The topic of equine body weight and conditioning is very complex and there are entire books dedicated to each subject. However, with that said, there are some basic guidelines that you can follow for the majority of horses to be sure that your horse is carrying good weight and in condition to be able to perform at their best.
First, it is important be able to recognize what your horse’s body weight or body condition score is to start. There is a commonly used scoring system that goes from 1-9 (where 1 is poor and 9 is extremely fat). The scale is determined based on visualization and general impression of the horse as well as noting specific areas of fat on the horse. These areas of fat deposition include: the crest of the neck, the back, tailhead, ribs, and behind the shoulder. The ideal body condition score is between 5 and 6 no matter what level of work the horse is currently doing.
Once you have achieved an ideal body condition by having a proper nutrition plane (which is a whole other discussion), you will want to ensure your horse is fit and conditioned for the job you want him to do. Depending on your goals, this can range from light riding 3-5 times daily to intensive training 6 days a week. It is important to know that if you tend to ride your horse mostly on the weekend (as MANY people do), it is important to do one of two things. First, if you cannot ride more than on the weekend due to your busy schedule, then have someone else ride your horse a couple times during the week to maintain fitness. Second, if you cannot have someone else ride your horse, be very careful how long you ride on the weekend. It is difficult for a horse to maintain a level of fitness when only ridden twice a week and it is very easy to ride a horse past his fitness level because they are such willing animals. If someone asked you to keep running another mile when you felt like you legs were going to fall off, you would just say no! Fortunately and unfortunately, our horses rarely say no.
There are several problems that may arise from having an unfit horse. One of the main health risks that you can run into with having an unfit horse is rhabdomyolysis, or tying up. Tying up can be a very dangerous condition where the muscles have basically over exerted themselves and there is a build-up of lactic acid. This becomes very painful and the horse will become very reluctant to move and have hard and sometimes quivering hindquarter muscles. The horse will also often sweat because of the pain and anxiety associated with tying up. Depending upon the severity of the symptoms, the horse will likely need immediate veterinary attention. They may respond to injections of thiamine and Vitamin E and selenium, or may require IV fluid therapy and several days of rest and anti-inflammatory medication.
There are so many different topics related to body weight and condition. Please let us know if you have any specific questions that we can address in a further article.
Keep those ponies fit and ride safe!