Should You See Your Horse’s Ribs?

Should You See Your Horse’s Ribs?

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011


This is a common question and the answer really depends on the horse’s body condition.  Of course, if a horse is extremely skinny, then no, you shouldn’t be seeing this horse’s ribs and he needs to have some weight put on him and put on a good feeding schedule.  On the other hand, there are two body condition scores that allow you to still see a horse’s ribs and know that the horse is healthy:

Moderately Thin: Slight ridge along back; faint outline of ribs discernible; tailhead prominence depends on conformation; fat can be felt around it; tuber coxae not discernable; withers, shoulders and neck not obviously thin.

Moderate: Back is flat (no crease or ridge); ribs not visually discernable but easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear rounded over spinous processes; shoulders, and neck blend smoothly into body.

Now, with a horse that is BC (body condition) of 4, you may see the ribs faintly.  In some cases, you may see the back ribs more and the front ribs less, but this horse is still in good condition.  Generally these horses are very active horses, such as racehorses, jumpers, etc.  These horses are in shape and they work on a regular basis.  These horses are not usually considered skinny, but they are somewhat thin.  But it’s a healthy thin.

A BC of 5, says that the ribs are not discernibly seen, but easily felt.  In some cases, a horse that is considered a 5 may have ribs that are slightly seen.  You may classify these horses as a 4.5 or so, because you can see the ribs slightly.  These horses are horses that are simply of a healthy weight.  Many show horses that are in performance classes are seen as a 5-5.5 and maybe a 4.5 depending on what they are used for.

The bottom line is that just because you can see the ribs of a horse slightly doesn’t mean that the horse is too skinny.  It may just mean that they carry their weight lower in their bellies, causing their ribs to show and it may simply mean that they are in excellent physical condition with low body fat, causing the ribs to be slightly seen.
Body condition scores in which you should not see in a horse are:

Poor: Extremely emaciated; spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae and ischii projecting prominently (hip bones), bone structure of withers, shoulders, and neck easily noticeable; no fat tissue can be felt.

Very Thin: Emaciated; slight fat covering over base of spinous processes; transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded; spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae and ischii prominent; withers, shoulders, and neck structure faintly discernable.

Thin: Fat build-up about halfway on spinous processes; transverse processes cannot be felt; slight fat cover over ribs; spinous processes and ribs easily discernable; tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually; tubar coxae appear rounded but easily discernable; tuber ischii not discernible; withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.

Horses with these body condition scores are typically considered underweight and in some cases emaciated, such as with a BC of 1 and 2.  Here is an example of a body condition 4-4.5.  Body Condition Score of about a 4-4.5 – Ribs are slightly discernable, but horse is in a very healthy weight and state overall.

Now, if your horse suddenly appears skinny one day and he wasn’t the next, your horse may be ill or dehydrated.  For whatever reason, horses may decide that their water source is not worthy of them and will not drink from it.  This will cause them to have a “sucked in” appearance.  This can be remedied by providing the horse with fresh water from a clean bucket or water source.  This is common if a horse uses an automatic waterer and for some reason won’t drink from it.  Provide the horse with fresh water and you will see his belly fill out and his ribs begin to disappear.  You will then want to investigate why the horse hasn’t been drinking.  If a horse has this sucked in look from illness, contact your vet immediately to find out what the cause is so that you may remedy it and get your horse back to looking the way he should.