By Christine Rudd, MSc, CTRI
“What’s his body condition?” your vet asks you over the phone.
“He’s a little on the skinny side, but not too bad,” you answer.
What does “a little on the skinny side” mean? What does chubby, fit, or fat look like? The simplest and least satisfying answer is, it depends on who you ask. To a racehorse trainer a champion hunter might look fat, while a western pleasure competitor might think event horses are too skinny. However, for each horse’s job and body type, they might be healthy and fit.
To avoid subjective descriptions of equine body condition, an objective and standardized body scoring system is necessary. This system is not only for veterinarians and owners to accurately describe a horse, but also to enable law enforcement professionals to describe animals encountered on welfare calls, and equine industry professionals from diverse backgrounds to describe a horse’s physique in a common language.
Body scoring systems rank a horse’s condition on a numeric scale, with each score directly connected to a rigid set of observable and palpable characteristics. These characteristics are descriptions of fat and muscle cover over key body areas (Shuffitt & TenBroeck, 2003).
There have been two main body scoring systems used in the horse industry: the Leighton-Hardman model developed in 1980 that ranked horses’ condition on a scale of 0-5, and the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS), used more commonly today, that ranks a horse’s condition on a scale of 1-9. On both scales, the lowest number is reserved for the severely emaciated horse, the horse’s condition improves through the middle of the scale, then tips toward obesity as the higher scores are reached.
The more commonly used model, the Henneke Body Condition Score, was developed by Don Henneke, PhD. The Henneke scoring system is accepted in courts of law as a fair and objective system to score horses recovered in welfare and cruelty cases. It is based on six major points on the horse’s body where fat can be both observed and palpated: the neck, shoulder, withers, ribs, loin, and tailhead, and is applicable across all breeds and disciplines.
When determining the body score of a horse, it is important to not only look at the horse, but also to firmly run your hand over these key areas to feel the amount of fat and muscle cover. This gives you the opportunity to feel how much flesh there is between the skin and the ribs, how much of that fluff is hair and how much is fat, or to feel the lack of fat and muscle under a thick and concealing coat.
While this body scoring system is uniform across breeds and disciplines, there are a few exceptions to be aware of. These exceptions come mainly in the conformational differences between breeds, which can make certain criteria difficult to apply to each animal, so breed characteristics (such as differences in wither structure and prominence) should be taken into account when assessing body condition score. In pregnant mares, an emphasis is put on musculature and fat behind the shoulder, around the tailhead, and over the neck and withers, since the weight of the fetus can pull the skin taut over the back and ribs (Henneke et al., 1983).
Knowing your horse’s BCS is not only important so you can accurately communicate about your horse, but also so you can ensure your horse’s good health. A low body score can be indicative of a number of factors, such as nutritional requirements not being met, dental disease, parasite load, or sickness. On the other end of the scale, a higher body score can indicate certain diseases, be a causal factor of laminitis, as well as the health problems that come with excess amounts of body fat such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and increased stress on joints and soft tissue (Shuffitt & TenBroeck, 2003; Jackson 2007). In growing horses, recognizing the signs of under- or over-nutrition can prevent or offset the health risks associated with said conditions (Staniar, 2004).
By using a standardized BCS to routinely evaluate your horse, you are taking the guess work out of home health maintenance. There is no “maybe” when it comes to whether your horse is over- or underweight, whether that divot over your horse’s spine is healthy (it’s not), or if your feeding program is adequately addressing your horse’s energy needs. It gives you a concrete tool to know when to call the vet or nutritionist based on changes in your horse’s body and you’ll be able to appropriately define and describe that change. As you practice your critical observation skills, the rosy veil of adoration that hides our horses’ less than healthy imperfections begins to lift, and we will become better owners and managers who can effectively advocate for and initiate feeding and exercise programs that will keep our horses in a healthy body condition. Being familiar with the Henneke BCS and regularly practicing it empowers you to understand and identify the good, the bad, and the ugly of equine body conditions, and with the help of your vet or other equine service provider, you can bring your horse back to that ideal 5.
For more information on body condition scoring, please reference the studies provided in the References section below.
Henneke, D. R., Potter, G. D., Kreider, J. L., & Yeates, B. F. (1983). Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine veterinary journal, 15(4), 371-372.
Jackson, C. (2007). University researchers lead pioneering study in equine obesity.
Leighton-Hardman, A.C. 1980. Appendix 3. Weight estimation tables. Pages 106-107. In: Equine Nutrition. Pelham Books, London.
Shuffitt, J. M., & TenBroeck, S. H. 2003. Body Condition Scoring of Horses.
Staniar, W. B. (2004, March). Understanding Equine Growth. In CONFERENCE SPONSORS (p. 180).