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Basic Equine Nutrition: Changing Your Horse’s Body Score

This is a comprehensive guide to adjusting your horse’s body score from moderately thin or moderately fleshy to moderate and ideal. Includes diet adjustments, health checks, and the risks involved in letting your horse remain under or overweight. Understanding your horse’s body condition is more than just an aesthetic concern; it’s a crucial indicator of their overall health and well-being. If you’ve assessed your horse and found they have a body score of either 4 or 6, achieving a moderate score of 5 should be your next goal. This is important because a horse with a balanced body condition is generally healthier, more energetic, and less prone to diseases.

Understanding Body Scores: A Brief Rundown

  • Score 1: Emaciated and in a dire condition. The bones are clearly visible, and there’s almost no muscle mass or fat.
  • Score 2: Very thin, with the ribs easily noticeable. There’s a slight presence of muscle, but fat is virtually absent.
  • Score 3: Still thin, but not in a life-threatening condition. Shoulders and neck are slender, and some ribs may be visible.
  • Score 4: Moderately thin, with a slight covering of fat over the ribs. The hip bones may be visible but not prominent.
  • Score 5: Considered moderate and ideal for most horses. Muscle is well-distributed, and a layer of fat is present but not excessive.
  • Score 6: Moderately fleshy, with some extra fat noticeable, especially around the tail head and withers.
  • Score 7-9: Heavily overweight to obese, with significant fat deposits and potential health risks.

The blog, Understanding the 9 Equine Body Scores, goes into more depth and description of each body score. It will help you look at each part of the horse and calculate the correct body score for your horse.

Recommended Body Scores For Various Horse Conditions

Activity Levels

  1. Leisure Horses (Light Work): A body score of 5-6 is generally considered ideal for horses that engage in light work or are mostly for leisure. They need just enough fat for energy, but not so much that it affects their health.
  2. Sport Horses (Moderate to Heavy Work): A body score around 4-5 is usually recommended. Lower fat reserves may be appropriate for high-performance horses to optimize muscle tone and athletic capability.
  3. Pregnant Mares: During the early stages of pregnancy, a score of 5-6 is ideal. As the mare progresses into the later stages of pregnancy, a score of 6-7 is often recommended to support both the mare and the growing fetus.
  4. Lactating Mares: A body score of 6-7 can help ensure that the mare has enough energy to provide milk for the foal.
  5. Growing Horses (Foals, Weanlings, Yearlings): Generally, a score of 5-6 is aimed for. It’s important to balance nutrition to support growth but avoid obesity, which can cause developmental issues.
  6. Senior Horses: A body score of 5-6 is usually recommended. Older horses may have difficulty maintaining weight and may require special diets.

Special Conditions

  1. Rescue Horses: If a horse is severely underweight (scores of 1-3), the immediate goal is to improve the body score gradually and carefully under veterinary guidance.
  2. Metabolic Disorders: Horses with conditions like Cushing’s or Equine Metabolic Syndrome might need to maintain a lower body score, often around 4-5, to mitigate symptoms.
  3. Horses with Chronic Diseases: Consult your veterinarian. The ideal body score may vary greatly depending on the condition and its impact on the horse’s metabolism.

The body condition score (BCS) is a useful tool, but not a substitute for professional veterinary advice. Always consult a vet for an accurate health assessment and tailored care plan for your horse.

How Many Calories Does My Horse Need?

Calculating the calorie requirements of a horse involves various factors like weight, age, metabolic rate, and level of activity. Here are some rough estimates for a 1000-pound horse at different levels of exercise. Remember, these are approximations and should be adjusted based on individual needs and consultation with a veterinarian.

Caloric Requirements
    • At Rest (Maintenance): A 1000-pound horse at rest generally requires around 15,000 to 17,000 calories per day to maintain weight. This calculation assumes the horse is not pregnant, lactating, growing, or working. The horse spends most of its time in a pasture or stall with minimal activity.
    • Light Exercise: For light activities such as casual riding or light training a few times a week, the calorie requirements increase by approximately 20-25%. This brings the total caloric need to around 18,000 to 21,250 calories per day.
    • Heavy Exercise: For heavy activities like intense training, racing, or eventing, the calorie requirement can almost double compared to a horse at rest. In such cases, a 1000-pound horse may need approximately 28,000 to 34,000 calories per day.

Caloric values are estimates and should be adjusted based on individual horse needs. Remember to consult your veterinarian for advice that’s specific to your horse’s weight, age, and activity level for a more accurate calorie requirement.


How Many Calories is My Horse Taking In?

Type of Grass
Estimated Calories per Hour
Estimated Total Calories for 6 Hours Grazing
Kentucky Bluegrass
Kentucky Bluegrass
Alfalfa (not typical for grazing)
Alfalfa (not typical for grazing)

Please note:
“High” and “Low” quality refer to the nutritional content, which can vary due to soil quality, weather, and other environmental factors.
Alfalfa is usually not used for grazing but is included for comparison.
Always consult with a veterinarian to determine the specific dietary needs of your horse.

Common Pelleted Feeds

Popular Pelleted Feeds
Estimated Calories per Pound
Purina Strategy GX
Nutrena SafeChoice
Triple Crown Complete
Blue Seal Sentinel LS
Cargill Empower Boost
ADM StayStrong Metabolic Mineral Pellet
Farnam Platform Performance
Buckeye Nutrition Gro ‘N Win
Kent Dynasty Pro
Manna Pro Senior Weight Accelerator

Possible Health Conditions Causing Weight Imbalance


Parasite Infestation: Internal parasites can rob your horse of essential nutrients. The blog article, The Essential Guide to Horse Worming, details how to develop a comprehensive parasite control program for your horse.
Dental Issues: Poor dental health can affect your horse’s ability to chew and absorb nutrients.
Chronic Diseases: Conditions like liver or kidney disease can cause weight loss.


Insulin Resistance: A metabolic disorder that affects the way your horse processes sugar.
Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid can slow metabolism and cause weight gain.
Lack of Exercise: Simple but often overlooked, a sedentary lifestyle can cause your horse to put on pounds.

The Dangers of Imbalanced Body Score


Weak Immune System: A skinny horse is more susceptible to diseases due to a weakened immune system.
Increased Risk of Disease: Lack of proper nutrients makes your horse more prone to infections and other diseases.


Risk of Laminitis: Overweight horses are at a higher risk of developing painful inflammation in the hooves.
Cardiovascular Strain: Excess weight can strain the heart and lungs, leading to long-term health issues.


Bringing Your Horse’s Body Score from 4 to 5

1. Consult a Veterinarian

The first step is to consult a veterinarian for a thorough health check-up. This will help rule out any underlying health conditions causing the weight issue, such as dental problems or internal parasites.

2. Increase Caloric Intake

Focus on high-quality forage like alfalfa or timothy hay. You might also consider adding some pelleted feed designed for weight gain. Start slow to allow the digestive system to adjust.

3. Monitor Weight and Make Adjustments

Regularly weigh your horse and adjust the feeding plan as necessary. This could mean adding more calories or shifting the types of feed you’re using.

Bringing Your Horse’s Body Score from 6 to 5

1. Consult a Veterinarian

Just like with underweight horses, a veterinarian can rule out health conditions like insulin resistance or hypothyroidism that might cause your horse to be overweight.

2. Decrease Caloric Intake

Start by reducing high-calorie feeds such as grains and focus on high-fiber, low-calorie hays like Bermuda or oat hay.

3. Increase Exercise

Adding more physical activity to your horse’s routine can help burn excess calories. Whether it’s longer rides or free lunging, ensure the exercise is appropriate for your horse’s age and health.


Video Detailing My Feeding Program



Achieving and maintaining a moderate body score of 5 for your horse is not only achievable but essential for their long-term health and well-being. Proper diet, exercise, and regular veterinary check-ups are key components of managing your horse’s weight. In my video on YouTube, What I feed my performance horses and why, I go into detail on my feed program and why this program works for me. This exact feed program might not be what is best for you, but it will give you some ideas and references. Always consult with a veterinarian for tailored advice to ensure you are on the right track.

All of the valuable information I have learned through 25+ years of horse training and showing, I share with you to help you to improve your equestrian knowledge. Thank You.

References for information provided in this blog:

  1. Henneke, D. R., Potter, G. D., Kreider, J. L., & Yeates, B. F. (1983). “Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares.”
    • This study is foundational for understanding the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system, commonly used for assessing a horse’s body condition. It’s a reliable source for grasping the concept and significance of body condition scoring in horses.
  2. National Research Council. “Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition” (2007).
    • Published by the National Academies Press, this book offers comprehensive data on horse nutrition, including caloric needs based on weight and activity level.
  3. Ball, D. M., Collins, M., Lacefield, G. D., Martin, N. P., Mertens, D. A., Olson, K. E., … & Wolf, M. W. (2001). “Understanding Forage Quality.”
    • This paper provides in-depth information on forage quality, which can help you understand the nutritional value of different types of grass for grazing.
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