Fit or Fat? (Equine Body Condition)

The tools and techniques you need to assess equine body condition.

Linda Jones learned about the Henneke body condition scale about the same time she noticed her usually lean horse had put on some weight. She decided to use the scale to determine just how much her horse's body had changed, but she soon discovered that assessing her horse's body condition appropriately requires some patience and lots of practice.

"I was completely prepared with a diagram showing which parts of the horse to assess and a detailed description of each condition on the scale," Jones says. "I applied the scale three times that day and decided on three different scores. Finally, I asked someone more experienced to help me."

Jones' scenario is not unique. Most owners get mixed results the first time they try to assess their horse using the Henneke scale. However, it is a useful tool every conscientious owner should master.

Don Henneke, PhD, developed his namesake method for determining horses' body conditions in 1983, while conducting his doctoral research at Texas A&M University on the influence of energy stored as body fat on mares' reproductive performance.

"At that time, there was no way to accurately classify horses based on their body fat content," says Henneke, now an associate professor and director of equine sciences at Tarleton State University in Texas. "Every horse owner had a definition of fat or thin."

So Henneke and his colleagues adopted a system used since the 1960s to score the body condition of beef cattle and modified it to suit equids. The resulting system allows the owner to assess the body fat accumulated in specific locations on horses' bodies: behind the shoulder, at the ribs, along the neck, along the withers, at the back toward the loin, and at the tailhead.

Nine numeric scores correlate to the fat amounts detected in those locations. Score values range from 1 (poor or emaciated) to 9 (extremely fat). Detailed condition descriptions correspond to each score value. (See for more in-depth descriptions of the Henneke body condition scores.)

Since its development, veterinarians, nutritionists, and horse owners have used Henneke's system to regulate feed intake and exercise to address equine obesity, a condition that puts horses at risk for myriad physical ailments ranging from laminitis and founder to metabolic conditions including diabetes. The scale also has become indispensable to animal welfare authorities, because it provides an objective way to identify malnourished horses.

Body Condition Perceptions

The Henneke scale is relatively straightforward to use. It requires feeling specific sites along the horse's body for the presence and amount of fat, but it also requires objectivity on the part of the person assessing the animal's condition.

"Owners must not let their knowledge of the horse influence their evaluation," Henneke says.

That means owners should leave their subjective notions about appropriate equine body conditions at the barn door. For example, some perceive that Quarter Horses should be full-fleshed while Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds should be extremely lean. But like their human counterparts, horses accumulate fat at different rates in different places. So a stocky Quarter Horse might appear in good body condition, but he could be carrying excess fat at the ribs, neck, or tailhead.

"The first mistake people make is believing their horses should be kind of chubby," says Fernanda Camargo-Stutzman, DVM, PhD, assistant professor and equine extension specialist in the department of animal services at the University of Kentucky.

When it comes to actually using the scale, inexperienced evaluators can come up with inconsistent results if they are unable to identify fat by feel when they examine their horses.

According to Carmargo-Stutzman, fat at the neck is very hard, creating a so-called cresty neck in horses. Fat at the withers will also feel hard to the touch.

"But fat at the shoulders and the tailhead is usually spongy or jiggly, and fat at the ribs is soft," she says.

The size of a horse's belly is not considered in the Henneke assessment system.

"You can still have a horse with a large belly that is in poor body condition," Camargo-Stutzman says. "That horse may be eating poor-quality hay or poor-quality pasture and not getting the nutrition it needs."

Using The Scale

Henneke advises that owners use "horse sense" as they examine their animals. They should take into account the specific size and shape of each horse and where he specifically stores fat. For example, one horse might have high withers; another's might be very low. Some horses might carry more fat at the neck than at the shoulder.

"If one location (on the body) does not fit with the description, then discount it. Look at the overall picture, and base the evaluation on the whole horse," Henneke says.

Camargo-Stutzman does this by assessing each point on the horse independently. The horse's overall body condition score is an average of findings at each point.

"For example, a horse may score a 5 at the ribs, but higher on other check points such as the neck and tailhead," she says. "Then take the average. If a horse scores 5.38, score at half-point increments."

Horses that score at a 5 (moderate) or 6 (moderate to fleshy) on the scale are considered in good body condition.

"There is no advantage to have a horse at a 7 (fleshy) or 8 (fat) or 9 body condition," Carmargo-Stutzman says.

Those that score 9 on the scale generally suffer from some type of metabolic disorder, Henneke says.

Carmago-Stutzman recommends owners apply the system to several horses to get a feel for the process.

While the Henneke scale is designed to evaluate a horse's overall body condition, it does not assess equine weight. Determining weight is critical when horses either need to lose or gain weight to improve body condition as determined by the Henneke scale. A tape specifically designed to measure equine weight is one way to chart changes in horses' heft.

Weight Tapes

Weight tapes are flexible cloth measuring tapes imprinted with two sets of boxed areas that contain measuring units in 10-pound increments. Measurements usually can range from 80 to 1,310 pounds, depending on the tape. Some tapes have horse height measuring units printed on the reverse side. Weight tapes are available for sale at low cost in catalogs, feed stores, and some tack stores.

Using a weight tape is simple: Hold the beginning of the tape in one hand and place the other side over and one inch behind the horse's withers. Reach under the horse behind the front legs and pull the tape snug around the animal's heart girth--exactly where a saddle girth would rest. Have someone stand on the other side of the horse to ensure the tape is in the right place.

Then read the two weights shown in both the upper and lower boxes imprinted on the tape. The horse's actual weight within 50 pounds lies between the two amounts.

A common cloth measuring tape and one of two mathematical equations also can be used to calculate equine weight.

For this method, hold the beginning of the tape in one hand and place the other side over and one inch behind the horse's withers. Reach under the horse behind the front legs and pull the tape snug around the heart girth. Again, have someone with you to ensure the tape is in the right place. Record the measurement. Then hold the beginning of the tape at the point of the horse's shoulder and extend it to the point of the buttocks to measure the horse's length. Record that measurement.

To obtain weight, has a tool you can use to calculate your horse's weight automatically using those measurements. Or you can manually make the calculation by multiplying the girth measurement by itself, then by the horses length:

  • Girth (in) × Girth (in) × Length (in) / 330 = Weight (lb),

Or multiply the heart girth by itself, then by body length. Divide by 300 and add 50:

  • Girth (in) × Girth (in) / 300 + 50 = Weight (lb).

As with the weight tapes, results using the equation will be within 50 pounds of the horse's actual weight, say ¬proponents. Even so, consistency is critical when taking measurements to determine equine weight, says Carey Williams, PhD, equine extension specialist for Rutgers University.

"It's important for the same person to take the horse's measurement every single time, because different people will snug the tape around the horse differently," she says.

According to Williams, each 50 pounds of a horse's weight corresponds to one body score. Horses on weight-related feeding regimens should on average lose or gain 50 pounds--or one body score--to remain healthy. Still, a horse's weight is not an indicator of the animal's overall body condition.

"Muscle has weight," Williams says. "So, you can have a 15-hand, 1,200-pound horse with a lot of muscle, or you can have a 15-hand, 1,200-pound horse with a lot of fat. You have to use the Henneke scale to determine what's muscle and what's fat."

Take-Home Message

Used in tandem, the Henneke body condition scoring system and a weight tape (or measuring tape and equation) are basic tools for owners conscious about their animals' health. Enlist the help of a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to learn to use these tools well.

"Ask your veterinarian to come to your barn for a body scoring workshop," says Camargo-Stutzman. "Most are more than willing to help. We want to educate people about how to take care of their horses."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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