By the TopSpec nutrition team
Body condition is a measure of your pony’s fat cover and muscular outline. It reflects his energy and protein intake as well as expenditure. For instance, if he consumes more calories than he requires for maintenance, and is not working sufficiently hard to utilise this energy, he will become overweight. It may be clearly visible by eye that he is overweight, or conversely, underweight. However, a systematic approach can help you make a clear judgement.
Knowing how much your pony weighs is helpful and the most accurate way to determine this is to put him on a weighbridge. Regular measurements of bodyweight can identify weight gain and weight loss however, the weight of your pony doesn’t tell you whether he is too fat or thin, or lacking muscle and topline.
‘Ideal’ body condition will depend on what you are asking of him. For example, the expectations for the condition of a pony produced for a ridden showing class would be different to that of a show-jumping pony.
Assessment of body condition is made by visual examination and palpation. It is important to get your hands on to your pony and feel the relevant areas. This will help you to determine between fat and muscle, and also to judge condition through a thick winter coat if it is present.
It is logical to start at the front end of your pony, first feeling along his neck. A ‘cresty neck’ indicates an accumulation of adipose (or fatty) tissue and has been linked to insulin dysregulation and an increased risk of laminitis.
Running your hands over the withers and down your pony’s shoulders will allow you to assess his muscle condition and whether any fat pads are present in these areas. His ribs should be easily felt with a light covering of fat; if your pony is too fat then you are unlikely to be able to feel his ribs.
His back bone should be well covered but you should be able to feel it. Either side of the spine should show good, toned musculature. However, a flat back or one with a gutter along it is indicative of increasingly excessive body condition. His flanks should not look hollow.
The hindquarters should be rounded and muscular and not angular or sunken. Fat pads at the tail head may be seen if your pony is fat.
There are certain scoring systems by which some veterinary surgeons, other professionals and horse owners may classify body condition. However, these do have limitations. An average of the assessment of different areas of the body can produce a misleading overall picture. For example, a pony with a metabolic condition could have regional fat pads but prominent ribs, a pony that is tucked up but otherwise in good condition or an elderly pony that is lacking muscle but carrying a belly. Regional scores, such as Cresty Neck Scores, may help in certain of these situations but any numerical scoring system will be flawed.
Be thorough and consistent so you can identify and monitor any changes in your pony. Making these assessments of condition will help you to evaluate his feed regime. Condition will reflect many factors, including the quality of the grass, hay or haylage, his hard feed intake and workload. It is important to get the balance right as keeping your pony in a suitable body condition will support his health and athletic performance.
If you are unsure, it is best to speak to a nutritionist who will be able to help you assess your pony’s condition and adapt his diet accordingly.