Body Condition Scoring: Hands-On Help for Your Horse

Body Condition Scoring: Hands-On Help for Your Horse

Most veterinarians and nutritionists recommend maintaining horses' BCS between 4 and 6 on the 9-point scale.


It’s common for two people can look at the same horse and view it with two different eyes. One person might regard a horse as fat, but to the other he might appear to be just right. One person might describe a horse as “ribby,” but in the eyes of another the animal appears lean and fit. But rather judging a horse's weigh subjectively, horse owners have a better option at their disposal: body condition scoring.

Since the mid-1980’s, veterinarians and equine nutritionists have employed this system to measure fat coverage in horses as a more objective way to assess a horse’s weight. Don Henneke, PhD, developed the Henneke Body Condition Scoring (BSC) system during his graduate study at Texas A & M University, and the system remains the most reliable tool in determining a horse’s body condition. If done on a regular basis, it is an excellent way to monitor a horse's nutritional well-being over time.

The Henneke Scoring System

Henneke's BCS system is a 9-point scale designed to describe the amount of fat and muscle a horse is carrying. A score of 1 is considered to be a poor or emaciated horse with no body fat, while a 9 is extremely fat or obese.

“The 1 to 9 scale is scientifically published and accepted, and has been in use for many years since Dr. Henneke developed it,” says Gayle Ecker, director of the University of Guelph's Equine Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “While (the scale) is generally included in most courses on horse care and nutrition, there are many horse owners that have not been exposed to this system of assessment and fewer still that have had structured training on it.

“Many may not be aware of the value of this scientific tool, and there are some who feel they can quite adequately eyeball the horse,” Ecker says. “Proper training for this [Henneke BCS] hands-on technique is important for its consistent use.”

Through physical palpation (use of hands to feel for areas of fat coverage) and visual assessment of anatomical sites, six specific areas of the horse’s body are assessed when using the BCS system: the neck, the withers, the loin, the tailhead, the ribs, and the shoulder. The scores are then totaled up and divided by six to obtain the most accurate score possible. The resulting number would be the horse’s BCS rating. 

The National Farm Animal Care Council of Canada's 2013 Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines recommends BCS as a tool for determining if an animal is too thin, too fat, or in ideal condition. The code recommends maintaining horses, Miniature Horses, and ponies around a BCS of 4 to 6; however, this rating is dependent upon the animal’s purpose, breed, and life stage.

The Difference between Weight and Condition

Some horse owners use other methods to keep tabs on their horse’s weight, such as livestock scales and weight tapes. These methods solely provide a measurement of the horse’s body weight, not its condition. In addition, depending on how the tape is applied in the heart girth area, weight tapes can be very inaccurate. Ecker notes that weight alone does not give us enough information, as a fat horse and a well-muscled horse can be of the same weight.

“Weight determination is important for feeding according to weight and growth, and for specific medications that are administered by the vet relative to the weight of the horse,” Ecker says. “However, weight alone does not even come close to telling the story of nutritional balance. If we had two growing boys that both weighed the same weight, what would that tell us? One could be very tall and slim and the other could be very short and carry more weight than is advisable, but both weigh the same.”

Brianne Henderson, BVSc, who specializes in ambulatory horse sport medicine and emergency and critical care at Toronto Equine Hospital, said that it's important to evaluate horses' BCS regularly.

“The general rule is that what you see today is what you fed two to four weeks ago,” says Henderson. “For that reason, I recommend horses that are healthy and in good work be assessed once per month through the BCS method. If you are trying to make a change, either weight gain or loss, then the horse should be assessed every other week.”

Henderson points out that in addition to careful record keeping, documenting with photographs of your horse is also helpful when trying to make a change in body weight and condition.

“It gives you a concrete visual to compare to when you are three to six months down the road,” she said.

Too Fat or Too Thin?

Once a person is properly trained with Henneke’s scoring system, determining optimal body condition can be simple no matter the horse’s age or breed.

“Breed cannot be used to justify a skinny horse or fat horse, as the system is designed to look at fat cover, and this is irrespective of age or breed,” Ecker says. “There is a healthy range of scores from 4 to 7, and where your horse falls within that narrow margin can be different depending on the use of the horse. For example, a broodmare going into the winter can be a 7, as this will help keep up her body weight during the cold of the winter. However, an athletic horse should be a 4 or 5, as it is not desirable for that horse to be carrying excess weight when they are running, jumping, turning, and more, as this extra weight puts more stress on the joints, ligaments and tendons.”

While it's typically easy for owners to understand that horses rated 1 to 3 on the Henneke scale are too thin and need help, some owners have difficulty acknowledging that horses are also at risk should it rate at the other end of the scale with an 8 or 9.

“Much the same as in people, viewing obesity as a disease in horses is a more recent revelation,” notes Henderson. “With the amount of current research being focused on the impact of fat cells on the hormones and metabolism of animals—specifically insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome—we must start to manage our horses in a manner which ensures their longevity and reduces the risk of colic, laminitis, and orthopedic disease worsened by a high body condition.

“The cresty necks and chronic laminitis associated with (equine metabolic syndrome) can be hugely detrimental to a horse’s athletic career and general welfare,” she continues. “What we must remember is that the original horse survived on the poor quality pasture of Mongolia. This is what their system is designed for. While the elite athlete and geriatric will require additional nutritional support, the majority of backyards horses would likely do better with a diet higher in plain forage than concentrates.”

Take-Home Message

By understanding your horse’s body condition and how to evaluate it, you’ll be in a better position to prevent any problems that could arise.

“If you are concerned about your horse’s body condition, consult your regular veterinarian to ensure that all other systems are in working order such as teeth, parasite load, and hoof balance,” states Henderson. “They will be able to help you make a plan for any safe weight loss or gain.”

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