Thin Horses, Body Scoring, and Inconvenience.


Start here: There is no rule that says when a horse’s age goes up, his weight needs to come down. Age is no excuse for thin horses.

It’s my Grandfather Horse on the right in the photo. You can tell he’s three-times the age of the other horse because he’s sway-backed. He was thirty when he passed, with a list of maladies a mile long: nearly toothless, blown tendons, arthritis, heart murmur, cancer, and near the end, some sort of stroke… but his weight was just dandy. #ageisnoexcuse.

I have a filthy habit. I attend horse abuse cases in court. On sunny days, when I could be giving lessons or working with my horses, I sit in rooms with no windows to listen to lies. This week, two of us from Colorado Horse Rescue Network drove to the next county to sit in court. If I was guaranteed convictions with real penalties, I’d call it a guilty pleasure

The hard part of this dark hobby is listening to the evidence. Testimony on behalf of the horses includes the state of the facility; the quantity of manure, along with usual empty water tanks, and lack of feed. There are usually statements about the condition of the horse’s feet and their teeth, but their weight is the most visible symptom. We use a BCS (body condition score) rating system to describe the physical state of the horse on a scale from one to nine.

The most common excuse that lousy horse owners use to justify neglecting their horses is claiming that older horses are just naturally skinny. And yes, there are a million other flimsy excuses for how horses get to this sad state, but it’s ridiculous how often you hear the “old horse” excuse. Ridiculous how many elders that end up at auctions look like the walking dead. Ridiculous how little it takes for these same elders (without health issues) to regain a healthy weight.

Disclaimer: Sometimes good horse-people get into trouble. There could be a death in the family or a job loss. Law enforcement doesn’t want to seize horses; it’s actually a complicated process. They would rather help the owner find a solution. By the time charges get filed, it generally means that the owner has refused a few ideas.

How to tell the difference between an owner who’s trying and actual neglect? My personal rule is that if the water tanks are empty, it’s a bad sign. Water is free, after all. Even if it is inconvenient to walk out to the pen.

Horses who lose weight with feed available probably have a dental problem. Equine teeth “erupt” through horse’s lives; they continue to grow. Daily grazing wears the teeth down but as time passes, sometimes the teeth don’t wear evenly, leaving sharp hooks and edges that result in painful ulcers inside the mouth and less effective mastication (chewing) means less of the nutrition in the hay is available to the horse and he loses weight… not because of his age.

Good horse-people get dental care for their horses; “floating” is the process of filing the teeth level to improve the tooth surface for effective chewing.

Confession: Growing up, I don’t remember seeing floats done. We were poor farmers and my father dispatched “useless” animals that were thin or old. Times change and when we know better, we can do better. Ignorance is no excuse. Checking teeth is part of a routine vet check. Unless, of course, a horse doesn’t get consistent veterinary care, either.

Sometimes in a pen of horses, a few will be an okay weight but others will be too thin. They are being under-fed. The more assertive horses are eating the hay while the more submissive ones are starving. It’s still neglect; don’t wait until they are all emaciated.

So, there you are in court, listening to a cloud of evidence: some combination of no hay, or no vet care, or just lies and excuses. The defendant always has friends in the court, ready to testify on behalf of the abuser. I always wonder if they are such good friends, why didn’t they step in and offer help before things got so bad?

Last year in court, at the end of a full week of expert testimony about the horrific neglect that had resulted in the death of over half of her herd, I listened to a life-long horse-owner explain to the jury, in a perfectly reasonable way, that her horses weren’t show horses and they just didn’t need that level of care. I looked to the jury and no one’s chin was on their chest. It sounded almost rational. Almost believable.

Don’t be fooled. Neglect is failing to provide adequate care to any animal you possess and it’s against the law.

Now for the rant: I know caring for animals is inconvenient. It’s just true–endless time and endless money. And as time passes, you might have to soak mush or buy bags of senior feed. But still, the crime isn’t getting old– it’s lacking the compassion to inconvenience yourself.

I want to ask a favor. Remembering every chubby old sway-backed horse you’ve known, please consider posting a photo of them on your Facebook page and copy/paste the hashtag #AgeIsNoExcuse to the Colorado Horse Rescue Network page. Then “like” the other photos there. Help us debunk the “skinny old horse” myth.

If you feel you owe a debt to horses in your life, please participate in our legal system. Bear witness in court; let them know the community cares about animal welfare. Too many times people put their personal convenience above the needs of others, when it’s our character at stake.

And if you see a thin horse, kindly ask the owner about floating. Make it easy; say that you didn’t always know about it, either. Give them the chance to do the right thing.


Here’s our foster, Lilith. She arrived in May, extremely elderly, rail thin, and with, in the equine dentist’s words, “expired teeth.” This fall, I cut back on her feed, worried that too much weight would make her move a little stiffer than she does already…


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro


This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

34 thoughts on “Thin Horses, Body Scoring, and Inconvenience.”

  1. Man! This so resonates…my old guy is 24, and while he’s had his thin moments, it’s something I keep an eagle eye on. He has some teeth issues but I have a truly awesome vet and we keep it sorted. This is what I’ve learned this with all my old sick rescue dogs…it’s better for them to be packing a few extra pounds because when things go south (and they will), whether it’s the final trip south, or just a brief vacation there, having that extra weight gives them a wee bit more of a fighting chance. It’s called a reserve. I’m not talking about obese, or even chubby. But “rounded” is a good thing. As for the inconvenience…my response to all those people (because as you well know, Anna, we run across the same thing in dog rescue) is I only hope that you get exactly the same care when you’re old and “inconvenient.” And karma, bitch that she is, bless her, is always listening. Pasting a pic as requested!

    • It is a work in progress to manage care as a horse or dog ages and our reward for sharing their life. And I do hope karma is keeping score, on both sides! Thanks, great comment.

  2. Yes, it certainly is a work in progress for many horses. Toby was an air fern as is Squash. Air ferns have their own set of challenges. Jade is tricky. I did not get him until he was 19 and do not know his story other than he was run a couple of years at Delaware Park race track. He was very underweight. The owner had a small herd of left over horses from his kids. He was not a horse person and had a hired person care for the horses. This sweet soul pressed him to find a better arrangement for Jade or face being cited for abuse. Jade was not very interested in fighting his way to the hay bale. Everyone else seemed to be doing fine. He was so thin that there were remains of mud puddles on his rump. The indentations were deep enough to hold rain water. My barn owner asked me to keep a sheet on him until we could get some weight on him. And he did well. Here at home he is the boss. His minion Squash only comes up to his chest. She bossed him for the first year, then he took over. He continued to look good. Then with the onset of Cushings last winter he lost his top line completely, among other symptoms. And the meds have helped a lot. He looked great last summer. But I am struggling to find a good balance of feed that is ok for Cushings horses. What I have come up with, and it is beginning to help, is to continue with the forage balancer and hoof supplement he was getting, he gets unlimited hay at multiple areas of his stall and paddock, and I have added soaked and well rinsed no-molasses unsweetened beet pulp. But he will only eat about 1 1/2 cups of soaked beet pulp. I am switching from the tractor store brand to one called Speedi-Beet which is supposed to be cleaner, not requiring all the rinsing, and is supposed to be more palatable. My farrier and vet say he is fine. He actually has a fat pad behind his shoulders. But I can see his ribs when he walks around. My gut tells me he needs a little more. So I continue to read everything I can find on feeding Cushings horses and will keep trying things until I find what works, until it stops working, then I will begin again. Oh and his teeth are great. He has only ever needed a very light float. I have him checked twice a year. He is lucky to have a perfect alignment. He had not had farrier, dental or vet care for about 7 years when I got him. Vet, farrier and equine dentist all were amazed that he had held up so well, except for being incredibly thin. It all pointed to groceries. I never got him fat, but he looked pretty good. He has good energy. He runs and bucks in the field, and his coat is shiny. I get regular fecals done, he and Squash are not shedders and they never have bot eggs on them, so I only worm for tape worms on recommendation from my vet. So work in progress is right. It is a labor of love. I wish I had someone doing this for me. I’m an air fern like Squash. Well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. And I don’t muzzle well.

    • Teehee…not an air fern myself. Thoroughbreds are a tough breed; generally not easy keepers, but the rescues I’ve had here have surprised me in their ability to come back. It sounds like you’ve done a great job… and as for his BCS, well, ribs don’t tell the whole story, especially with this breed. Good job, Judy.

      • Thanks for the encouragement Anna. Jade is actually an Arab. Delaware runs Arabs on Mondays. He is a Polish/Crabbit cross. His build and personality are very different than Toby, who was Egyptian. Jade is more thoroughbred like. He’s a point and shoot sort of guy. Give him clear communication and he will give his all. Lillith looks wonderful.

    • advice on feeding an Cushings horse – go to Facebook, Equine Cushings Disease – wonderful group, tons of experience very supportive. You will get a lot of suggestions there. Good luck. I have a Cushings horse as well

  3. My boy was 28 when he was put down – looking at him you would never know it! He couldnt chew hay anymore – dropped cuds all over – tried soaking, cutting – but had to move on to the chunks of Timothy (sorry senior moment – the actual name eludes me!) anyhow, would soak them & he could eat them just fine. I believe the final straw had to be something with his heart – when the vet came he had a large heart murmur – and was lifting his legs as if there were flies – it was December! He was great right up to the last 24 hours – so I can tell myself he had a darned good life. So nope – being older does NOT mean being skinny! I’m sure its hard to go to these court dates & listen to what actual abusers have to say – but if your being there for the animals helps in any way – isnt it worth it?

    • Good till the last 24 IS a good life, and I know you still miss him. And yes, it is worth it to go. I only wish there were more people sitting with me, for the horses who can’t speak for themselves. Thanks Maggie.

  4. Great post, Anna. I didn’t realize how “inconvenient” it was to take care of Cappy, my 29yr appy, until he passed away last December. It never occurred to me NOT to feed that extra meal midday so as to keep his weight up; or that I needed to hang around an extra 10-15 minutes until he was finished eating. All I could think of was how HE took care of me on the many trail rides we had together. I owed him no less.
    I posted a few pictures on my Facebook page but couldn’t figure out how to do the rest. Thanks for any help you can give?

    • It’s a different vantage point if it’s you carrying the bucket, isn’t it? Not work at all. If you add #AgeIsNoExcuse to your post, it should link up. Thanks, Lynell.

  5. Thanks so much for taking the time to sit in court to testify. We need people like you, and my daughter, who fight for animals. No animal deserves to be treated like that- ever. Great post.

  6. I have to say two things: Like people, horses are individuals. We had a mare who did get thin as she aged, DESPITE incredible care, free choice (and a smorgasbord of choices — she was picky) feed, regular vet care (including dental care), and everything that could be done for her. Her eye was bright, her attitude was find, but she was painfully thin, SECOND — Horses teeth may NOT grow for “all their lives”. Many horses, especially now, do reach an age where their teeth just wear down to almost nothing. That’s a fairly easy fix — a complete feed made into “mud”. But the teeth can only be floated if there are teeth to float!
    I agree that old does not automatically = thin — I had a 31 year old that was winning in the class A ring. I also like your test of checking the water.

    • I hear you, Sue. I don’t like power floats, I wonder if your mare had some chronic, un-diagnose-able problem. We do our best. The little donkey in the blog likes her “mud” just great… I also have good luck with a feed called Thrive, it looks like dog kibble but they love it. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  7. I have never thought it “inconvenient” to take care of my now 21 yr old OTTB. Heck, I dont even think it’s “expensive” Well, not any more than taking care of any other horse would be. Maybe it’s because I simply just buy him what I know he needs. I hand over my credit card, check or cash without a second thought when it comes to him.
    I rough board, due to trust issues I have from seeing some barn owners/horse people and what they consider “ok” I drive a half hour one way. Twice a day. Every day of the year.
    I throw hay at him. Like it’s $2 a bale, not $10. Hay outside. Hay in stall. If he’s looking like he needs/wants more he gets it. Even when the pasture comes back in. Hay. And he looks darn good for a 21 yr old Thoroughbred. 🙂 despite the knee.
    And your’e right. There is no excuse for a lack of water. Heck, I’m disabled. But I lug 5 gallon buckets of water to his pasture every morning when he is turned out. Winter sucks, the pond is frozen. I bring it out in the morning, and whatever he doesn’t drink, gets dumped that night. He has two water buckets in his stall that get cleaned and refilled every day.
    We occasionally have had a newbie, or know it all horse boarder, come thru the barn. One that treats the horse as a toy that can be played with now and then. Put on a shelf and ignored til they want to play with it again. In a rough board situation these people are horrible. But none of us ever let those horses go without. Water is filled. Strong suggestions for buying more hay/ grain are made. Then they disappear one day. Usually with a bale of someones hay.
    Horses are a commitment. Animals are like permanent toddlers. They need us. They need us to care for them. To be their voice. To bear witness. Keep doing what you are doing Anna.

  8. I really enjoy your posts and as a past representative of an equine welfare group I can relate to the neglect, abuse and lies you write about. However, I must remark on the “chubby” reference. I believe many people are not aware of the dangers of over weight horses. The hoof is easily compromised, that tiny area supports a massive weight and those with extra weight will inevitably suffer separation that can lead to abscess, seedy toe, dropped soles and the totally debilitating laminitis. So many of us are obsessed with losing weight – we want to be skinny but we want our animals fat. Overweight is as bad as underweight – maybe worse

  9. Even after the accident that put Rudd in a wheelchair he kept his horses till they passed. Granted Dot, his wife, helped more than she had before and so did their kids. He was deadly serious about the commitment he’d made to those horses, they were under his guardianship for the whole of their lives, just like his kids and wife. He worked out a way to do as much as he could while in a wheelchair. He had old horses but they weren’t thin, one was a poor keeper and had been as long as Rudd had him and there were issues which were just taken care of as much as possible. If a man in a wheelchair can care for his horses for their lifetimes, there’s no bleeding excuse for anyone else. If it’s too inconvenient don’t have the horse. Same goes for dogs and kids. If it’s too annoying to “waste” your time with the care of an animal or child, please, don’t have any. I’ve taken care of my dogs from the day they come to me till the day they die – usually in my arms. They aren’t thin either. You find ways to see they get what they need, you spoon feed them if necessary (that was something Sunny and I dealt with for almost 2 years, he ate off a spoon and did well, was happy enjoying life till the last week of his life when he mostly slept until he slept away). Was it “inconvenient”? Yes, but it was part of the commitment and to me it really wasn’t after the 14 years of love and joy he gave. Thank you, Anna, for standing up for the horses who can’t testify for themselves.

    • I don’t understand how to do it any other way either… Thanks for your comment, Aquila. And I would expect no less from Rudd.

  10. I appreciate this column and agree with nearly all of what you have to say, but I must note that I know a mare at the barn where I currently board who is exception to your rule. This older mare has been examined by the vet, who noted that her teeth (and everything else) were just fine. She lives happily in a pasture with other horses (where she is high in the hierarchy) and gets 2 extra meals a day, with every high-calorie feed and supplement her owner and the barn owner can get her to eat. Everyone is focused on her welfare, and she’s been getting this extra feed for some months now but remains quite ribby and with prominent hipbones (though she has energy and appears to be enjoying her life). So while they may be rare, there are some older horses who receive optimal care and nonetheless look like welfare cases.

    • She might have a sour stomach/ulcer situation, but I’m sure you’ved checked for that.

      I have had so many rescues here over the years that I have tried every combination of things in the world.
      I’ve had best luck with alfalfa/hay pellets soaked… it’s a long story but it has to do with gut bacteria and the smallest particles available. I used to feed a wild combination of things, but this worked so much better that it’s all I use now. (If I need a bit more, I’ll use Thrive, but have never found beet pulp or senior feeds as effective. ) You are right, every horse is an individual.

      Thanks for your comment.

  11. I love this post!
    I feel like one of the problems that contributes to the issue of underweight horses is a lack of awareness of how a well nourished horse should look. Nothing frustrates me more than people who will happily tell you that their horse is ‘fat’ when it’s actually on the skinny side with no top line in sight and poverty lines down its rump.

  12. I had my old guy for almost 28 years, he was born in my backyard. For the last 8 or 10 he was on pergolide and chromium for Cushings. Can you say expensive? I never even considered not giving him his meds, every day, 365 days a year because he did remarkably well on them. In my mind there’s no question, you get an animal, you have him/her forever and you take care of him/her forever. (I have two old hens who haven’t laid an egg in I don’t know how long – ha.) My old guy finally succumbed to a bout of colic during a blizzard, and yes he had gotten his meds that day.


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