Evaluate Energy Needs

We’ll give you the straight scoop on grain

Many horse owners think the only question to ask about grain is, “how much?” But you should actually start with the more basic question, “does my horse need grain at all?” Asking questions like this to help design your horse’s ideal diet has a two-fold goal. The first is making sure your horse has all the nutrients he needs to look and feel his best (this will be covered more in the following chapters). The second is to provide enough energy (calories) for your horse to maintain a healthy body condition and support his level of work, while avoiding the problems associated with feeding grain if it’s not needed.

Keeping Score — Why Weight Matters

It’s hard to resist the urge to squeal over how adorable a chubby pony is, but unfortunately, overweight horses and ponies aren’t cute — they’re unhealthy. Being too thin also comes with risks and health concerns. But who decides whether a horse is too fat, too thin, or just right? You can, thanks to the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale! Developed by Dr. Don Henneke and universally used by veterinarians, nutritionists, and other equine health professionals, the scale provides a standard scoring system for horse owners and professionals to use when evaluating a horse’s fat cover.

The scale ranges from 1, which is the thinnest, to 9, which is the fattest, making 5 the ideal score for most breeds and disciplines. Don’t know who to body condition score? Check out our step-by-step instructions on how to body condition score your horse below.

The Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale

This tool offers an excellent way to measure trends in your horse’s weight because it provides a standard system for you, your veterinarian, and other equine professionals to use and compare. It runs from 1, which is “poor” (the thinnest) to 9, which is “extremely fat” (the fattest). A score of 5, or “moderate”, is ideal for most breeds and disciplines. However, in some sports (like racing) and some life stages (like pregnancy), a higher or lower score may be preferred.

When body-condition scoring your horse, you evaluate the amount of fat cover he has in six areas. As you assess each location, be sure to feel the thickness with your hands, as looks can be deceiving! Assign a numerical value to each area, then average them to come up with one final score.

Poor: Animal is extremely emaciated; vertebrae, ribs, tailhead, and pelvic bones projecting prominently; bone structure of withers, shoulders, and neck easily noticeable, no fatty tissue can be felt.

Very Thin: Animal is emaciated; slight fat covering over tops and sides of vertebrae, but the vertebrae, ribs, tailhead, pelvic bones are still prominent; withers, shoulder, and neck structure faintly discernible.

Thin: Fat buildup about halfway on tops of vertebrae; sides of vertebrae cannot be felt; slight fat cover over ribs; vertebrae and ribs easily discernible; tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually; sides of pelvis appear rounded but easily discernible; back of pelvis not distinguishable; withers, shoulders, and neck accentuated.

Moderately Thin: Slight ridge along back; faint outline of ribs discernible; tailhead prominence depends on conformation, fat can be felt around it; the side of the pelvis is not discernible; withers, shoulders, and neck not obviously thin. 

Moderate: Back is flat (no crease or ridge); ribs not visually distinguishable, but easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear rounded over vertebrae; shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body. 

Moderately Fleshy: May have slight crease down back; fat over ribs spongy; fat around tailhead soft; fat beginning to be deposited along the side of withers, behind shoulders, and along the sides of neck. 

Fleshy: May have crease down back; individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat; fat around tailhead soft; fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck.

Fat: Crease down back; difficult to feel ribs; fat around tailhead very soft; area along withers filled with fat; area behind shoulders filled with fat; noticeable thickening of neck; fat deposited along inner thighs.

Extremely Fat: Obvious crease down back; patchy fat appearing over ribs; bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck; fat along inner thighs may rub together; flank filled with fat.

The Role Of Grain

As we learned in the previous chapter, forage should be the foundation of your horse’s diet, as it’s an ideal feed source for keeping your horse’s digestive tract happy and healthy, and it provides the bulk of your horse’s required nutrition. For many horses, healthy servings of pasture and/or hay throughout the day are more than enough to sustain a healthy body condition. So where does grain come in? Traditionally, whole cereal grains such as oats, corn, and barley were fed to race horses, draft horses, and other horses working for a living in order to help them meet their energy or caloric needs.

A forage-only diet just wasn’t calorie dense enough for working horses (or pregnant or lactating mares) to maintain their weight.

As horses evolved from “beasts of burden” into the lovable family members and formidable athletes we know today, more and more barns started to move away from whole cereal grains, as these feedstuffs don’t have sufficient protein, vitamins, or minerals to provide a complete a balanced diet. Instead, these barns started feeding commercial, “fortified” grains, like pellets and sweet feeds. These fortified grains were developed by feed companies, and are made up of a combination of cereal grains and additional protein, vitamins, and minerals, to provide a perfect complement to a hay-only diet.

While this was a great idea, the trouble is that these important nutrients are directly tied to the considerable calories in the fortified grain, meaning you can’t increase or decrease one without increasing or decreasing the other. As a result, in order to have a full serving of nutrients, your horse must also take in the full serving of calories, which many horses don’t need.

Three Reasons To Think Before You Scoop

Given the rise in popularity of fortified grains, and the challenging correlation between nutrients and calories we just reviewed, it’s not terribly surprising that a recent study found that 50% of horses and ponies are overweight. That’s why body condition scoring your horse (as outlined above) is a critical step in building your horse’s ideal diet!

Additionally troublesome is the fact that whole grains and most commercial feeds are much higher in omega 6 fatty acids than omega 3 fatty acids. While both are essential in the diet, omega 6s are generally considered pro-inflammatory, while omega 3s support anti-inflammatory reactions. Since horses were built to thrive on grasses, which have more omega 3s than 6s, high grain diets can result in a chronic pro-inflammatory state. This can result in added stress on cells throughout the body.

Lastly, and perhaps most concerning of all, is the fact that diets high in grains have been associated with an increased risk of both gastric ulcers² and colic. Given all that, we SmartPakers always recommend feeding the minimum amount of grain needed to maintain your horse’s weight and energy levels (and keep in mind, for many horses, that’s no grain at all!).

Concerned About Coming Up Short?

If thinking about reducing or eliminating your horse’s grain leaves you concerned about him missing out on key proteins, vitamins, and minerals, you’re right to worry (and your horse is lucky to have such a smart owner!).

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to fill that nutrient gap without filling up on unwanted calories. Read on to the next chapter to find out how!

Key Takeaways

  1. Body condition scoring is a critical first step to understanding if grain is right for your horse.
  2. Because grain is calorie-dense and rich in pro-inflammatory omega 6s, it’s wise to feed the minimum amount of grain needed to maintain weight and energy.

    Courtesy of SmartPak