Most riders will look down upon a horse presented at a show that is too thin, but we're still in the midst of altering the general mentality towards overweight horses. In this post, we'll look at both sides as well as what I would consider to be an ideal weight, and why we aim for it.
An underweight horse naturally elicits a negative reaction because we associate it with starvation. In addition, protruding ribs and hips are not attractive, and it could be very difficult to find tack that fits.
Not only is there an aesthetic problem with showing an underweight horse, but the horse is also likely to lack the energy to perform, especially over repeated classes throughout the day or across a week or more of showing.
While overweight horses might be more aesthetically appealing to some, well-fed does not equal healthy. Excess fat cover can make it very difficult for a horse to stay cool while competing in the summer (all of that fat acts as insulation to keep the heat in), while at the same time making saddle fit difficult and increasing the chances of the saddle slipping from side to side. Overweight horses simply do not have the same stamina as a horse of ideal weight, even when ridden daily.
The biggest problem with an overweight jumping horse is that one front leg must withstand a force several times the horse's weight when landing from a fence. Any extra weight therefore puts extra strain on the bones, tendons, ligaments, etc., increasing the chances of injury.
At an ideal weight, the horse both looks aesthetically pleasing and has the energy to compete, without exhausting itself carrying around extra pounds and the horsey equivalent of an extra layer of clothing in the summertime. The stresses on the legs and body are minimized by keeping the horse trim,
There are two systems of equine body scoring: the six-point Carroll system and the nine-point Henneke system. My preference is for the Henneke system, which is what we'll look at in this post.
The system uses six parts of the body, and an average is taken to come up with an overall score for that horse. Some aspects are visual while others require feeling that part of the body (for example, the ribs, which provide an easy indicator of when your horse is definitely overweight if you can barely feel them).
Here are a few resources to help you determine your horse's body condition score (BCS):
No research has been done, to my knowledge, to scientifically pinpoint the ideal body condition score for a hunter or jumper, but common sense can give us a good approximation. In my opinion, a jumper should be in the range of 4.5 to 5.5 since there is a lot of stamina required and the fence heights tend to be higher, putting more stress on the limbs. The vast majority of high-level jumpers fall into this range, and they are maintained there for a very good reason. For a hunter, because the fence heights are lower and the ability to maintain speed is not a factor, a BCS of 5 to a maximum of 6 should be acceptable.
Horses who are overweight should have their food cut back, preferably by providing smaller portions rather than feeding less frequently in order to maintain gut health and reduce the chance of ulcers forming. Good exercise is also important. Underweight horses (excluding extremely thin horses who need a special slow feeding program) might benefit from having constant access to hay, along with the addition of oil, alfalfa cubes and/or beet pulp to the feeding program.