Knowing a horse’s bodyweight is useful for calculating their nutrient requirements, however, since there are currently no defined methods for calculating the ‘correct’ weight for a particular horse, bodyweight is of little use in assessing the current physical status of an animal ie. whether the horse over or underweight. For this reason, monitoring condition may be considered a more useful tool as it can give an immediate indication of the current physical state of an animal, which is more practically useful for the management of feeding and exercise regimes.
A visual assessment of a horse’s body condition takes into account the amounts of body fat which are present and the level of muscle tone and development overall. The body stores excess dietary calories as fat, whilst dietary protein supplies amino acids which are the building blocks of muscle and other body tissues. Assessing the amount of fat the horse is carrying can give us a good indication of how well its calorie requirements are being met.
Assessing the top line and musculature also gives an indication of the protein content of the diet. Too little, or protein of insufficient quality, can mean that muscle and body tissues remain underdeveloped which could compromise the horse as its workload increases and it progresses through the grades. The horse’s genetics dictate the numbers and types of muscle fibres in the body, which may be seen as a more rounded, “muscly” stamp of horse, or a leaner one, for example. We cannot change the horse’s genetic make-up through diet but we can help optimise what genetics provide.
This Top Line Assessment has been developed by Baileys, in conjunction with Don Kapper of Progressive Nutrition, Ohio, USA, and is used in the States to assess the overall muscle development of horses of all ages. The horse’s top line (musculature) from the neck, over the withers and back to the hip and stifle area, is assessed.
As a guide, a Top Line Assessment of Good to Excellent indicates that the horse’s diet is supplying sufficient or optimum levels of good quality protein, whilst an assessment of Adequate to Poor indicates that the diet is supplying insufficient levels of quality protein to meet minimum requirements.
A strong healthy musculature and top line are essential if a horse is to perform to the best of his ability and can only be built by correct training if the diet supplies the necessary range of amino acids from good quality protein. Ensuring a horse’s dietary protein requirements are met at all times will help maintain top line and muscle tone, even during lay-off periods.
The Body Condition Scoring system used by Baileys is based on the American 1 – 9 system (adapted from Henneke et al 1983) which gives the assessor greater flexibility and detail for the score given. The neck, ribs and rump need to be looked at and felt in order to assess the horse’s overall condition and level of body fat which provides an indication of the calorie intake of the horse in question.
As a guide, a Body Condition Score of less than 4 would indicate that the horse’s minimum calorie requirements are not being met by its diet, whilst one of more than 6 would indicate that its diet is supplying more calories than the horse requires.
In the UK a scoring system of 1-5 is traditionally used whilst in the USA a 1-9 system is more common. The 1-9 system is more detailed and is the system that we have chosen to describe here.
The descriptions for the American condition scoring system are as follows:
In humans, increased fat around the abdomen is more closely linked to metabolic disease than overall body fat. This also seems to be the case for horses, while excess fat across the neck is also associated with increased circulating insulin and insulin resistance, which may increase the risk of problems such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and laminitis.
For this reason, a standardised Cresty Neck Score (CNS) has been developed for objective assessment of the neck and fat deposits that are laid down here. It’s important to distinguish between a well-developed top line/muscly neck and one which is carrying fat so it’s important not only to stand back and look at the horse but also to feel and palpate the thickness and fatty deposits.
Cresty Neck Scores correlate with BCS scores of 4/5 and above so a CNS of 0 represents the neck of a horse with a BCS of 5 (Moderate). A CNS of 3 out of 5, or higher, has been found to be associated with an increased risk of laminitis. It is therefore important to monitor CNS on a regular basis, particularly in UK Native breeds that may be at a greater risk of developing a cresty neck than lighter breeds such as Thoroughbreds.
Having evaluated your horse’s Top Line, Body Condition and Cresty Neck Scores, you will have a good idea of where your horse deposits fat and builds muscle, which will help identify areas for weight gain, loss or top line development. It is, however, important to remember that is difficult to focus weight loss or gain in a particular region of the body and all horses are individuals – just like people!
Key considerations that may influence the horse’s natural body shape include:
You will now also have an indication of any shortfalls, or excesses, in the diet which you can address accordingly. Make sure your chosen feed is formulated for your horse’s workload and feed according to recommendations. If you have any questions about adjusting your horse’s diet, for whatever reason, speak to your local Baileys Feed Advisor or contact our Nutrition Team on 01371 850 247 (option 2) or firstname.lastname@example.org .