Of all the questions that are asked by ex-racehorse owners on online forums and groups, “is my horse too thin/carrying enough condition?” is almost certainly the most frequent.
Despite the evidence that obesity is by far a greater threat to the UK horse population, thoroughbred owners seem to live with an anxiety that their horse is under conditioned, and turn to online communities for advice on feeding and management.
If you are one of those people, read on to find out how to gauge the condition of your horse, and what you can do to ensure that your ex-racehorse is at his or her best.
Thoroughbreds are leaner than native breeds
Healthy ex-racehorses will often be a Body Condition Score of 2 (“moderate” – scroll down for a full explanation and How To!) where the ribs are just visible and can easily be felt, and the hindquarters are sloping on either side of the spine and are slightly sunken.
Over the centuries thoroughbreds have been bred for racing traits – speed – which means that they are naturally lighter and carry less weight than native breeds. The same will apply to Arabs bred for endurance riding, or breeds of dogs such as whippets and greyhounds.
In contrast, native breeds and cob types have evolved to survive harsh British winters with poor grass quality, by being very efficient at utilising the food available to them. When presented with copious amounts of feed, rugs, and the comfort of a stable, these animals can tend towards the fat side. Thoroughbreds don’t have those genetics, as the influence of other hot bloods seems to have overcome their native heritage, so in the same conditions they will be thinner.
Once you have rehomed your ex-racehorse and their condition has stabilised, you can use regular Body Condition Scoring to check that they haven’t varied too far from their usual condition, and if they have, make changes to their management.
The racehorse in training
Your ex-racehorse may have never won a race (or for some, even made it to a race course!), but in their first career they were professional athletes, and will have been managed accordingly.
No professional human sprinter, hurdler, or 400m runner will carry excess fat, and they will have a training regime designed to support muscle and maximise their performance. The same applies to your thoroughbred, who will have spent their racing career in peak fitness, typically eating a high- energy, low-fibre diet.
With the dedicated care of the racing team, racehorses turn up at the racetrack looking lean, fit, and shiny. For racing they will work and build different muscles to a riding horse, which means that while they are healthy and fit, they will be a different shape to a horse competing in dressage or showjumping.
While the lack of fat is perhaps the most obvious difference to the non-equestrian eye, those who work with horses will see other differences between the physique of racing thoroughbreds and both leisure horses and other competition animals.
Top dressage and showjumping horses tend to be warmbloods, which naturally carry extra bone than thoroughbreds. If you look at the very best eventing thoroughbreds and compare them to horses that are racing, the clearest difference is in the neck.
In the Olympic disciplines horses work in an outline, and work through movements that typically involve bending and turning in relatively small circles. In racing horses aren’t expected to work in an outline (although some trainers will develop this through other exercises) and maximise the length of their neck when “winning by a nose.” As a result horses in training and recently out of it tend to have a thinner neck with little topline, as those muscles aren’t being put to use in the same way.
The racehorse straight out of racing
While some racehorses do go directly from a racetrack to a re-trainer or new owner, many will have some “let down” time, either with their racing trainer or with their new owner. During this time the horse will start to lose their racing muscle, but won’t necessarily immediately gain fat. This can result in new ex-racehorses looking underweight, but this shouldn’t be a permanent situation.
Remember too that the transition from a racing yard to civilian life is a huge change, and this might also bring about some stress-related weight loss. At the start don’t panic too much about the condition of your horse, but put together a plan to raise their weight to a healthy level.
Managing the condition of your ex-racehorse
With a change in career your horse’s musculature will adapt to their new line of work, with development of topline as the thoroughbred transitions to working in an outline. This won’t appear overnight, but with time you will see a different silhouette.
To maintain your horse in good condition it is essential that you feed a suitable diet. Retraining of Racehorses recommend good quality forage, ad lib if possible, constant access to clean, fresh, water, and concentrate feed split into two, or ideally three, meals a day.
Introduce diet changes gradually, and to promote weight gain add extra oil to the diet. The charity suggests that micronised linseed is one of the best oil sources as it provides the Omegas 3, 6, and 9 in the correct ratio for horses.
While there are thoroughbreds who live out all year round without rugs, a horse fresh out of racing is unlikely to be that hardy. You will probably need to rug your horse, and make sure that they don’t get wet and cold. Always remember that maintaining body temperature expends energy, so if your horse needs to gain condition you will want to support them through adverse weather.
Like any horse, there are some management issues which can lower body condition. Make sure that your horse has their teeth checked regularly, and keep up to date with a worming protocol.
Body Condition Scoring
Body Condition Scoring is an assessment of overall fat covering, and can be one tool to determine whether a horse is a healthy weight. It should be used in conjunction with advice from your vet, and can be teamed with weight taping and Cresty Neck Scoring to give an overall picture. Handily, regular Body Condition Scoring can track fluctuations in your horse’s individual condition, so that you can compare your horse with their own history, rather than other horses on the yard.
In-yard comparisons are perhaps one of the reasons why ex-racehorse owners worry about their horse’s weight. The British Horse Society reports that up to 50% of horses are obese, with the figure rising to 70% for some native breeds. With overweight and obese horses being the norm in many places, it’s easy to see why your naturally slim thoroughbred will look out of place.
Body Condition Scoring is best learnt through watching videos of real horses, but in summary it involves applying a score of 0-5 to three key areas of the horse- neck, body, and hindquarters- and then averaging them for an overall Body Condition Score.
Body Condition Scoring is on a scale from 0 (emaciated) to 5 (obese) and most healthy horses will be between 2.5 and 3. For very fit animals (those competing regularly, and racehorses in training) their Body Condition Score will be on the lean side as they will not be carrying much fat.
A horse with a Body Condition Score of 3 is classed as “healthy” and will have no crest (unless it is a stallion), a thin layer of fat, ribs and spine that cannot be seen but can be easily palpated, slightly rounded hindquarters, and just visible hip bones and neck muscles.
How to Body Condition Score
The British Horse Society guide to Body Condition Scoring (or fat scoring) works on the average of three areas, but there are systems that look at six parts of the horse.
Scoring your horse involves a mixture of looking and feeling, and then comparing your horse with the descriptions and diagrams produced by organisations such as the British Horse Society.
Neck and shoulders
Start by looking at your horse and noticing whether you can see the shape of the neck muscles. Then feel the crest and decide if it is composed of thickened, hard fat, and can you move it from side to side. Run your hand down to the shoulder and see if the shoulder blade stops your hand, or whether the presence of fat makes it a smooth movement.
Firstly, can you see the ribs, and if so how clearly? Go to touch the ribs and check how easily they can be felt- how much pressure needs to be applied, if any. Do the same with the spine, and check if there is an accumulation of fat on either side which makes a gutter shape, or allows you to rest your hand flat.
Like the other two areas, the hindquarters starts with a visual observation of whether or not the hipbones can be seen. Then move on to assess how easily they can be felt. Finally, stand behind your horse and look at the shape - a healthy horse’s hindquarters will be slightly rounded, looking like the letter C. Reach out and check for any fatty areas around the tail head.
Based on the criteria provided for each score by the system that you use, you will have a number for each area. Add these up and divide by three to give the overall score for the horse. In order to reliably compare scores over time, use the same chart and the same method.
Ex-racehorses and gastric ulcers
When discussing the weight of ex-racehorses, gastric ulcers will almost always be mentioned. Studies show that 37% of leisure horses have ulcers, but the figure rises to over 90% of racehorses. Two of the risk factors for ulcers in horses are intensive exercise and diets heavy in concentrate feed, so it is perhaps not surprising that prevalence is higher in racing thoroughbreds.
Clinical signs of gastric ulcers include weight loss, poor appetite, poor performance, low condition, dull coat, behavioural changes, and mild or recurrent colic. While not every ex-racehorse will have ulcers, and they are not the only reason for your horse looking thin, they are a consideration if your horse continues to look poor and unhappy as their new career progresses.
Gastric ulcers can be diagnosed by your vet, using gastric endoscopy, and your vet can then recommend treatment and management changes.
So, is my ex-racehorse too thin?
As we’ve already discussed, thoroughbreds are an athletic breed that will almost always be leaner than a cold or warmblooded horse on the same diet. Horses recently out of training may look thin due to physiological changes associated with the end of training and the start of a general riding career, and horses in training will carry very little fat.
When calculating if your horse is too thin, it is important to be objective, and to use a comparable scale such as Body Condition Scoring. Be aware that a thoroughbred will be on the leaner side of normal, but take action if your horse starts to slide into a lower category.
Apart from the visibility of their ribs and the shape of their neck, pay attention to other indicators of health such as the condition of their coat, and their general demeanour. Don’t be afraid to ask your vet to take a look at your horse if you are concerned, and have them give an honest opinion on your horse’s general condition.
With so many riding horses being overweight and obese, your ex-racehorse might always be the slimmest on the yard, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Learn not to compare your thoroughbred with their heavier stablemates, but don’t let the breed be an excuse if your horse does lose a lot of condition through the winter or a droughty summer – this is when supplementary feeding and adding oil come into their own.
As your relationship with your ex-racehorse progresses you will see their overall shape change to accommodate their new life, and you will get a sense of what their “normal” looks like. Throughout the process keep working with professionals such as your vet, dentist, and saddler (all of whom have a key role in your horse’s welfare), and utilise resources such as the Retraining of Racehorses helpline if you have concerns.
Photo credits: Sian Broderick