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Body Condition Scoring: Keeping Your Horse Healthy One Number at a Time

By Christine Rudd, MSc, CTRI

“What’s his body condition?” your vet asks you over the phone.

“He’s a little on the skinny side, but not too bad,” you answer.

What does “a little on the skinny side” mean? What does chubby, fit, or fat look like? The simplest and least satisfying answer is, it depends on who you ask. To a racehorse trainer a champion hunter might look fat, while a western pleasure competitor might think event horses are too skinny. However, for each horse’s job and body type, they might be healthy and fit.

To avoid subjective descriptions of equine body condition, an objective and standardized body scoring system is necessary. This system is not only for veterinarians and owners to accurately describe a horse, but also to enable law enforcement professionals to describe animals encountered on welfare calls, and equine industry professionals from diverse backgrounds to describe a horse’s physique in a common language.

Body scoring systems rank a horse’s condition on a numeric scale, with each score directly connected to a rigid set of observable and palpable characteristics. These characteristics are descriptions of fat and muscle cover over key body areas (Shuffitt & TenBroeck, 2003).

equine tip body conditioning horseThere have been two main body scoring systems used in the horse industry: the Leighton-Hardman model developed in 1980 that ranked horses’ condition on a scale of 0-5, and the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS), used more commonly today, that ranks a horse’s condition on a scale of 1-9. On both scales, the lowest number is reserved for the severely emaciated horse, the horse’s condition improves through the middle of the scale, then tips toward obesity as the higher scores are reached.

The more commonly used model, the Henneke Body Condition Score, was developed by Don Henneke, PhD. The Henneke scoring system is accepted in courts of law as a fair and objective system to score horses recovered in welfare and cruelty cases. It is based on six major points on the horse’s body where fat can be both observed and palpated: the neck, shoulder, withers, ribs, loin, and tailhead, and is applicable across all breeds and disciplines.

 

Body Condition Scoring EWC 2

When determining the body score of a horse, it is important to not only look at the horse, but also to firmly run your hand over these key areas to feel the amount of fat and muscle cover. This gives you the opportunity to feel how much flesh there is between the skin and the ribs, how much of that fluff is hair and how much is fat, or to feel the lack of fat and muscle under a thick and concealing coat.

While this body scoring system is uniform across breeds and disciplines, there are a few exceptions to be aware of. These exceptions come mainly in the conformational differences between breeds, which can make certain criteria difficult to apply to each animal, so breed characteristics (such as differences in wither structure and prominence) should be taken into account when assessing body condition score. In pregnant mares, an emphasis is put on musculature and fat behind the shoulder, around the tailhead, and over the neck and withers, since the weight of the fetus can pull the skin taut over the back and ribs (Henneke et al., 1983).

Knowing your horse’s BCS is not only important so you can accurately communicate about your horse, but also so you can ensure your horse’s good health. A low body score can be indicative of a number of factors, such as nutritional requirements not being met, dental disease, parasite load, or sickness. On the other end of the scale, a higher body score can indicate certain diseases, be a causal factor of laminitis, as well as the health problems that come with excess amounts of body fat such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and increased stress on joints and soft tissue (Shuffitt & TenBroeck, 2003; Jackson 2007). In growing horses, recognizing the signs of under- or over-nutrition can prevent or offset the health risks associated with said conditions (Staniar, 2004).

By using a standardized BCS to routinely evaluate your horse, you are taking the guess work out of home health maintenance. There is no “maybe” when it comes to whether your horse is over- or underweight, whether that divot over your horse’s spine is healthy (it’s not), or if your feeding program is adequately addressing your horse’s energy needs. It gives you a concrete tool to know when to call the vet or nutritionist based on changes in your horse’s body and you’ll be able to appropriately define and describe that change. As you practice your critical observation skills, the rosy veil of adoration that hides our horses’ less than healthy imperfections begins to lift, and we will become better owners and managers who can effectively advocate for and initiate feeding and exercise programs that will keep our horses in a healthy body condition. Being familiar with the Henneke BCS and regularly practicing it empowers you to understand and identify the good, the bad, and the ugly of equine body conditions, and with the help of your vet or other equine service provider, you can bring your horse back to that ideal 5.

For more information on body condition scoring, please reference the studies provided in the References section below.

References

Henneke, D. R., Potter, G. D., Kreider, J. L., & Yeates, B. F. (1983). Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine veterinary journal15(4), 371-372.

Jackson, C. (2007). University researchers lead pioneering study in equine obesity.

Leighton-Hardman, A.C. 1980. Appendix 3. Weight estimation tables. Pages 106-107. In: Equine Nutrition. Pelham Books, London.

Shuffitt, J. M., & TenBroeck, S. H. 2003. Body Condition Scoring of Horses.

Staniar, W. B. (2004, March). Understanding Equine Growth. In CONFERENCE SPONSORS (p. 180).

Equine Dentistry

By Isabel Wolf Gillespie, Member of the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

Do you know the difference between motorized vs manual dentistry technique?

Do you know which one is best for your horse?

Last week the equine dentist came onto the property to treat two of the middle-aged geldings in my herd of 26. The herd consists of wild horses that we rescued about three years ago, as well as 10 ‘domesticated’, working horses. The wild horses have become very relaxed in the three years living with us, but at this point in time they would never allow a human hand or metal instruments inside their mouths.

Dentistry has never been high on my priority list, due to the fact that my herd lives out, in mountainous terrain, with access to diverse grass and plant species allowing them to graze selectively as they should. Despite their happy, healthy lifestyle, two of the working geldings started to show these pockets along their jawlines, where most likely grass gets stuck behind a wolf tooth or possibly a broken tooth or hole.

The dentist arrived with plenty of boxes and an immense amount of equipment, which I couldn’t recall was necessary from my previous dentistry experiences. Upon questioning, the dentist outlined the procedure and that’s when I realized that he will be using motorized gear – a first – on my horses. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of the motorized technique before or that I am somewhat ‘old-fashioned’, still I was a little bit nervous and concerned for the well-being of my horses.  

According to Veterinarian Dr. Raymond Q. Hyde, DVM, who has been in practice for 26 years and at the same time is a certified equine dentist, the use of motorized gear has its beginnings in Germany over 60 years ago.

Dr. Hyde elaborates that the technology using motorized equipment was lost due to World War II, when afterwards horses were no longer considered ‘that valuable’. Equine dentistry as a result, took a backfoot so to speak and only more recently the need for more advanced dental procedures and care has regained importance.

The manual floating of teeth is a fairly simple procedure - I say fairly, as some horses as with their hooves, just don’t see the point of these procedures! If your horse is comfortable with a halter (and mouth prop) on its head, touching around the mouth and can stand still, you and/or the dentist should be fine.

One of the most severe differences between manual and motorized in my opinion, is that the horse has to be sedated for the motorized procedure. The equipment makes a lot of noise, and the vibrations the horse is exposed to during the use is just too much to stand for without a little help. Additionally, the possibility of injuries with motorized equipment is higher especially if the horse shakes its head or moves around.  

This is largely the reason why equine dentistry with the use of motorized equipment is often done by veterinarians, who are permitted and skilled in sedating our animals. If a dentist is not a vet, the vet will have to be called out for the motorized dentistry procedure, which impacts on our budgets for such procedures.

After my recent experience and doing some research into the equine dentistry field, I have come to realize and understand, that the dentistry procedure itself remains the same, whether motorized or manual equipment is used.

Whatever procedure you choose for your most precious four-legged companions, the key lies in selecting the right equine dentistry practitioner. Ensure you are choosing a highly skilled individual, someone with experience and good references, someone that will treat your horses kindly during the procedure. The danger does not lie in the use of equipment, but rather in poor technique or unskilled application.

Reference List:

http://www.equinedental.com.au/why-do-horses-teeth/power-tools-and-equine-dentistry/

https://ivcjournal.com/equine-dentistry/

https://wwe-idaho.com

https://horsedentistry.info

https://www.amscheqdentistry.com

Tips for Feeding the Senior PATH Intl. Horse

By Jessica Normand, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member

Modern horses tend to live long lives, thanks to advancing veterinary medicine and improved management. This means those of us caring for aging horses need to understand how to best meet their nutritional needs. While there isn’t a specific age that horses are considered “senior”, 15 is generally a good benchmark for when the horse’s health and nutritional needs may start to change. Of course, it’s imperative to work with your veterinarian to monitor each horse’s body condition, digestive health, immunity, and overall wellness as they age.

What happens in the aging horse?
You may notice senior horses in your care have a reduced body condition score (weight loss), loss of muscle tone including a sway back, dental changes, and a decreased ability to maintain the same workload as they could in their younger days. Older horses may also start to experience less effective digestive function, loss of bone density, a less robust immune system, less resilient connective tissue, and reduced cardiopulmonary function.

Feeding the Older Horse
Work with your veterinarian to monitor body condition and dental health carefully. Aging horses may have a harder time maintaining healthy fat cover and muscle tone as their digestive tracts become less efficient, and of course dental disease adds to this challenge. All horses need 1-2% of their body weight from forage, so you may have to adjust the sources of roughage provided to senior horses in your care, to accommodate their changing dental needs. Some options include complete feeds, which are formulated with a significant portion of fiber, as well as chopped forage, cubed forage, or soaked beet pulp. For senior horses not being fed a full serving of a fortified or complete feed, consider a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement to make sure their basic nutrient requirements are being met.

Aging equine digestive tracts may have a harder time absorbing protein from the diet. As a result, it’s important to provide high quality protein, meaning essential amino acids, rather than just focusing on the total (crude) protein percentage. Research* has shown that supplementing with the essential amino acids lysine and threonine, specifically, improves muscle mass in aged horses. This may be an excellent strategy for senior horses who lose their topline and develop a “pot belly” appearance from the weight of their intestines, due to loss of abdominal muscle tone. There are numerous equine amino acid supplements on the market, and several are quite economical.

Supplements designed to support the function of the digestive system by providing probiotics, prebiotics, and digestive enzymes can be a great addition to the senior horse’s program. Healthy horses in their prime manufacture their own vitamin C and B vitamins, but as their bodies become less efficient in these functions, supplementing with these vitamins may also be warranted. Additional antioxidants like vitamin E, as well as adaptogens and other herbs meant to support the immune system can be great additions to the senior horse’s program as well.

For senior horses that need help maintaining weight overall (not just lean muscle) consider adding more fat to the diet. Because fat is the most concentrated source of calories, it’s the most efficient way to help any horse gain weight. It’s also a “cool” burning energy source (won’t make horses excitable) and healthier than increasing calories from a grain that’s high in sugars and starches – especially for senior horses also being managed for endocrine/metabolic conditions. It may make sense to choose a commercial feed with a higher crude fat percentage, and/or to add healthy oil or a fat supplement to the diet. The ideal fat supplement comes from healthy fat sources such as flax seed, chia seed, or fish oil, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Avoid corn oil, which is high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Fat must be introduced slowly to avoid loose stool (of course, it’s good practice to make ALL feed changes slowly to reduce the risk of digestive upset).

Because arthritis is an extremely common aspect of aging, also work with your veterinarian to help keep your older horses comfortable. Besides plenty of turnout (to limit stiffness) and a consistent exercise program if possible, prescription medication and/or oral joint supplements can make a big impact on senior horses’ comfort level and quality of life.

In addition to dietary considerations, there are numerous other aspects of management that need to be adjusted as senior horses age. The following article from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) provides an excellent summary: https://aaep.org/horsehealth/older-horse-special-care-nutrition

Lastly, preventive care becomes even more important as horses age, so work closely with your veterinarian. Having a comprehensive physical exam performed twice per year instead of annually is an excellent idea to help you stay on top of the changing needs of the senior horses in your care.

*Graham-Thiers PM, Kronfeld, DS. Amino acid supplementation improves muscle mass in aged and young horses. J Anim Sci. 2005 Dec;83(12):2783-8.

Horse-Human Interactions and Equine Welfare in EAAT: Aligning Our Practices With Our Goals

PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Guest Tip from Emily Kieson, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University

The world of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) is saturated with activities and horse-human interactions based almost exclusively on the historical use of horses for work and equitation. The same routines of haltering, grooming, riding, leading and lungeing that have been used for years in equitation have been adapted by the EAAT world to serve new purposes, and professionals in EAAT consider the horse a partner. These interactions, useful for training and schooling our horses for use in work and pleasure, may not, however, be in line with the goals of therapy. (Editor’s note: PATH Intl. Certified Professionals do not practice therapy but rather equine-assisted activities. Those participants in need of therapy are served by licensed physical and occupational therapists, speech/language pathologists and mental health professionals.) Researchers are learning more about how domestic horses communicate with each other and us, which can lead to improvements in equine welfare through better understanding of equine-human interactions and what it means for the psychological welfare of the horse. This means that, if we want to improve client-horse relationships and model good horse-human relationships for our participants, we may need to make different choices with regards to how we handle or interact with our equine partners.

As humans, we explore the world through our hands and express emotional connection through touch [1], [2], words and sharing of food [3]–[5], whereas emerging research shows that horses create bonds through proximity [6], time and mutual engagement rather than touch or pressure. Based on recent (unpublished) studies, horses engage in social connection with other horses through close proximity and a sharing of quiet space repeatedly over time. Instead, they stand quietly near their favorite partner and share mutual space while resting or grazing. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships they build with one another are based not only on predictably safe interactions, but also mutual exploration and partnership in problem solving. Once a safe space has been established between two horses, they will begin moving and exploring together. Everything is mutual with no single leader or follower and even touch is always simultaneously reciprocated. One may demonstrate more confidence than the other, but there is no pushing or pulling to force engagement of the partner, just an invitation to join in curiosity and exploration. The joint involvement in uncertain environments is what makes horses build better relationships.

The same is true for humans, too. We build safe environments with each other over time in order to build trust and, once that trust is established, a relationship is strengthened by small challenges and uncertainties that are explored as a team [7]–[10] . These concepts have been supported by scientists who study marriage, families, friendships and work partnerships and have been studied in a wide range of species. It appears these same concepts apply to horses as well.

So how do we incorporate this into EAAT and what does this mean for welfare? Traditional equitation relies almost exclusively upon negative reinforcement (pressure and release) [11]–[13] which, when properly used, can adequately train a horse to engage in a behavior of our choosing. This use of small aversive tactics, however, does not align with how either species builds relationships. If we are hoping to work with horses in a way that both encourages and models balanced partnerships, perhaps we need to incorporate other types of interactions into our EAAT programs. This may mean, then, that we do not always ride or halter a horse and that the horse may have a choice to not engage with the participant. This may require us to set different expectations for participants and parents and help them understand why we are encouraging at-liberty work and what that means for building mutual communication and engagement for both horse and human. Horses have amazing memories and build unique relationships with each individual human that can build and develop over time. If we give our horses the choice of engaging with clients in a way that better aligns with their natural behavior, perhaps we can improve the welfare of our equine partners while simultaneously finding even better ways to build confidence, communication and emotional strength in our clients.

[1]         R. I. M. Dunbar, “The social role of touch in humans and primates: Behavioural function and neurobiological mechanisms,” Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 260–268, 2010.

[2]         A. V. Jaeggi, E. De Groot, J. M. G. Stevens, and C. P. Van Schaik, “Mechanisms of reciprocity in primates: Testing for short-term contingency of grooming and food sharing in bonobos and chimpanzees,” Evol. Hum. Behav., 2013.

[3]         J. Koh and P. Pliner, “The effects of degree of acquaintance, plate size, and sharing food intake,” Appetite, no. 52, pp. 595–602, 2009.

[4]         A. N. Crittenden and D. A. Zes, “Food Sharing among Hadza Hunter-Gatherer Children,” PLoS One, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015.

[5]         J. M. Koster and G. Leckie, “Food sharing networks in lowland Nicaragua: An application of the social relations model to count data,” Soc. Networks, 2014.

[6]         M. C. Van Dierendonck, H. Sigurjónsdóttir, B. Colenbrander, and a. G. Thorhallsdóttir, “Differences in social behaviour between late pregnant, post-partum and barren mares in a herd of Icelandic horses,” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., vol. 89, pp. 283–297, 2004.

[7]         J. K. Rempel, J. G. Holmes, and M. P. Zanna, “Trust in Close Relationships,” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 95–112, 1985.

[8]         B. Vollan, “The difference between kinship and friendship: (Field-) experimental evidence on trust and punishment,” J. Socio. Econ., vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 14–25, 2011.

[9]         R. J. Lewicki and B. B. Bunker, “Developing and Maintaining Trust in Work Relationships,” Trust Organ. Front. Theory Res., no. October, pp. 114–139, 2015.

[10]      R. J. Lewicki and R. J. Bies, “Trust and Distrust : New Relationships and Realities,” vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 438–458, 2018.

[11]      J. Murphy and S. Arkins, “Equine learning behaviour.,” Behav. Processes, vol. 76, no. 1, pp. 1–13, Sep. 2007.

[12]      P. D. McGreevy and A. N. McLean, “Punishment in horse-training and the concept of ethical equitation,” J. Vet. Behav. Clin. Appl. Res., vol. 4, no. 5, pp. 193–197, Sep. 2009.

[13]      A. N. McLean and J. W. Christensen, “The application of learning theory in horse training,” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., vol. 190, 2017.

Additional Resources:

J.M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. 2011

Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing, 2008.

Rees, Horses in Company. London: J A Allen & Co Ltd. 2017

McGreevy, Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Specialists 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2012.

McGreevy, A. McLean, Equitation Science. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

About the author: Emily Kieson is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University in comparative psychology studying equine behavioral psychology and equine-human interactions. She has a M.S. in Psychology, a graduate degree in Equine Science, is certified and practices as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning through PATH, and is certified as an Equine Specialist in a number of other EAP models. She has spent the last 20 years working full time in the horse industry and has focused the last 10 years on equine-assisted therapies. Emily, along with her colleagues at MiMer Centre, a Swedish non-profit, are helping to develop a research and education center at OSU with a focus on animal-human interactions and animal welfare.

Is a Horse in Transition the Right Horse for Your EAAT Program?

By Christie Schulte Kappert, Member, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

The call is one you’ve probably received many times: a local horse owner has heard of your organization and wants to donate a horse to the therapeutic riding program. A nice gelding is stepping down from a previous career, or maybe he’s been enjoying the semi-retired life in the pasture after his rider went off to college. Yes, he may be 23 and requires senior feed, individual turnout, joint injections and special shoeing; but he has several good years left. At The Right Horse we refer to these as horses in transition; horses moving from a variety of careers to new situations.

Perhaps it’s more of a true rescue case - from an auction, “kill pen” or homeless situation. A community member, volunteer, or staff member has come across a horse in need. Their compassion for others, which serves them so well in an EAAT setting, is calling them to help this horse, too.

A prevailing belief exists that older, retired or less-than-sound horses are in demand for therapy programs. Well-intentioned owners often assume it is a great option for a horse in transition, but most people don’t realize how physically and mentally demanding an EAAT job can be. Furthermore, it’s a compelling story to draw a parallel between a rescued equine that has overcome stigma and challenges, and clients in your EAAT programs.

Are these “free” horses the right fit for your EAAT program? Do you accept them? What resources and time will it take to turn them into successful program horses? And what happens if it doesn’t work out? These are critical questions to ask of any horse entering the program, but particularly one offered for donation or free. Rescuing a horse yourself may bring unexpected hurdles. The good news is you don’t have to play both rescue and therapy center to both save a horse’s life and reap the benefits for your program and clients. In fact, I’d argue you can help more horses and more people by not attempting to do both.

PATH Intl. Centers and Instructors have specific missions and clients who rely on them. Most are not set up to be a rescue, rehabilitation, evaluation and training program for horses in transition. However, that’s exactly what great rescues and adoption centers do every day! It’s their business and expertise to take at-risk horses and prepare them for a new home and career through adoption.

When you adopt from a 501c3 non-profit equine adoption center or rescue, you experience benefits that help take the risk and guesswork out of your new horse. Adoption organizations following best practices will:

  • Offer horses for adoption who are up to date on farrier and veterinary care including vaccinations, Coggins tests and dentistry work
  • Have evaluated the horses’ temperament and be honest about their personalities
  • Be transparent about each horse’s training level, preferably using the Basic Behaviors Profile for ground handling skills
  • Provide training according to each horse’s individual needs
  • Have adoption applications, contracts and procedures that are not overly intrusive or complicated
  • Not have a deadline for horses to be rehomed or pressure you into making a quick decision
  • Transfer legal ownership to adopters within a reasonable amount of time
  • Offer a friendly post-adoption support system
  • Have a policy to take adopted horses back at any time for any reason
  • Might even be willing to offer a free lease for an EAAT program

Most of all, a good adoption organization will have the primary goal of matching the right horse to the right person or job. Many groups offer additional benefits such as trial periods, free riding lessons with the prospective horse before adopting, and training support post-adoption. The average adoption fee for a riding horse is typically between $500-$1,000. This is a fantastic deal for a horse that’s vetted, evaluated and ready to go to work.

Be sure to look for all those elements when considering adoption. Many brokers, “feedlots” or “kill pens” may misuse the term “adoption” and do not offer the safeguards listed here. Ask plenty of questions – transparency, good customer service and responsiveness are the hallmarks of great adoption centers. Check that the rescue shows financial transparency and has basic legal boxes checked such as being a registered 501c3 charitable organization. A great place to start is by searching www.myrighthorse.org. Adoptable horses come in every breed, age, size, shape and personality to match exactly what your program needs.

At The Right Horse, it’s our goal to match the right horse with the right home. Adoption organizations have the unique ability to identify and develop prospects for EAAT careers. Strong partnerships with the right adoption groups can ultimately help very good people find very good horses.

PATH International is a partner in The Right Horse Initiative, a collective of equine industry and welfare professionals and advocates working together to improve the lives of horses in transition and massively increase horse adoption in the United States. Connect with The Right Horse at the 2019 PATH Intl. Conference and Pre-Conference in Denver or at www.therighthorse.org.

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