EQUUS ‘Farm Calls’ episode 17: Changing seasons and equine nutrition

In Episode 17 we talk to equine nutritionist Clair Thunes, PhD, MS, about maintaining proper body condition in your horses throughout the year.



EQUUS “Farm Calls” is brought to you in 2022 by Farnam—Your Partner in Horse Care.

Thunes began her talk about equine body condition by saying she has all of her clients body condition score their horses once a month. “It’s a good skill for horse owners to hone,” she said. “I want them to look at the horses and put their hands on the horse.”

She said checking body condition score is “hard when you see the horse every day.” Thunes added that sometimes, with waning daylight hours in the fall, owners don’t get to see their horses in the daylight until the weekend. That makes it even more important to ensure you are checking horses monthly and writing down their scores.

Thunes said most horse owners should try to keep their horses at about a 5 on the 1-9 Henneke Body Condition Score Chart. “Elite competitors or racehorses might be a 4, and broodmares might be more of a 6,” said Thunes. “But a lot of horses are creeping up to a 7 or 8!”

She said you have to give allowances for specific breed types, such as Thoroughbreds. Thunes said she will score the horse separately, then average out the total body condition score. “A horse should be uniformly fat or thin,” she said. If it isn’t, she said that’s a “red flag that might mean a metabolic issue.”

Warm to cool, cool to warm

Before fall sets in is a good time of year to assess your horse and think about how it has fared in winters past. “What do I have now?” Thunes asked. “An older horse that is underweight now? That gives me two months to work on that. Same with a horse that is heavier.”

She said sometimes in fall the weather is not yet cold, but working levels drop because of shortening daylight hours. However, some owners don’t cut back on the summer “working” feed schedule until it gets cold.

Thunes said the opposite can also happen, such as where she lives in Arizona. From fall going into winter, horses start to be ridden more there because of a cooling of the weather and an increased show schedule.

“A lot of people snowbird to Arizona or Florida in the winter,” she said. “The horse might have been on pasture up north, but there is no pasture in Arizona. And Florida has ‘mental health’ pasture (not much nutrition). That’s a change from the wet forage source to a dry forage source.”

Thunes noted that grass is about 85% water, while hay is 10-15% water. “That’s a big difference,” she said.

Drink up!

Thunes is an advocate of giving horses about 2 tablespoons of table salt each day to ensure they are drinking sufficiently. She said that is particularly important in the fall because of the changing (drying) pasture status.

She also noted that if you are traveling with your horse to another location, the taste of the water will be different. She mentioned some of the tried-and-true methods of adding apple juice, Gatorade, electrolytes, Kool-Aid or other additives to water at home before traveling. That allows the horse to get used to a “flavored” water before being switched to a different water at the destination.

“Make sure to also offer a plain water bucket” to give the horse a choice when providing flavored water, said Thunes.

She also noted that travel is hard on the equine gut microbiome. “You can use a prebiotic to stabilize the GI tract,” she said.

Forage choices

The type of hay available in different locations can vary widely, noted Thunes. “You should take enough hay with you for five or six days to transition the horse to the local hay,” she said. She reminded horse owners that the risk of colic goes up for three weeks when changing hay sources. She said that’s true even if you are changing one timothy hay to another timothy hay.

“It takes time for the gut microbiobes to adapt,” she noted.

Weight struggles

Thunes suggested that horse owners think about what their horses usually look like when coming out of winter. If the horse is struggling to keep weight on, then she suggested blanketing and increasing hay and perhaps other feed.

If the horse always comes out of winter on the plump side, think about not blanketing or making the horses walk more for their forage. She said it is natural for wild horses to lose weight in winter, then put it back on when the grass comes on in spring.

Thunes said she clips and blankets her horses in winter just because it is more convenient to do less grooming with her work schedule. But overweight horses that you don’t clip might not have to be blanketed. “Let Nature help us” maintain body weight, she said.

She added that she is not advocating that thin, older or otherwise compromised horses go without blankets if needed. That would be a welfare issue. She said those horses don’t need to fight the winter temperatures.

Editor’s note: For more information on body condition scoring check out these EQUUS articles:

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