoThe idea has been in the back of Valerie Ashker’s mind for years. As a girl when riding in a car she would imagine guiding her horse over the same terrain that she saw outside her window. This spring, that dream became a reality as Valerie started a cross country horseback ride to bring awareness to a type of horse that has a special place in her heart –  Off  Track Thoroughbreds (OTTB).  Ashker’s passion for giving back to the breed that has done so much for her and her family is the true reason for her journey. She wants to share her message that no matter what discipline you’re looking at, there may be an OTTB that will work for you. And the right horse may be closer than you think.

“People should know that they don’t have to go far to find a good horse – we have so many great prospects here in our own backyard.”

She started her trek in California and ended it 3,300 miles later in Middleberg, VA. What did she take on her journey? Her partner, Peter, who rode with her through the whole journey. Her OTTB horses, Tevo and Solar, who traveled every step. And of course, she took Nutrena feed.

“Nutrena gave me the results I needed to finish” says Ashker. “In fact, one of the remarkable things about this trip is that my horses looked better at the end than they did at the beginning. They were more svelte and their body condition was fantastic.” Ashker fed Nutrena to both of her horses the entire trip.

Tevo was Valerie’s mount. This seven-year-old small & “quirky” horse was bought for $350 dollars and Ashker worked to build his confidence over time. He really showed throughout the ride that he loves trail riding. Tevo is an easy keeper and did not need a lot of extra calories but still needed enough “fuel in the tank” for each day’s travel (average 28 miles/day), so he was fed SafeChoice Perform with a bit of Empower Boost.

Solar was Peter’s mount. On the trip he ate 15 – 18 lbs/day of ProForce Fuel and Empower Boost. Solar is PSSM and it was key to be able to manage this on the trail.

Ashker noted that they were lucky to find good forage in the areas that they traveled through and that made a difference in helping to keep the horses happy and eating.

Following her epic ride, Valerie plans to continue to raise awareness and educate others about owning OTTBs. Her advice for someone just getting started is to have someone familiar with Thoroughbreds and the racetrack with you when you go horse shopping. She warns that there will be work involved: “These horses learned failure at the track. We have to take them and show them that they can be shining super stars in their second career.” But as demonstrated from her ride, that can be done. Both of the horses that Ashker took on her cross country ride are now on their third career; they came off the track to be Valerie’s event competitors before heading out on the trail. Solar served 12 years after the track even after sustaining a fractured right front leg which terminated his racing career as a four-year-old. Tevo competed three seasons through training after his brief racing career.

When it boils down to what made Ashker succeed in her 3,300 mile journey that spanned six months and 10 days she cites first and foremost her awesome OTTB horses and all the people she met along the way that shared her journey. “I just love it – and I don’t give up.”

To learn more about Valerie Ashker and what she’s doing to help support giving second chances to Off Track Thoroughbreds, visit her website at CrowsEarFarm.net and like her on facebook at 2nd Makes thru Starting Gates.

Buying Hay, What Questions Should You be Asking?

hayOur friends at the University of Minnesota Extension have created a great guide to questions you should be asking when buying hay. Equine expert Krishona Martinson, PhD, offers some helpful suggestions below:

Q: What questions should I ask when buying horse hay?
A: Here are some questions horse owners should ask when purchasing hay:

  1. Have you sold to horse owners before or do you specialize in horse hay?
  2. What is the average weight of the bales? This is very important if buying hay by the bale.
  3. How mature is the hay? Maturity is the main driver of forage quality.
  4. What species are present in the hay? Legumes and grasses have different nutrient values.
  5. Where was the hay harvested? Rule out ditch hay.
  6. Was the hay rained on? Rained on hay is a good choice for horses with metabolic problems; it tends to be lower in nonstructural carbohydrates.
  7. Was the hay stored inside or under cover after baling? Hay stored inside or under cover has less storage loss.
  8. Was the hay field fertilized and/or sprayed for weeds? Show good management and likely a better quality product.
  9. What are the payment options?
  10. Is delivery available and if so, what is the cost?
  11. What is the price? Is there a price break for volume or cash?
  12. Is assistance available with onsite handling and stacking of hay, and if so, at what cost?
  13. How much hay do you have/bale each year? Helps ensure a consistent supply of hay.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Fall Health Concerns for Horses

Fall HorsesFall can be a beautiful time of year for horseback riding. However, falling leaves and frost can negatively impact horse health.
Ingestion of dried or wilted, but not fresh, maple leaves is associated with the toxicosis. Dried leaves are not generally believed to retain toxicity the following spring. Toxicosis normally occurs in the autumn when normal leaf fall occurs. Although studies indicate that leaves collected after September 15 are more toxic, cases of toxicosis in horses due to wilted leaves after summer storms have been observed. Horses are the only species for which maple leaf toxicity has been reported. Horses are often depressed, lethargic, and anorexic with dark red or brown urine after the first day of ingestion. They may progress to going down with labored breathing and increased heart rate before death. Horses should be fenced out of areas where wilted maple leaves are plentiful.
Prunus species (species in the cherry family) contain cyanide and should be removed from horse pastures. Cyanide is released after chewing the plant or seed, or when the plant material wilts (after a frost). Animals are most commonly found dead within minutes to a few hours of ingestion of the plant.
There are no reports of toxicity of horses grazing frost damaged pastures (includes grass and legume species). Frost damaged pastures can have higher concentrations of nonstructural carbohydrates, leading to an increase in potential for founder and colic, especially in horses diagnosed with or prone to obesity, laminitis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. To reduce the chance of adverse health effects, it is recommended that horse owners wait up to a week before turning horses back onto a pasture after the first killing frost. Subsequent frosts are not a concern as the pasture plants were killed during the first frost.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Understanding a Horse’s Topline: The Impact of Nutrition

A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels. Nutrition is the single most important factor in achieving a healthy topline. To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.

Identifying & Evaluating Your Horse’s Topline

A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels.

Awareness about this topic, however, is limited. Those who do understand the need for a healthy topline have likely heard a lot of lore and conflicting information about how to achieve it. Exercise, saddle fit, genetics and age are most frequently blamed for a poor topline. Nutrition plays the most critical role, and is often overlooked as a solution to build and maintain the topline.

So What is Topline?
Topline, simply put, is the muscle groups that run along a horse’s spine. The topline of a horse stretches along the vertebral column (spine) from the end of the neck at the wither area, down the back and loin, and over the top of the hip into the croup region. Three main muscle groups surround each side of this boney column. The longissimus dorsi is attached to the pelvis, the entire thoracic vertebrae and the last four cervical vertebrae. The latissimus dorsi attaches the upper and mid back vertebrae to the lower lumbar vertebrae. The thoracic trapezius attaches the neck and mid back vertebrae to the shoulder blade. Topline can be affected to some extent by conformation, specifically as it pertains to the angle of the hip and shoulder.

Evaluating Topline
The Topline Evaluation Score (TES) allows horse owners to easily grade their horse’s topline. This evaluation system assigns a score to help determine the stages of topline development.

TES breaks the topline into three sections:
1. Withers and mid back
2. Loin
3. Croup area

Begin by visually examining the horse in these three areas. If any areas appear sunken in on the sides of the spine, improvement is needed.

Horse owners should also observe whether musculature along the spine is adequate. An ideal topline can be described as well-muscled, displaying a full and rounded athletic appearance, lacking concave or sunken-in areas, providing ability for sustained self-carriage. This region of the horse is a good visual indicator of the whole body amino acid status. Concave, or topline areas that appear “sunken-in,” are never acceptable. Flat areas may be acceptable based on breed and/or genetics, and some breeds/genetic traits may exhibit a bulging muscle around the spine.

The topline of the horse is predominately muscle. However, once a horse gets to a BCS of 8 and above (considered obese), the subcutaneous fat layer over the topline musculature becomes visible. The goal is to maximize the topline musculature without adding fat.

Hands-On Identification
While a visual examination is a good tool to evaluate topline, the addition of a hands-on evaluation is recommended. Visual examinations alone can be misleading, especially with winter hair coats.

Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.

Step 1.
Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s withers. Does it fall inward? If so, some muscle is gone. If it remains flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area, unless the horse is obese. When palpating, note the presence of muscle or fat (muscle will feel firm, while fat is spongy).
Step 2.
Place your fingertips on the horse’s backbone with your palm facing downward, toward the ribs. Use the same assessment above to evaluate the muscles.
Step 3.
Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.

Assessing Your Horse’s Topline – Evaluation Criteria
To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual descriptions in the chart below. Then assign a grade for each area. Add up the number of areas that are adequate-to-good to determine your horse’s TES grade.

All 3 areas adequate to good = TES score of A
2 of 3 areas = B
1 of 3 areas = C
0 of 3 areas = D

Topline Score: A – Ideal
This Horse Has Ideal Muscle Development:
•The topline muscles are well developed in all three areas, the spinal processes cannot be seen, and the muscles blend smoothly into the ribs
•The wither/back and loin of the horse is full and well rounded
•The croup and hip are full and the stifle muscle is well defined

Topline Score: B
The Sides of the Wither are Concave, as is the Back Between the Vertebrae and the Top of the Ribs:
•The loin muscles are well developed and are the same height as the spinal process
•The croup and the hip muscling is adequate; pelvis to point of hip is rounded

Topline Score: C
The Wither/Back and Loin Areas, Between the Vertebrae and the Ribs, are Concave:
•The ‘spinal process’ in the loin area is higher than the muscles beside it and can easily be seen and palpated
•Muscles over the croup and hindquarters are well developed and rounded

Topline Score: D
The Entire Topline, Including the Wither/Back, Loin, and Croup Areas, are Concave:
•The croup appears pointed at the top since the vertebrae and hip bones are higher than the concave muscles in between them
•In a severely affected horse, the width of its stifle is narrower than the width of the point of hip

Next Steps in Improving Topline
One of the key ways to impact topline is with the right nutrition comprised of quality protein. Since the topline is comprised of muscle, any nutrition that influences muscle will influence the topline.

To determine what nutrition best fits your horse’s needs, take the Topline Balance assessment for a customized nutrition plan.

Information compiled by: Emily Lamprecht, Ph.D., Russell Mueller, M.S. PAS and Abby Keegan, M.S. – Cargill Animal Nutrition

Feeding Foals During Weaning & Post Weaning – An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Baby SeamusProperly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone!

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal.  With that in mind, other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.  The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings.  If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day.  Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification.  Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them. The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds!  The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan.  Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal if that can be avoided.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.

There are a number of ways to separate the foals from their mothers and many farms manage in different ways.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score.  Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.  The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.  This limits nutrient availability and may limit growth and development.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition.  Uniform growth and maintaining target body condition is essential to reduce risk of certain types of Developmental Orthopedic Disease.  One of the things we want to avoid is letting the weanling get off normal growth rate, then deciding to push for rapid growth as a yearling to hit target for show or for scheduled sales.