In this excerpt from The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need, veterinarian Dr. Stacie Boswell gives us a basic guide for determining when a rescue or rehabilitation case is ready to have his work or training load increased, according to his health and body condition.
Horses in need of rescue or rehabilitation come from auctions, off the range, from neighbors or family who are having financial trouble or pass away, and a variety of other sources. Many horses have a unique story, and sometimes the humans in the story have suffered, too.
As I practice veterinary medicine, I see repeated issues, similar problems, and patterns
in the needs of these horses. One of the issues is often the need for basic training. A well-behaved horse is more likely to retain a good home. Outside of addressing the medical needs of a rescue or rehabilitation case, training him is the most important action you can take to ensure he has a good home long-term.
It is important to consider you horse’s Body Condition Score (BCS) before beginning any training with him. In 1983, Dr. Don Henneke and his colleagues at Texas A&M University published a landmark paper describing a semi-quantitative way of assessing and documenting fat and muscle coverage in horses. It is useful for monitoring weight changes over time. Therefore, rescue horses should be evaluated and their BCS recorded on a monthly basis. Fat is assessed over the horse’s neck, withers, behind the shoulders, along the ribs, and across the loin and tailhead. Each location is scored on a scale of one to nine, and then the average is calculated.
A healthy horse’s BCS is 4, 5, or 6. Horses that score 7 or above are overweight, while 3 and below is malnourished. A BCS of 1 is a state of severe starvation with almost no fat or body reserves remaining. Here are the stages of training that are appropriate for a rescue or horse that is being rehabilitated, according to his BCS.
BCS 1 to 2
Focus on providing medical care, water, and feed. Work on petting, brushing, and haltering.
Make sure you can touch the horse’s legs all over. He may not be able to balance if you pick up a foot. As he gains weight and strength, cautiously and gently teach him to pick up his feet, but don’t hold them up for more than one or two seconds. No exercise or unnecessary movement. After refeeding, leaving the quarantine enclosure for a five-to-ten-minute session of hand-grazing is a good way to spend time together.
Begin in-hand groundwork, staying low-key and slow during this time. No cantering, but you may begin one- to two-minute increments of trotting. Your goal during this time period is to help the horse build muscle while he is still gaining weight. Walking up hills and then coming down in a widely-arced “S” shape increases fitness. Walking the horse through arena work that includes ground poles, barrels, cones, or other obstacles requiring him to bend his body or pick up his feet is appropriate. This is a good time to practice walking in and out of enclosures or barns, trailers, and stocks (chutes or small metal stalls meant to contain horses and restrict their movement to facilitate examination or procedures). Try to not stress the horse out, and don’t work so hard that he breaks a sweat or burns excessive calories. Keep everything calm and quiet.
Your horse should now be healthy enough to exercise more vigorously. Gradually work up to 10 or 15 minutes of in-hand trotting, and then start adding a few canter strides into your groundwork. Watch closely for any signs of pain or lameness. Get him to build more muscle. Work for correct, immediate responses, rather than the sluggish movements typical of a weak horse. Asking the horse to move around you in circles on a longe line (as in natural horsemanship or longeing) builds his strength and communication skills. You may tack him up and practice ground-driving as you prepare him for riding. Prepare him physically and mentally for a veterinary examination.
BCS 5 to 6
Your horse should be reevaluated for soundness by your veterinarian before riding him. If he has low-grade pain or subtle lameness, your training will be slow, and it isn’t fair to him to ask him to work while in pain. Lameness is one of the most common problems in rescued horses. If he isn’t sound, work with your veterinarian to formulate a plan. If he is deemed sound, riding can commence.
BCS 7 to 9
Have these horses been killed with kindness? Overweight rescue horses exist. For example, a client brought me three Miniature Horses to evaluate — all of which had a BCS of 9! Their former owner had passed away, and in the interim period, the minis were free-feeding off a round bale. Being too heavy carries significant health risks. Overweight horses are prone to painful arthritis due to overloading their joints, causing stress and inflammation. Laminitis or founder as a sequela of metabolic aberrations is a serious risk.
While these fat horses need exercise, you still should stick with an organized training plan. It is safer for you because you want to ensure that there aren’t holes in his training. Incremental training will also protect the horse from injury. Start slow—rigorous in-hand walking for five minutes each day may be an increase for an unfit horse.