Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Body scoring a horse

I just wanted to comment quickly on a post by Cathy over at FHOTD - Fit or too thin to ride? For the most part, I do agree - many people seem to have difficulty differentiating betwen an animal that is thin or simply fit. I get comments all the time on our Doberman x (below - excuse the missing hair on her forehead, she'd just had surgery), that she is too thin.

Same for the Greyhound we had. Yet the vets and vet-tech's nearly squeal with excitement whenever they see her - they're always delighted to see a dog so fit and can't stop raving and praising how good she looks! She eats appropriately to her weight and runs daily (a minimum of 2km, sometimes up to 10km, plus all the running she does while I work horses) - she's very lean and tucked-up (as you can tell by the photo) with smooth muscling all over, but you cannot see her ribs and when you feel them, you'll also feel a nice lean layer.

I think we, as a society, have lost our "eye" for a lean animal because we've lost the ability to keep our pets at a healthy weight - at the same rate we've lost the ability to keep ourselves at a healthy weight! Just as we are seeing more and more individuals cross the line into the obese category, we're doing the same for our pets. The trouble is, our pets do not have the choice of choosing. From our dogs to our horses, these animals are meant to roam - for feed and water - kilometres each day. You don't see fat wild horses or wolves! It is vital we keep our animals trim and healthy - doing so ensures a long and productive life (I am saying this as someone who lost a dog a number of years ago to diabetes because he was overweight - never again). Thus it is essential, when we take on the responsibility of an animal, that we do our best to educate ourselves on how to properly take care of said animal, including keeping that animal at a decent weight.

However, it is false information such as this, circulating about, that gets us into trouble on a number of levels (from Cathy at FHOTD - my comments in green):

"Racing fit horses look awfully thin to the eyes of most pleasure horse riders and indeed, it's not a weight you'd want to maintain a horse at for life."
Why the heck not? Fitness level is directly correlated with longevity, athleticism, health, and productivity. Here's one article, by Equus, on How to Manage Your Horse's Weight. It includes the reasons why you should manage your horse's weight. Here's another, by an equine nutritionist. Keeping horses at a healthy, lean weight, is ideal for life. On the other hand, most WP horses (for example) do not sport the tucked-up appearance of the average racehorse - not because they shouldn't, but because that level of fitness is not the look the WP horse judge is looking for. Let me note though, that there is nothing wrong with a horse at a good weight - body score 4-6, that does not have the physical fitness (particularly in the muscle department) of the racehorse. Racehorses are the top athletes of the world - most horses do not have to be at that type of level of fitness.

"They look like greyhounds. Like Demi Moore getting ready to play G.I. Jane, they have a very low body fat percentage and everything that is on them is muscle."
I fail to understand why this is a problem? We all understand a low body fat percentage in humans, particularly on a fit individual with a lot of muscle, is a good thing...well, the same applies to your horse.

"All the ribs do show in many cases, and if you're looking at adopting them for a second career, you have to be able to visualize how they'll look at "show weight.""
All the ribs should NEVER show on a racehorse. They need to be lean - not thin - to do their job. Look at all the top racehorses as examples. Eight Belles. Secretariat. Barbaros. Funny Cide. War Emblem. As a groom for a trainer with up to 25 horses, we rarely ever had a rib showing on any horse. The photo that Cathy uses to capture what a racehorse should look like includes a filly that faintly shows a couple of ribs - albeit just barely, she could use a couple of pounds on her, but she is not thin by any stretch of the imagination. Horses have 18 ribs - that little filly is showing maybe 5. Faintly. The horse below (in Cathy's blog, linked above), however, is a great depiction of a horse showing all its ribs. The latter Equus article link, above, mentions that a dressage horse is usually a 5-6.5 body score - racehorses are no exception, though they are typically around the 4-5 range due to the level of fitness required to do their job. The only thing you will have to visualize with a racehorse, is how they will look when they lose some of that muscle because of the less-intense workout they're experiencing when you bring them home.

"The good news is that their skeletal structure is easy to see at this kind of fitness level, so if you know what you are looking for, it's pretty easy to find it."
Skeletal structure, I must point out, is easy to see at any fitness level, from obese to emaciated horses (with exception). The only difficulty with emaciated horses, is envisioning the muscular structure once the weight is put back on the horse.

The following are photos of my own, of some of the horses in racing shape at the track (I could list an endless parade) - examples of fit horses not showing all their ribs. Please note that all these horses were currently racing at various levels - I did not include any photos of 2yo's in training - while they were in similar physical shape, I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of the weight of your average racehorse. These photos were taken at the end of the Calgary racing season (just before the season heads up to Edmonton), so the horses were about halfway through their racing season and had been racing a few months already.

Red White & Yahoo, 6yo TB gelding

Wye Red (Stakes horse), 5yo TB gelding

Ella Maria (Allowance horse), 5yo TB mare

Cosmic Warrior, 4yo TB gelding

Just Benson, 5yo TB gelding

Link's Secret, 4yo TB gelding

3 of the above horses were actually the hard-keepers in our barn. Red was nervous as heck and wore off a lot of weight worrying about when he'd get to run next, Benson just couldn't seem to stuff enough hay down that hollow leg of his, and Maria wind-sucked like there's no tomorrow. Despite all this, all three still maintained a good body score - you certainly cannot see all their ribs, as Cathy predicts. The other 18 or so horses in our barn were of the same weight as Yahoo or Link...in fact, some we had to even restrict their hay intake or they'd become fat on us!

Here are some examples of good body scores on your average, non-racing horse:

Formaat's Kool Renegade, 9yo Dutch Warmblood x gelding in light dressage-type work

Silver Bonanza Bar, Quarab - at the time of this photo, he was doing pony work (trot/slow gallops) on the track and was 13 years old

What can you expect a racehorse to look like once out of training? Well, here's just one example:

Link's Secret (also shown above), 4yo gelding on the track and racing

Link 10 months after leaving the track, now a 5yo, doing light dressage work with the odd trail ride thrown in.

As you can see, some of the muscle he had as a racehorse has disappeared since he is not in as intense of a work schedule.

I would like to post a couple of websites with additional info on body scoring and such.

How to Condition Score Horses with photos, written by Susan Evans Garlinghouse, DVM, MSc equine nutrition

Body Condition Scoring of Horses here's an Ontario, Canada, governmental website (slight variance in the body scoring system used above, but still valid)

Body Condition Scoring of Horses since I'm Albertan, I just had to put the Albertan gov website!

Henneke Body Scoring System complete with photos

Body Condition Scoring System complete with where your average competition horse sits (bottom) and written by Gayle Ecker, B.A., B.Ed. M.Sc., Leslie Huber D.V.M. and Wendy Driscoll, R.A.E - Equine Research Centre, Guelph, Ontario

In a bit of a different direction but still mostly on-topic with commenting on Cathy's blog, I have to point out that with the second horse Cathy features on her blog, the clearly emaciated mare, there seems to be some variance of information being provided here. The first photo of said mare shows a horse clearly in poor condition. In the second photo, the horse's condition is masked somewhat by saddle, saddle pad, and rider, but the horse does not appear to be in as terrible condition as she is in the first photo (check out the hip bones and HQ muscling). The third photo depicts a horse seemingly in good condition, though one has to be cautious because winter coats can hide a thin horse (though again, look at the hip/HQ). There is no timeline or no (perhaps very valid) reason given as to perhaps why the horse is so thin. The blog tears a strip off this horse person for riding such a thin horse, yet we are provided with no information as to what that horse is actually doing under-saddle (etc) and the photos of the horse actually under-saddle provided show that the horse is not as thin as Cathy is trying to illustrate by the first photo. Confusing.

Anyway, enjoy, and remember to do your research - always. Do not ever take anything at face value, even what you read here (because I make mistakes too - to err is human, and I am certainly no expert, I just do my best to provide knowledgeable information and make expert articles and such available), but be particularly cautious about information you read on sites such as FHOTD, where scientific or practical back-up to information given is often not provided. Above all, if you are unsure as to a horse's body condition, ask a vet or obtain the opinion of someone knowledgeable about and experienced with horses. Do not be afraid either to ask for a second opinion from another professional, because personal opinions are rampant!

Sorry if the spacing is off on the words and photos...seems it just won't stay where I put it!

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