My Horse is Too Fat. What Should I Do?

Overweight horses are at risk for a number of health conditions. Here are some tips to use if your horse needs to lose weight.

By Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD; Laurie Lawrence, PhD; and Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, PAS, of the University of Kentucky Department of Animal and Food Sciences

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on animal health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition. We’ve learned how to body condition score (BCS) our horses, so let’s take a look at what horses with a BCS of 6 and higher might look like:

my horse is too fat
my horse is too fat
my horse is too fat
my horse is too fat
my horse is too fat
my horse is too fat

Now, here are some tips you can use if your horse could stand to lose some weight.

Be patient.

Depending on how fat your horse is, it could take several months to arrive at his target weight and condition score. Look for small steady changes and don’t be surprised if after some initial improvements, your horse appears to plateau. If that happens, revisit the feeding program and the exercise program and evaluate whether additional changes are necessary.

Think about calories first.

A mature horse will lose weight and condition when the number of calories it consumes is less than the number of calories it uses. Therefore, to decrease body condition the horse must either decrease calorie intake or increase calorie use (or, ideally, both). It isn’t healthy to starve a horse into weight loss, so a combination of increased calorie use and decreased calorie intake is a good approach.

Understand where calories come from.

The horse consumes calories from its pasture, hay, and grains and/or concentrated feed (such as a sweet feed). But most people underestimate the importance of hay and pasture in the horse’s diet. If hay and pasture are good quality and abundant, they can contribute the majority of the calories that a horse needs—your horse might not even need grain. The fiber in hay and pasture is also important to keep the digestive tract healthy.

Concentrates have the most calories per pound. Therefore, the first step in reducing the calorie intake of fat horses is to decrease the concentrate.

Also, do not add any extra fat to the diet. Fat is high in calories and, although it helps have a shiny coat, it is a source of calories that an already overweight horse doesn’t need.

Dealing with feeding-time frenzy.

Some horses become extremely agitated when other horses get concentrate and they don’t. To minimize this frenzy, feed a fat horse a small amount (one eight-ounce cup) of a high-protein, high-mineral supplement (often referred to a balancer pellet or a supplement pellet) at the same time the other horses get their regular concentrate. This small amount of food will help appease the fat horse and it will meet its needs for protein, vitamins, and minerals not provided by the hay.

Another option for feeding-time frenzy is to purchase some hay cubes or pellets and feed a small amount (again, less than a pound). This is a good appeasement strategy but doesn’t provide the same nutrient support as the balancer pellet. Generally, these feeds will be less palatable than concentrate and it might take the horse a few days to adapt, but most horses eventually do.

Restrict pasture access.

Lush pasture can provide an almost-unending source of calories for your horse as you can’t control the amount of grass he eats per day. The best way to reduce pasture intake is to put the horse in a drylot (sacrifice lot) where you will be able to control the amount of food your horse will have access to. This is, of course, only feasible, if there is space in your property for a dry lot. Confining a horse to a dry lot may decrease his level of activity, which will, in turn, reduce the number of calories he uses each day. Consider using a young horse as a companion to keep the fat horse moving—just ensure the horses get along so no one gets hurt. Remember to feed the youngster separately, as he will need a diet designed to meet his needs.

my horse is too fat

Use grazing muzzles.

Another way to restrict pasture intake is to use a grazing muzzle. Some horses will adapt very well to the muzzle, while others will sulk. Muzzles allow horses to eat very little at a time, and the horse will not be by himself in a dry lot. Pasturemates will keep that horse moving all day. Just be careful to fit the muzzle correctly so it doesn’t cause any facial sores.

Also, when horses are muzzled, your water source is important. Some automatic waterers have openings that are small, in which case it will be impossible for your muzzled horse to drink sufficient amounts of water. If you are watering out of a bucket or trough, then you should have no trouble.

Another thing to keep in mind when muzzling horses is that it is useless to muzzle a horse, say, for six hours of the day, and let him eat for the remaining 18 hours. He will make up for those lost six hours in the other 18 hours. You should keep the muzzle on whenever the horse is in the pasture—consistency is key.

Feed clean, late-maturity grass hay.

Hay will be primary diet component of horses managed in a drylot, barn or large paddock with minimal available pasture. Fat horses should be fed hay that was harvested in late maturity. Late-maturity grass hay (for example timothy or orchardgrass) is high in slowly digested fiber and, thus, is lower in calories than early maturity hay.

In addition, because late-maturity hay is higher in fiber, the stems are thicker, and it takes the horse more time to chew. More chewing time means that horse has less idle time between meals, and chewing uses calories. If you get your hay analyzed, look for something that contains more than 60 percent neutral detergent fiber (on an as-fed basis).

Control the amount of hay.

Some feeding guidelines suggest that a horse should receive two pounds of hay for every 100 pounds of body weight (or 20 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse). That is a pretty good guideline for a horse in moderate body condition, but for the very fat horse, it is probably more than is needed. Keep in mind that a horse with a condition score of 8 and a current weight of 1,000 pounds is really an 850- to 900-pound horse with a lot of extra padding. A reasonable starting point then for a weight loss hay allocation for that horse would be 2 pounds of hay for each 100 pounds of the target weight, or about 17 pounds of hay per day. If no weight loss occurs at this rate of feeding then, the amount can be slowly decreased. However, restricting hay too much might lead to digestive disorders or undesirable behaviors, so it is desirable to maintain a hay intake of at least 1½ pounds for each 100 pounds of the target weight.

Find ways to help your horse burn more calories.

As suggested above, putting a young or active horse with a sedentary fat horse could stimulate him to move around more. Turning stabled horses into dry lots for several hours a day can increase their activity. In a paddock, put hay and water away from fence lines, gates, resting places (and each other) to encourage movement. Use feeding devices or practices that slow the rate of eating or increase the work of eating. For example, use a small-hole haynets or, when feeding hay in the pasture, put it in many small piles to make the horse move from place to place. If you normally blanket your horse in the winter or keep him in the barn a lot, you’re helping him reduce calorie use. So, minimize blankets and time in a barn as much as possible, to maximize calorie use in the winter.


Regular exercise is one of the best ways to increase calorie use. But before starting an ambitious exercise program, have a veterinarian and a farrier evaluate your fat horse to make certain he doesn’t have any underlying diseases or lameness. Once you are sure the horse is healthy and able to start exercising, formulate a plan that gradually increases the amount and difficulty of the regular exercise.

You can start with lunging exercise, for example, 10 minutes a day at a trot for a week, then increase to 15 minutes at a trot for the second week, and progressively increase the duration until you reach about 45 minutes at least a few times a week. Remember to increase the duration or level of activity, but never both at the same time. Ideally it would be good to exercise a horse every day, but if this is not feasible, exercising three to five times a week will still be helpful.

Study: Horses Can Smell Human Fear, Happiness

horses can smell fear

Have you ever felt that a horse could smell your fear? Recent study results suggest he probably did—quite literally.

Horses can smell specific odors in human sweat that reflect emotions like fear and happiness, Italian researchers have learned. And that finding could open doors to a whole new way of understanding emotion transfer between species—and specifically, from human to horse.

“We noticed that horses had increased levels of arousal when they smelled human ‘fear’ and ‘happiness’ odors,” said Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, a researcher in the University of Pisa Department of Veterinary Sciences, in Italy.

“Even if these results are preliminary, the data support the hypothesis that avoidance or escape behaviors in horses could be due, in part, to an odor communication system at an interspecies level,” he said. “And that’s the wide window we’ve opened. Do emotional exchanges have multichannel pathways between species? Our research suggests they certainly might.”

The study complements previous research that revealed that dogs can also pick up the scents of humans experiencing fear or happiness, and react differently to those odors, said Biagio D’Aniello, PhD, of the University of Naples Federico II Department of Biology, also in Italy. Humans, however, appear to be “less skilled” at detecting such odors, he added.

In their study, Baragli; D’Aniello; Antonio Lanata, PhD, also of the University of Pisa; and colleagues studiedy how horses reacted to underarm sweat samples from young men watching movies. The volunteers, who were instructed to use no perfumed products for several days in advance, watched either horror films that evoked fear or “feel-good” films that evoked happiness. The scientists collected their sweat samples on cotton gauze and then presented them to seven horses of different breeds and ages. They recorded horses’ cardiac activity as they smelled the different sweat pads compared to an unscented sweat pad, used as a control.

The horses had clear changes in autonomous nervous system activity when they smelled the human fear and happiness odors, Baragli and D’Aniello said. However, they haven’t yet studied the valence—the specific “direction” the horses’ emotions took during the testing phase, they said. In other words, they don’t know yet whether the horses’ response to human fear is to become more fearful themselves or if their response to human happiness is to have more positive emotions themselves.

In dogs, human fear-related odors coming from strangers caused them to tend to stay closer to their owners, D’Aniello said. But when a stranger’s odors were related to happiness, the dogs tended to be more friendly and outgoing to the stranger. Further research in horses could give better insight into the emotional valence they experience when smelling “fear” or “happiness” in humans, he added.

Practically speaking, however, it might be hard to determine the effect of our smells on horses when we experience strong emotions, Baragli said. Humans usually have a variety of smells coming from beauty and cleaning products, food, and the home environment—not to mention the stable environment.

“The point isn’t really to have a direct practical application in riding centers,” Baragli said. “However, the study does draw our attention to certain points worth considering about the transfer of emotions between species—which seems to be multifactorial, including sights, sounds, touch, and smell.”

And it could give clues about how our odors—whatever they might be—could affect horses’ emotions, he added. “For example, if you use your whip incorrectly … that horse might learn to associate your combination of smells (personal smells, shampoo, food, and more) with a negative experience,” he said.

On the flip side, an association of positive emotions with our smells could be great for the human-horse relationship—but only if we’re making sure the environment allows that to happen. Welfare-compromising training tactics or stable management could reduce a horse’s sensitivity to picking up “good” associations through smells, said Baragli.

“If you feel bad psychologically, your ability to perceive the inner state of others could be flawed due to poor perception or could disappear entirely,” he said.

The study, “A Case for the Interspecies Transfer of Emotions: A Preliminary Investigation on How Humans Odors Modify Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System in Horses,” was published in the 2018 40th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.

About The Author


Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.


Is Your Horse a ‘Right-Handed Optimist’?

Researchers recently found a link between “motor laterality” and “cognitive bias”; right-sided horses tended to be optimistic and left-sided horses were more pessimistic.

Is Your Horse an optimist

Are you right-handed or left-handed? When you take a step, do you start with your right or your left foot? And does your “motor laterality” reflect the way you think and feel? It appears to in horses.

In a study published in the journal Animals1, Isabell Marr, MSc; Kate Farmer, MA; and Konstanze Krüger, PhD, found a link between “motor laterality” and “cognitive bias”; right-sided horses tended to be optimistic and left-sided horses were more pessimistic. Asymmetry in a horse’s limb use predicted positive and negative thinking, a finding that has practical applications to animal welfare science.

What is motor laterality bias?

A left-handed person could be said to have a left-forelimb motor bias. Horses also show forelimb biases that your farrier might discover from the hoof wear patterns. When your horse lowers its head to graze, the same forelimb is often positioned in front. In this resting state, Thoroughbreds appear to have a left-forelimb bias whereas Quarter Horses are more ambilateral.2

Motor laterality bias is of interest to researchers because it has been linked to emotional state and temperament. For example, in a stressful situation like trailer loading, horses were more likely to take the first step using their left forelimb and also show stress behaviors. A left-forelimb bias was not seen when the horses were simply walking, suggesting a link between motor laterality and negative emotions.3

In their study Marr, Farmer, and Krüger included three different measures of motor laterality: the leading forelimb while grazing, the initial forelimb used when walking, and the forelimb held forward when exploring a box. All have been used in previous research, but the results haven’t been consistent with one another, and the best measure of motor laterality in horses isn’t clear.

What is cognitive bias?

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Your answer might be viewed as optimistic (half-full) or pessimistic (half-empty), reflecting your positive or negative cognitive bias. Cognitive biases help an individual make a decision when not enough information is available, but these judgments are subjective, influenced by the situation, past experience, and personality.

To study cognitive bias in horses Marr and her colleagues used a procedure called location discrimination training. The horse was free to check out a box positioned in front of it either on the right or left side, and the researchers measured how quickly the horse approached the box from a fixed starting point. Which side the box was on alternated randomly between right and left. The horses were motivated to approach the box, because sometimes it was baited with food. For half of the horses, if the box was on the right side it always had food, but if the box was on the left side it was always empty. The side with food was reversed for the remaining horses.

After completing ten training trials every day for six days, all 16 horses had figured it out. They were much faster to approach the box with food and many stopped approaching the empty box altogether. The horses had learned to discriminate based on the box’s location, which is a fairly easy task for many animals.

The test for cognitive bias came next. What would the horse do if the box was placed in a new location directly in the middle, without any previous experience to guide its actions? Would the horse behave “optimistically” and approach the box quickly? Or would it behave “pessimistically” and approach the box slowly or not at all? From this study and others, we know that when the box is placed in this ambiguous middle location individuals behave differently; “optimists” will approach quickly as if they expect to find food and “pessimists” will approach slowly as if they expect the box to be empty.

 How is motor laterality related to cognitive bias?

One of the research team’s key discoveries was that a horse’s forelimb preference predicted its cognitive bias. Horses who walked off taking their first step with the right forelimb were optimistic, approaching the box in the ambiguous middle location quickly. Horses with a left forelimb preference were pessimistic, approaching the middle box more slowly or not at all.

In this study, horses were in a familiar location walking toward a box that frequently contained food, and most (12 of 16, or 75%) showed a right-forelimb preference. Did the low-stress activity influence the disproportionate number of horses with a right-sided bias? Other studies have reported a more even ratio of left and right forelimb laterality in horses, and one found a left-forelimb bias when horses were in a stressful situation.3

Is motor laterality a useful welfare indicator?

At this point you might be tempted to rush to the barn curious to find out if your horse has a right or left forelimb preference and if she is an optimist or pessimist. Knowing how our horses think and feel is important, but this research was motivated by a more-worthwhile purpose.

One goal of welfare science is to accurately assess an animal’s emotional state. Equine welfare is typically gauged by the absence of negative indicators (rather than by the presence of positive indicators), as Marr and her colleagues point out. Pessimistic cognitive bias has been linked to poor welfare and negative emotional state, including anxiety, fear, and depression. Optimistic cognitive bias is a promising measure of positive animal welfare, especially since an individual’s degree of bias can change with the situation and recent experience. For example, a horse in an unfamiliar environment might show a pessimistic bias, which could be a situational effect rather than a fixed character trait.

The results of Marr, Farmer, and Krüger’s study are particularly intriguing because, not only do they build on existing research in horses, they also mirror similar findings in other species. For example, left-pawed dogs are more pessimistic than right-pawed or ambilateral dogs.4 Measuring cognitive bias takes a lot of time, but motor laterality could offer a simple, practical indicator of positive welfare if further research confirms that an animal’s right-limb-use bias is reliably linked to its positive emotional and cognitive state.


About The Author


Robin Foster, PhD, CHBC, Cert. AAB, IAABC, is a certified horse behavior consultant and research professor at the University of Puget Sound and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials at Hand

What’s in your horse’s hoof-care box? Here are the items that hoof care professionals recommend you keep on hand.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Items you should find in any well-stocked hoof-care box

Deb Simone goes through the same hoof-care routine before every ride on her Trakehner-Hanoverian cross mare, Lovey: She uses a hoof pick to remove debris from the mare’s feet, and then she applies hardener to each hoof wall. Simone believes this simple ritual is critical to keeping Lovey’s hooves free of cracks, splits, and the infection-causing microbes that love to set up shop within them. She also believes this ounce of prevention is cheaper than the added veterinarian and farrier visits that become necessary if Lovey’s feet are neglected. 

“I’ve had so much trouble with her feet in the past, I just try to pay attention to them,” Simone says. 

But even she admits that her cache of hoof-care tools is probably lacking.

“The hoof hardener and the pick are about all I have,” she says. “I know there must be other things I should have on hand.”

In fact, most horse owners do not have a kit specifically dedicated to hoof care, says Dave Farley, CF, immediate past president of the American Association of Professional Farriers, who shoes sport horses around Coshocton, Ohio. 

“In the old days, everyone had a hoof box, but now most people don’t,” Farley says. “Fortunately, people are getting back to at least having (a community hoof box) in their (boarding) barns, and that’s good for the horse.”

That’s because regular hoof care is key to a horse’s general health, says Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, of the Minnesota-based practice Turner Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery. His research focuses on the connection between performance and equine podiatry.

“If you’re a jumper you land on it; if you’re a racehorse it propels you,” says Turner of hooves. “There are 100 cliches, but it’s true: No foot, no horse.”

Fortunately, keeping a horse’s feet clean and in good condition is not complicated, he says. All it takes is some time, know-how, and a well-stocked hoof-care box. Here’s what Turner, Farley, and other professionals recommend owners keep in it.

The Essential Ingredients

A hoof pick

Available from just about any tack or farm supply store, a serviceable hoof pick can be had for between $1.99 and $3.99; higher-end ones run as much as $20. Hoof picks are intended to do just that: pick or remove all manner of debris, including sand, pebbles, and even bits of wood or glass, that horses pick up roaming pastures, navigating trails, or performing in arenas. Though using a hoof pick seems like a no-brainer, some horse owners don’t know how to use one properly, says Jeannean Mercuri, New York-based professional trimmer and member of the American Hoof ­Association.

Mercuri says most owners use a hoof pick to knock out loose clumps of manure and dirt that accumulate in a horse’s hoof. But there’s much more to it than that, she says.

“People usually don’t go deep enough when cleaning,” Mercuri says. “You want to get everything—sand, small stones—out of that hoof.”

She also warns against spending too little on this simple but indispensable device. That’s because cheaper picks are made of softer-quality metal, rendering them impractical for everyday use.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

“As a result, people use the pick, and the metal bends, and they think, ‘Oh no! I’ve pressed too hard,’ when that’s probably not the case.”

Similarly, Farley recommends avoiding cheap plastic-handled hoof picks that come with an attached brush.

“I would rather see a quality hoof pick with a handle, period,” he says. “Besides, the really cheap ones wear out really fast.”

A hoof brush

Another simple but critical tool in the hoof-care box—a hoof brush—helps sweep away debris loosened or missed by the hoof pick. These brushes are composed of stiff synthetic PVC bristles. In addition to cleaning the horse’s hoof, careful brushing gives owners a chance to examine the animal’s feet from heel to toe, says Farley.

“After you use the pick to clean every part of the sole and every side of the hoof, brush the sides of the frog and then brush the sole so that you can see all the debris that might be in the hoof,” he says. “Work forward from the (heel) bulb.”

Likewise, Farley advises owners to invest in a quality free-standing hoof brush.

“If you get a good one, you’re only going to have to buy one,” he says.

In any case, a thorough hoof cleaning is well worth the time it takes to do it. “It keeps the hoof clean, and it gives you a chance to examine the hoof and find things before they become big issues,” Turner says. “You don’t have to make a science project out of it, just do it ­regularly.”

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

The Extras

A rasp

Farriers use a rasp to finish and smooth the edges of a horse’s hoof. For them, the tool is indispensable, but you should include it in your hoof-care box, too, says Lori McBride, CJF, a farrier based in Louisville, Ohio.

“You should ask your farrier if he or she has an old one you can have,” McBride says. “It’s probably too old and worn for his or her use, but it’s just fine in case you have to file away a piece of hoof or file down a crack in the hoof that is bigger than it appears—just like filing your nails.”

A crease nail puller

Basically a long-handled pair of pliers, this tool allows owners to remove individual nails from the “crease,” or the groove in which the nail sits in the shoe. Once you’ve removed the nails you can remove the shoe itself.

“It’s good to have one on hand in case a horse comes in with a shoe that’s twisted or damaged and the farrier visit is about a day away,” McBride says. “You can find an inexpensive one for about $25.”

You can also use this tool to remove “hot,” or painful, nails.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Topical hoof hardener

Brushed directly onto the horn, which makes up the hoof wall, this liquid is available under many names. The substance is intended with regular use to protect the hoof against weakness created by moisture from urine or wet ground and to fortify the hoof against cracking. Most simply, hoof hardeners are designed to balance moisture content and might help prevent shoes from coming loose or abscesses from developing.

Thrush treatment

When they do appear, cracks and splits create the perfect habitat for the microbes that cause thrush (a bacterial infection that occurs in the frog tissue) and other equine foot infections. This is one reason every hoof-care box should contain an antithrush product or mild antiseptic such as povidone-iodine (Betadine). 

“Get a good thrush product that is not corrosive and will not eat away at healthy tissue,” Mercuri says.

Poultice sheets

Easy-to-apply poultices such as Animalintex help draw out inflammation and infection and are commonly used to treat issues such as foot bruises and encourage hoof abscesses to drain.

A hoof-soaking boot or bucket

These can make soaking abscessed feet or applying treatment for conditions such as white line disease easier.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Self-adhesive flexible bandage and duct tape

Tucked someplace in the barn is at least one roll of the strong, stretchy, gauzy material you can use to bandage wounds, hold medicinal or liniment poultices in place, or wrap a foot that has lost a shoe until the farrier arrives (Vetrap or Co-Flex are some examples). 

Duct tape has a million uses around the farm, but it is most useful in a hoof-care box to help wrap a foot that has lost a shoe or is healing from an abscess.

“I like duct tape because it stays on; Vetrap is not as durable,” Turner says, which is why many horse owners use a combination of the two when wrapping a foot.

Gauze pads

Whether for dressing a wound or applying a poultice, every hoof-care box should include a stack of 3-by-3-inch or larger nonstick gauze bandages or dressings such as Telfa pads, says McBride. Some people use disposable diapers as an alternative, she says.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Hoof knife

A sharp hoof knife (or scissors or a single-edge razor blade) comes in handy to cut gauze pads, Vetrap, or duct tape to the desired size.

Mercuri says she always keeps a pair of sharp kitchen shears, for instance, on hand to remove a piece of frog that might be hanging from a hoof.

A clean towel

Farley suggests also including an absorbent towel in your hoof-care box. After you clean and brush the horse’s hoof completely, use a towel to dry it thoroughly before applying any hoof hardener or other treatment, he says.

“Pick up the foot, wrap it in the towel, and really cradle it for a minute,” he says, to soak up surface moisture. “It will make the treatment more effective.”

The list of additional hoof-box contents is seemingly endless. Work with your farrier and veterinarian to craft one that’s practical for you and your horse’s needs.

Take-Home Message

Whatever you put in your hoof-care kit, Turner believes the benefits of routine attention to a horse’s feet go far beyond what’s in the box.

First of all, when you pick up your horse’s feet on a regular basis, you’re training him to do it for you, for the veterinarian, and for the farrier, Turner says. It will make hoof procedures much easier when they’re needed, which is not the time to train.

Regular hoof care has even more subtle benefits. “It does so much for the horse, for his mind, and for his body, and it helps horses and owners bond,” says Turner.

About The Author


Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

How Young is Too Young to Start a Horse Under Saddle?

The best age for horse to start training is highly debated. An equine surgeon offers advice.

How Young is Too Young to Start a Horse Under Saddle

Q.What is the best age to start training a horse under saddle? I have a yearling Quarter Horse who’s still growing. I’ve seen trainers start working horses under saddle as early as 2, but I want to make sure my filly is sound and fully developed before I start putting her through the rigors of training. What’s your recommendation?

—Via e-mail

A.This a good question and one that is frequently debated. The age that horses are started in training varies considerably between breeds and disciplines and is often dictated by customs or the desire to compete in important futurities or races for young horses.

Some feel that 2 years of age is too early start in training. However scientific studies do not necessarily support this idea. In fact, there’s a strong body of evidence that young horses that have moderate exercise early in life have decreased developmental orthopedic problems and future athletic injuries. The keys are recognizing each horse’s individual differences in physical development and to not overtrain.

In general, a young horse that can’t handle the workload will show signs of musculoskeletal inflammation and/or soreness. Early recognition and modification of the work load is key to preventing serious injury. Remember, like any athlete, a horse must adapt their skeleton (bones, muscle, tendons, and ligaments) to meet the workload demands of their job. This doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over months. An experienced trainer can help guide you through the process.

About The Author


W. Wesley Sutter, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, was born in Lander, Wyoming. He received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Colorado State University in 1997 and his veterinary degree in 2000. Following veterinary school, he completed a one-year rotating equine surgery and medicine internship at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, in Lexington, Kentucky. He then completed a surgical residency at The Ohio State University, where he later served as an assistant professor in equine orthopedic surgery before entering private practice as a surgeon at Ocala Equine Hospital, in Florida. After five years at Ocala Equine Hospital, he co-founded Lexington Equine Surgery and Sports Medicine, also in Lexington. He returned to Rood & Riddle as a surgeon in 2018. His primary interests are in equine orthopedics, upper respiratory surgery, and lameness. He’s the author of several scientific papers and book chapters.

Collecting Colostrum From Mares

How can you collect colostrum and save it for future use, and how long can you keep it? A veterinarian weighs in.



QHow can I collect colostrum from a mare and save it for future use, and how long can I keep it?

—Ashley, via e-mail

AColostrum or “first milk” is the thick, yellow secretion from the mammary gland that’s present immediately after birth. Produced in the mare’s udder during the last two to four weeks of gestation in response to hormonal changes, colostrum contains concentrated immunoglobulins (antibodies) from the mare’s serum. Colostrum and its protective antibodies are present in the mare’s milk for only the first day after foaling; these maternal antibodies are necessary to protect the foal against infectious diseases. The best-quality colostrum is produced in the first eight hours post-foaling. Ideally, the foal will receive at least two pints of mare’s milk within the first 12 hours of its life.

But for various reasons, a foal might not receive the colostrum it needs:

  • The foal is too weak to stand and nurse unassisted. Then, colostrum might need to be milked from the mare and fed via tube to the foal.
  • A foal is capable of nursing, but does not receive sufficient colostrum because the mare had premature lactation. That is, she leaked “first milk” and colostrum before the foal was born. By the time of foal delivery, all the colostrum was gone.
  • Testing of the colostrum reveals an inadequate immunoglobulin content.

There are other reasons to collect colostrum. If a mare is at risk of dying, colostrum should be collected from her. Additionally, one might opt to collect colostrum for storage in a colostrum bank as “insurance” for mares which deliver a foal, then don’t have sufficient quantity or quality of colostrum. Many large breeding farms collect and store colostrum for these reasons.

One gathers colostrum by milking the secretion from the teats. This is an easy procedure that takes only a few minutes and can be done by anyone. Grasp the teat between the thumb and forefinger and gently squeeze and force the milk downward within the teat canal (the cavity inside the teat). No special equipment is required other than clean hands and a clean container in which to collect the colostrum. Clean, plastic, screw-top containers or sealable plastic bags are preferred so they are easy to open when frozen.

After the colostrum is collected, it can be stored in any freezer for up to a year (when frozen at -4°F/-20°C). Frozen immunoglobins are stable for much longer, but the overall quality of the colostrum deteriorates over time. Just prior to use, thaw stored colostrum at room temperature or in warm water. Do not thaw by microwave as essential antibodies can be destroyed.

Because colostrum is only available for the first 12-24 hours after a mare foals, it’s crucial to work within that timeframe. After that, normal milk production takes over and the amount of immunoglobulin is diluted by the normal milk secretion.

It is preferable to collect colostrum shortly after the healthy foal has nursed the mare for the first time, because over time the concentration of immunoglobulins will be diluted by increasing milk production. After the foal has nursed, approximately one pint can be obtained safely from the mare without risking any colostrum deficiency to her foal. Only eight to 10 ounces of colostrum should be collected—one time—from each mare per foaling so as not to deprive the foal.

It should be noted that if colostrum is stored in a colostrum bank where it might be administered to foals from other mares, it is essential to have the colostrum tested prior to freezing for the presence of specific antibodies to equine red blood cell types Aa and Qa. These are the most common blood types that result in a colostrum cross-match abnormality known as neonatal isoerythrolysis (NI, or jaundiced foal). In that situation, the anti-Aa or anti-Qa antibodies in the colostrum bind to those specific blood types on the foal’s red blood cells, thus causing the removal of those antibody-coated red blood cells from the foal’s blood circulation and resulting in anemia and jaundice.

Testing can be done by several veterinary laboratories around the country, at some of the larger referral practices, and in the veterinary schools.

About The Author

Fairfield T. Bain, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVP, specializes in internal medicine and pathology. He is an equine technical services veterinarian at Merck Animal Health.

Designing Your Horse’s Diet

Developing your horse’s ration involves more than just tossing together nutrients. Follow this step-by-step approach to balance your horse’s diet. Read an excerpt of this in-depth article from our January 2019 issue now!

Designing Your Horse's Diet

A step-by-step approach to ration-balancing

To some, listening to fingernails on a chalkboard sounds more pleasing than sitting down to balance a horse’s diet. But it’s an important part of horse ownership. The National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Nutrient Requirements for Horses (who authored a document of the same name in 2007), states that the goal of any equine diet is to “provide nutrients that efficiently maintain a horse’s body and well-being and support functions related to growth, production, and work.” The committee advises the government on the nutrients required by all equids.

Whether building a plan for feeding a new horse or troubleshooting a current horse’s diet to see what could be missing, ration evaluation is key to health and performance. With the NRC’s requirements as our guide, we’ll take on ration-­balancing one step at a time. So embrace your inner mathematician, and let’s get started.

The Steed Deets

First things first: Gather information about the equid you’re feeding. The NRC publishes tables of data (available here: listing daily requirements for energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals based on a horse’s weight and physiological class (think growing, pregnant, lactating, or performance). But creating a balanced diet depends on more than just science. There’s an art form to feeding horses—the “equine factor” will play an influential role and must be considered on a case-by-case basis, including:

A successfully balanced diet must also take into account factors such as feed palatability (Does the horse prefer sweet feed over pelleted?), mealtime behavior (Does he bolt feed?), and management practices (How many meals does he get per day?).

Keep the appropriate NRC tables of nutrient requirements for your horse on hand as you evaluate his diet.

Body Condition Scoring Horses: Step-by-Step

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on equine health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition.

body condition scoring horses

By Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD; Laurie Lawrence, PhD; and Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, PAS, of the University of Kentucky Department of Animal and Food Sciences

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on animal health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition. Since 1983, a procedure developed by Don Henneke, PhD, has served to provide a standard body condition scoring system that can be used across breeds and by all horse people. The system assigns a numerical score—1 through 9—based on the amount of fat that has accumulated in the important areas used to assess horses’ body condition.

The Body Condition Scoring System

The Henneke system assesses accumulated fat both visually and by palpation in each of six areas: ribs, behind the shoulder, withers, loin, tailhead, and neck. A numerical value is assigned based on the fat accumulated in all six areas (Table 1).

Body Condition Scoring Horses


The first place to look when assessing a horse’s body condition score (BCS) is the ribcage. If ribs are easily seen, the horse will have a score over the ribcage below a 5. If you cannot see the ribs, then the score should be a 5 or above. During winter and spring it might be difficult to see ribs because of the horse’s coat, so it is always important to run your fingers across the ribcage to assign the correct score.

A very thin horse will have prominent ribs—easily seen and felt—with no fat padding. As the horse gains weight and body condition, a little padding can be felt around the ribs. By score 5, the ribs will no longer be visible, but can be easily felt. Once the body condition score is above 7, the ribs become more difficult to feel.

body condition scoring horses


A BCS of 5 means the shoulder blends smoothly with the body. At increasing condition scores, fat is deposited behind the shoulder and becomes bulging. This observation is especially true in the region behind the elbow. The shoulder’s bony structures will become more visible as the scores drop below 5.

body condition scoring horses


If a horse is very thin, no fat will be deposited between the top of the shoulder blade and the spinal vertebrae, making the two structures easily discernible. As the horse’s condition score increases, fat fills in between the top of the shoulder blade and spinal vertebrae; so, at a condition score of 5, the withers will appear rounded. As horses approach the high end of the condition scoring scale, the withers will be bulging with fat.

body condition scoring horses


The loin is the area of the back just behind where the saddle sits. At a condition score of 5, the loin area will be relatively level—the spine is not sticking up, nor is there a dent or crease along the spine. At condition scores below 5, the spine starts to become prominent; this is sometimes called a “negative crease.” A very thin horse will have an obvious ridge down the back where the vertebrae of the spine become obvious. As the condition score increases above a 5, fat begins to build up on either side of the spine and a visible crease starts to appear.

body condition scoring horses


In a very thin horse, the tailhead is prominent and easily discernible. Once the horse starts gaining weight, fat fills in around the tailhead. As the condition score exceeds 7, the fat will feel soft and begin to bulge.

body condition scoring horses


In a very thin horse, you might be able to see the neck’s bony structures. As the horse gains condition, fat will be deposited on the top of the neck. At a condition score of 5, the neck blends smoothly into the body. Body condition scores of 8 and 9 are characterized by a neck that is thick all around with fat evident at the crest.

body condition scoring horses

Overall Score

After each area is assessed and assigned a score (not all horses will get the same score at each location) you can average all the scores to get to a final overall score. For example, a horse might score 6 on some areas and 7 on others. For research purposes, the overall score can have decimal numbers, but for practical purposes, most people would record a value of 6+ or 7-.

Putting the System to Work

Horses can perform almost every activity at a BCS of 5. Many athletic horses are kept at a BCS of 5, sometimes 6, depending on their discipline. Some equine athletes, such as endurance horses, will have condition scores between 4 and 5.

However, keeping broodmares at condition scores below 5 could reduce their reproductive efficiency. In addition, horses with condition scores below 5 could lack the fat stores necessary to withstand a cold winter or other stressful situation.

On the other hand, horses that have condition scores above 6 could be less exercise tolerant than their trimmer counterparts, and very fat horses could put extra stress on bones, joints and hooves.

Horse owners should regularly condition score their horses to determine whether a change in body condition would be desirable.



Feeding an Easy Keeper on Stall Rest

Our nutrition expert offers advice on preventing weight gain and boredom while a hefty horse is on stall rest.

feeding an easy keeper on stall rest

QMy easy-keeper just got put on 30 days of stall rest with 15 minutes of hand walking twice a day due to a possible soft-tissue injury. He’s the kind of horse that requires regular exercise to stay fit and trim and eats on the low end of what’s recommended for his size and activity level. His diet prior to stall rest included orchard grass hay and a ration balancer. He’s bored in his stall and hoovering down his hay and feed. I’m concerned about him gaining weight because that could add stress to his injury. How can I keep him from gaining weight while on rest while also keeping him entertained?

—Nicole, via e-mail

AConfinement and rehabilitating easy keepers can be a real challenge. You’re right in wanting to minimize weight gain in order to control stress on the soft-tissue injury as well as wanting to minimize the risk of boredom while he’s out of work.

Typically, when calories need to be cut, grain (concentrate feeds) should be the first thing to go. So, it’s tempting to remove the ration balancer. However, this is needed to ensure his diet remains balanced and is providing enough essential nutrients, such as copper, zinc, and vitamin E, which a hay-based diet might lack.

Ensuring adequate copper is important because it’s needed for collagen formation, and that’s the foundation of the soft tissue you want to heal. Therefore, I would avoid reducing his ration balancer amount unless absolutely necessary. Should it become necessary to reduce the ration balancer you could switch to a ration balancing supplement rather than a feed, which will have fewer calories.

Nutrient Intake Matters for Healing

Calorie reduction is going to be from reducing the amount of hay being fed, which I dislike doing. Plus, it sounds as though you’re already feeding the low end. I’d become diligent about weighing the hay you’re feeding, so no extra ounces sneak into his feeder.

Calculate your horse’s body weight, too, and make sure that you maintain a hay intake of 1.5% of estimated body weight. You can go as low as 1% of body weight, but I am always loathed to do that and would not suggest it unless absolutely necessary. I’ve seen horses become destructive and begin stereotypic behavior such as wood chewing and eating bedding at such low intakes. Gastric ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues are also a greater risk on such low intakes.

Slow Down Feed Intake

The trick is therefore to figure out how to make the reduced ration take a long time to eat in order to keep the brain and gastrointestinal tract busy. This is where the numerous slow feeders on the market are very beneficial.

Using small-hole, slow-feed haynets are an excellent way to slow hay intake. There are numerous manufacturers of these nets and they come with holes in an assortment of sizes. You can start with a moderate size hole and get increasingly smaller holes if needed to slow down intake. Dividing the day’s total hay into as may small meals as you can manage will also help. However, this can be unrealistic depending on your lifestyle. For this reason, I like automatic feeders that can be used to feed hay pellets. You could also use one to dispense the ration balancer.

Take-Home Message

Maintaining an easy keeper on stall rest can be challenging. Feeding too little can risk your horse not getting the nutrition he needs and cause stomach issues. Try a vitamin and mineral supplement instead of a ration balancer feed to reduce calorie intake, and use slow feeders to help meals last longer and stave of boredom.

About The Author


Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

Abortion in Horses: Incidence and Causes

Equine abortion remains a common issue, and both infectious and

abortion in horses

The loss of a developing fetus during pregnancy can be a frustrating, emotional, and costly experience for horse owners, farm workers, veterinarians, and the public. A thorough evaluation of the aborted fetoplacental unit (the fetus and placenta) by a veterinary pathologist can help determine the cause of abortion; identify new, unusual, or foreign causes of fetal loss; rule out infectious agent involvement; and aid in the epidemiologic monitoring of abortifacients (factors that can result in abortion).

A two-year review of equine abortions, from the 2016 and 2017 breeding seasons, was conducted at the University of Kentucky (UK) Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to evaluate current abortion trends.

Dates listed below indicate data for the respective breeding season, not calendar year. A total of 898 cases of equine abortion, 570 from 2016 and 328 from 2017, were evaluated.

The majority of cases were considered sporadic and unrelated, except for one equine herpesvirus-1 abortion storm identified during the 2016 breeding season. Abortions during early gestation began in May of the 2016 breeding season and June of 2017 breeding season. The highest number of abortions occurred in March of both years, and the last abortions occurred in July of 2017 (2016 breeding season) and May of 2018 (2017 breeding season). Abortions were categorized into infectious (2016= 55% and 2017= 38%) and non-infectious causes (2016= 45% and 2017= 62%).

Infectious causes of fetal death were attributed to bacterial, viral, fungal, and unidentified (presumably bacterial) agents that resulted in placentitis (inflammation of the placenta) and/or systemic infections. Placentitis was the most common cause of infectious disease and was identified in 280 cases (24.6%) in 2016 and 102 cases (20.2%) in 2017. Approximately 5% of abortions each year were attributed to ascending placental infections through the mare’s cervix by bacteria such as Streptococcus zooepidemicus and Escherichia coli. Nocardioform/mucoid placentitis was diagnosed in 145 (12.7%) and 27 (5.3%) cases during 2016 and 2017, respectfully. Three cases of mycotic placentitis were diagnosed in 2016, and one case was diagnosed in 2017. Placentitis due to unidentified agents occurred in 79 (6.9%) cases in 2016 and 47 (9.3%) cases during 2017. Agents were not identified, presumably, due to the use of antimicrobial therapy, chronic resolved infections, or overgrowth by environmental organisms. Leptospiral abortion or perinatal death was identified in five cases (0.4%) during 2016 and 11 cases (2.2%) in 2017. Abortion due to fetal bacterial septicemia or pneumonia was diagnosed in 4.4% of cases in 2016 and 1.6% of cases in 2017. Equine herpesvirus-1 was the only viral agent identified in fetuses over the two-year period, and it was responsible for 16 (1.4%) abortions or perinatal deaths in the 2016 breeding season and 10 (2.0%) in the 2017 breeding season.

Noninfectious causes of abortion are considered sporadic events. They included abortion associated with umbilical cord torsion (2016= 3.9% and 2017= 7.9%), fetal stress (2016= 1.8% and 2017= 2.0%), placental “cervical pole” necrosis (2016= 0.5% and 2017= 0.4%), twin pregnancy (2016= 0% and 2017= 0.6%), miscellaneous causes (hydrops, tissue necrosis of unknown etiology, and maternal stress and disease; 2016= 1.2% and 2017= 2.0%), and abortion of undetermined cause (2016= 14.9% and 2017= 27.5%).

Abortion of undetermined cause occurs quite regularly and is frustrating to both clients and diagnosticians. Based on the human and veterinary literature, many of these occur due to physiologic abnormalities (e.g., fetal cardiovascular disease, hypoxia), stress and disease in the pregnant mare, autoimmune disorders, genetic irregularities, environmental exposures, and endocrine abnormalities; all of which cannot be easily assessed or tested for in the aborted fetoplacental units. A diagnosis of abortion of undetermined etiology isn’t completely without value, because infectious diseases and other possible causes of abortion storms can be readily ruled out.

In conclusion, equine abortion remains a common issue. Both infectious and noninfectious causes are frequently responsible. Evaluation of the aborted fetoplacental unit by your local veterinary diagnostic laboratory can aid in determining the cause of abortion, help to monitor and track known abortifacients, and identify new and possibly emerging causes of abortion.

noninfectious causes are frequently responsible.