By Karen E. Davison, PhD, and Katherine K. Williamson, DVM


A horse’s outside appearance can be an indicator of his inner health. A shiny hair coat, strong muscle tone, good-quality hooves, and ideal body condition reflect a strong, healthy horse that should be ready to work. Health and nutrition both come into play in supporting a horse to consistently perform at his best. This becomes especially evident in events that require repeated runs in a single day or hard work several days in a row.

Horses in less than top condition cannot sustain top performance. Some horses will compensate and manage for a while but at some point might become irritable when saddled, nervous or anxious when ridden, and eventually stop performing well at competitions. The most noticeable sign of a horse in less-than-ideal body condition is visible ribs. If the problem continues beyond what body fat stores can cover, muscle tissue will break down to generate the calories needed for work. This loss of muscle tissue usually first occurs over the back and loin, or topline, and will eventually affect the neck, hindquarters, and shoulders. Sometimes what owners mistake for muscle creases or definition is really lack of fat cover and muscle mass beginning to diminish.

If there are no other health issues at play, you might be able to improve your horse’s body condition through diet alone. The first step in determining why your horse is not eating well, losing weight, or failing to thrive would be to examine his nutritional program, which is one of the easiest things to change. Here are some basic questions to ask yourself:

  • Is my horse chewi