Skinny Horses: What Should I Do?

The ribs are visible – is my horse too thin? It is often difficult to determine if a horse is underweight. Particularly in the case of heavily fed, old, or chronically ill horses, you should pay close attention to their weight. Because once these horses are too thin, it is often difficult to feed them again.

While horses that tend to be overweight can be seen very clearly and quickly when it is too much, it is often difficult to distinguish between “too thin” and “still athletic”. Once the horse is too lean, it can take a long time to “feed” it again. This is especially true for older or chronically ill horses.

That’s why it shouldn’t get that far in the first place. In order to avoid being underweight in your horse, you should be able to identify and contain possible causes:

How Do I Know If My Horse is Too Skinny?

As a horse owner, riding, or grooming participant, you probably know your horse best. You see it every day, clean it, stroke it, and quickly notice when it feels different or when the saddle girth suddenly needs to be tightened.

In order to give us “laypeople” something to help us determine the weight of our horses, the head of the chair for animal nutrition and dietetics at the veterinary faculty in Munich, Prof. Dr. Ellen Kienzle, together with the veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Schramme developed the so-called “BCS scale”. “BCS” stands for “Body Condition Score”. This allows you to judge your horse’s weight condition just by looking at it. Six parts of the body are examined carefully with regard to the muscles and the existing fat deposits:

  • Amount of comb fat, neck muscles;
  • Fat pads on the withers;
  • Bulge formation in the lumbar region;
  • Fat pads at the base of the tail;
  • Palpability of ribs;
  • Fat pad behind the shoulder.

This means that they can be classified on a scale from one to nine, with one being extremely thin, five being ideal and nine being obese. Of course, racial differences must be taken into account in any case. Thoroughbreds or Arabs can always be a bit slimmer. Fjord horses, Haflingers, or Shetland ponies, on the other hand, are naturally more rounded.

A BCS of six is ideal for a full-grown, sporty warm-blooded animal. Depending on the sport, there are also deviations here. Racehorses or endurance horses will always be thinner. Even with remonts or foals, the BCS can fluctuate between levels four and five. But that’s okay too because they simply lack the muscles.

Body Condition Score

  • Starved, emaciated. Protruding spinous processes, ribs, tail base, hip, and ischial tuberosity. Bone structures are visible on the withers, shoulders, and neck. No fatty tissue felt.
  • Very thinly emaciated. A thin layer of fat covers the base of the spinous processes. The transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae feel rounded. Spinous processes, ribs, tail set, and hip and ischial tuberosity protruding. Bone structures are weakly recognizable on the withers, shoulders, and neck.
  • A thin layer of fat extends over half the height of the spinous processes, transverse processes cannot be felt. A thin layer of fat over the ribs. Spinous processes and ribs are clearly visible. The tail base protrudes, but no individual vertebrae can be visually demarcated. The hip bumps appear rounded but easily recognizable. Not to delimit the ischial tuberosity. Marked withers, shoulders, and neck.
    Moderately thin
  • The contour of the spine is still easily recognizable, the contour of the ribs is slightly translucent. The tail base protrudes, depending on body type, in the area.
  • Fat tissue can be felt. Hip hump not clearly visible. Withers, shoulders, and neck are not obvious
  • The normal back is flat. Ribs cannot be distinguished visually, but they can be felt well. Fat around the base of the tail begins to feel slightly spongy. Spinous processes at the withers appear rounded. The shoulders and neck flow smoothly into the trunk.
  • Moderately thick. A slight groove along the back is possible. Fat over the ribs feels spongy. Fat around the base of the tail feels soft. On the sides of the withers and neck, as well as behind the shoulders, fat begins to grow.
  • Thick groove on the back possible. Individual ribs can be felt, but intercostal spaces can be felt to be filled with fat. Fat around the base of the tail is soft. Visible fat deposits on the withers, behind the shoulders, and on the neck.
  • Fat groove on the back. Ribs are difficult to feel. Fat around the base of the tail is very soft. The area around the withers and behind the shoulder is covered with fat fills. Obvious obesity on the neck. Fat deposits on the inside of the buttocks.
  • Extremely fat. Clear groove on the back. Fat bulges over the ribs, around the base of the tail, along the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck. Fat pads on the inside of the buttocks may rub against each other. Flanks smoothly filled.

In a Nutshell

If the spinous processes of the spine protrude to a point, you can see complete ribs, there is already a so-called “starvation pit” in front of the hips, have the beautiful, round croup turned into only pointed bones or if you can see a gap between the thighs under the tail Your horse is definitely too thin.

If you are not sure whether your horse is in the normal range despite the “BCS scale”, operators of professional, mobile horse scales or your treating veterinarian will also help you.

Does the Horse Eat Too Little? What is Really Behind the Underweight?

There are several possible causes of an underweight horse. It can of course be due to a feeding that is not adapted to the needs of the horse that it continues to lose weight. The ration should be based on the age of the horse, its weight, its area of application, and possible intolerances. If the horse loses substance despite an individual, optimal feeding plan, you should take a closer look:

Does the Horse Have High-quality Feed Available?

Microorganisms harmful to horses can settle in horse feed, for example, due to improper storage. These include bacteria, yeasts, molds, and mites, among others. These can cause indigestion, diarrhea, or stomach problems, which in turn can lead to weight loss in the horse.

Does the Horse Have Problems in the Herd?

Although herd husbandry is considered to be the most species-appropriate horse husbandry, stressful situations can also arise here, which affect the horses to the proverbial substance: too large herds, insufficient space, no retreat for the weaker, scuffles at the feeding point – all of this can either lead to this that the horses lose weight or do not have sufficient access to the feed from the start.

Does the Horse Eat Badly Because of Its Teeth?

If the horse has difficulties chewing, the food in the mouth is not sufficiently chopped up and can therefore not be optimally used in the digestive tract. In many cases, “only” dental treatment is necessary and the horse will gain weight again. If the horse is missing too many teeth, the feed ration must be adjusted accordingly.

Does the Horse Suffer From a Metabolic Disease?

If it is suspected that the horse, which is too thin, may have metabolic diseases such as Equine Cushing’s Syndrome, Lyme disease, or a thyroid disorder, the vet should definitely be consulted. With the help of a health check, a blood count, and/or a fecal examination, clarity can be quickly established.

Does the Horse Have Other Diseases?

Can other diseases that promote underweight, such as liver and kidney problems, infections (fever), stomach ulcers, intestinal diseases, or tumors, be ruled out? This should also be clarified with a veterinarian and, if possible, excluded.

Can a Parasite Infestation in Horses Be Ruled Out?

Destruction of the mucous membranes, diarrhea, colic, and loss of appetite are just some of the possible consequences of parasite infestation in horses. All of these can lead to serious weight loss.

Or is the Horse Simply Suffering From Stress?

A change of stable, a new stall neighbor, breeding work, transports, tournament starts or intensive training plans can all trigger stress for horses: In situations like this, the horses produce excessive levels of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. These cause the blood sugar level to rising, which in turn increases the heart rate, dilates the bronchi, and releases energy reserves. The result: the horse loses weight despite its usual food intake.


Only when the real cause has been found can the underweight be counteracted. This should then be done as quickly as possible because horses that are too thin lose muscle mass quickly despite training and can then no longer feed on anything. Other consequences of weight loss can be brittle hooves, dull fur, muscle loss, and a sharp drop in performance. These, too, should not persist over a longer period of time.

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