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Maintaining your horse’s condition during winter

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Fluctuating winter temperatures can lull a horse owner into under- or overfeeding. Our winter so far has been very mild, but it still is cold enough to compromise nutrients horses might get from our semi-dormant fescue pastures.

The lack of severe winter weather does offer several benefits. Horses also require less feed to maintain a stable body temperature when it is relatively warm out. Because the ground is dry and the weather moderate, there is an opportunity to continue to ride, which increases the months you can keep a horse fit. Most nights, horses haven’t needed blanketing, and if they have any skin conditions, vigorous brushing and warm afternoon sun should rectify rain rot.

But despite all of the positive aspects of the mild winter, it is still important to pay attention to your horse’s condition, according to Fernanda Carmargo, UK Equine Extension Specialist. The best way to gauge your horse’s weight is to regularly body condition score (BCS) him. If you BCS on a weekly or daily basis, you’ll be able to nimbly adjust feed levels according to changing condition, level of exercise, and weather. For instance, if you go on a long trail ride Saturday, and it is going to get colder and start raining, you can feel confident that an extra flake or two of good-quality hay will be very well received rather than wasted.

Don Henneke developed the BCS system several decades ago, and it remains a reliable and widely used method for judging an animal’s weight. (Note that BCS does not judge fitness, just condition.) In Henneke’s program, 1 equals an emaciated horse; 9 is overweight; 5 to 6 is just right.

To be systematic, and therefore, effective, follow the same steps each time you BCS a horse. This will ensure accurate results. There are six areas to review:

•Visually inspect the ribs, then touch them. You want to be able to touch individual ribs.

•The fat pad behind the shoulder should be flush. If it is bumpy/bulging, the horse is fat. If it is hollow, the horse is skinny.

•Withers vary widely by breed, but generally, they should have a moderate fat cover.

•Loin/hip area. Fat horses have a positive crease (think of a valley with a river flowing through it). Skinny horses have a negative crease or ridge. Also check to see if you can feel the vertebrae at the top of the back/hip.

•Assess the tailhead, where the tail connects with the buttocks. A skinny horse will have a prominent, bony tailhead; a fat one will have fat deposits.

•A cresty neck, which may remain thickened even after weight loss, indicates a very overweight horse. The neck of very thin horse will make the horse’s body look out of proportion, with his head and body appearing to be very large.

By regularly scoring your horse’s condition, you can feed to meet his needs, which reduces wasted feed. Keeping in mind that a horse needs 2 percent of his body weight per day, you can increase or decrease hay and/or feed based on small changes you observe.

By adjusting feed levels as they are needed, you avoid wasting feed calories. You maintain a steady weight for the horse, rather than having a deficit or a gain that will have to be dieted off before spring riding starts in earnest.

For more information, please contact the Trimble County Cooperative Extension Service at 502-255-7188.

Michael Pyles is Trimble County’s Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture.