If I had a dollar for every time someone justified their overly skinny horse on the basis of their age or the fact that “They’re a thoroughbred!” I could probably afford to feed all of these horses that are far too skinny due to their owner’s naivety or negligence. Here’s the thing: I am totally understanding of the fact that sometimes horses go through stages in life where they may unexpectedly and quickly drop weight. BUT- there is a definitive difference between the owner who actively works to find out WHY their horse is skinny and how to fix it and the one who remains complacent and chooses to blame their poor body condition on something that really shouldn’t even be brought up when considering a horse’s overall healthy.
Yes, it is true that old horses may not keep the same condition as they did when they were in their youth. I am totally on board with the old fart of a horse who lacks muscle tone, may have a rib here or there but is otherwise still healthy. But, seeing people trying to excuse their extremely unhealthy, malnourished and in some cases, EMACIATED horses because they are old is…. just… disgusting, to be frank. If your horse has actually a hit a point in life where they are a rack of bones and no matter what you do, you cannot get them to keep a relatively healthy weight on, I think that is a point where you consider quality of life over quantity. Sometimes the best decision may be the hardest one for the owner, but the whole point in animal ownership is being the selfless parent that does whatever is best for their animal’s long-term health. Now, if you’re working alongside a vet and they believe the condition to be fixable and you’re actively working to do whatever is best for your horse, all of the power to you, but then you definitely do not fall under the “my horse is old!” excuse group, so please do not take offence to this post… It isn’t for you.
Now, the breed excuse. More times than not, this is applied to Thoroughbreds. As someone who has had many of them and works with them both on and off of the track, this is an entirely unacceptable excuse. I used to be that moron who did not know how to properly feed Thoroughbreds to keep them in tip top shape, however, they never hit the point where it was a welfare issue. They just looked undermuscled and ribby, lacking overall condition. Still embarrassing and I will readily admit that it was due to my own lack of knowledge on equine nutrition as well as my putting my full trust into people at boarding facilities to feed them appropriately, which is once again, stupid. Yes, Thoroughbreds are typically harder keepers, no, that is not an excuse for your horse to look like it just got seized from a negligence case. If my boss can have a barn full of high strung, high maintenance racehorses that could easily head to a Hunter/Jumper show and still fit the bill, you can ensure your pleasure horse looks healthy. So, no, the breed is not the issue, your inability to appropriately feed and care for said breed is. If you cannot afford a harder keeper, either do not get a horse or only look at horses with metabolisms that allow them to keep so well that they could survive a nuclear apocalypse. I’m sick and tired of seeing people excuse their horses’ poor condition on the basis that they cannot afford X amount of hay or grain and that Thoroughbreds “are supposed to be thin". They aren’t, I have seen some obese TBs and while that is not healthy either, it certainly is possible when owners are a little over zealous in their feed programs.
If you can tell your horse is not looking their best, instead of making excuses, seek out help. Oftentimes, the problem is in the hay. So many people do not feed enough hay or high enough quality hay. The whole mindset of barns only doing X number of hay feedings per day with X number of flakes is definitely something that should change. Horses are grazing animals, so everyone should be making their best efforts to ensure that they have something to munch on as frequently as possible. Personally, I feed free choice and for the fatties, this means that they have slow feeders so they do not gorge themselves. For the skinny minnies, I give them as much as they can eat along with a grain ration and soaked alfalfa cubes for some more rich “hay” added to their diet. The dietary formula for each horse’s optimal condition can vary widely. Sometimes you need to play around to find out what works and that’s fine, weight doesn’t need to be piled on instantaneously and probably shouldn’t be for very skinny horses, but the most important factor is ensuring the effort is there. For those who excuse weight on the basis of things that really don’t matter, it is generally safe to assume the same effort isn’t their due to their efforts in trying to justify why their horse is too thin rather than actually fixing it.
I got one of my horses as a skinny 2y/o and for him, especially since he was rapidly growing to catch up with the lost growth from when he was too emaciated to spend energy growing up, it took quite a while for him to mature and develop condition like other horses his age. Still, his weight was gaining steadily, albeit slowly and we were constantly trying to find the most optimal diet for him. Even still, looking back, I definitely could have seen quicker and better results had I ensured that the hay quality and quantity were at par along with utilizing the same grain program I have now. Now that that horse is finished growing, he is actually one of the “Fatties” now and is on a diet program rather than a weight gaining one. Funny how things change when horses’ bodies realize they are no longer going to be starved.
Basically, what I am trying to encourage with this post is a higher standard of care for our horses. Offer people help instead of ridiculing in the event that you seen sub optimal care, but on top of that, people who are in the position where they’re dealing with horses who are underweight should really stop trying to justify why it is okay for their horse to stay that weight and start trying to fix it. People are incredibly judgmental creatures and it is super frustrating to meet judgment when you are actively working on getting you horse’s weight up, however, the amount of people who view a 2 on the body scale as acceptable due to age or breed is simply unacceptable and downright frightening. In allowing people to excuse care like this on the basis of such irrelevant things, we are encouraging the lack of education, mindlessness and lack of accountability for the care we are providing our animals. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, but the culture of allowing people to believe that extremely skinny horses are acceptable provided they’re a certain age or breed is very concerning.
The biggest thing for me is that since so many normalize this mindset, it honestly is not that uncommon to see people actively riding and working horses who are probably too underweight to be doing so and shouldn’t be expending more energy when they already aren’t keeping weight on. Such people likely do love and care for their horses but often have a sense of self righteousness and readily pull the age or breed card to defend themselves, instead of reconsidering their animal care practices. Horses bodies already are not built to carry humans in the first place, this is why proper musculature, good weight and correct carriage of body are such important factors in riding. If your horse is a bag of bones, there is no way that carrying a human can be done without some discomfort and to the detriment of their own health. So, it is time that people up the standards for their care and that more people advocate for the fact that horses of ANY age and ANY breed can still hold decent condition and in the event that they absolutely cannot, that should be viewed as an emergent vet issue to deal with, not something to ignore and excuse.