Have you ever wondered if your horse is too fat, too thin or just right? You’re not alone. Many horse owners struggle to determine whether their horse is at “the right weight,” and as you’ve no doubt guessed, the concept of “the right weight for your horse” can vary depending on who’s doing the guessing. Fortunately, there is a tool available that’s designed to help take the guesswork out of determining whether your horse is at a healthy weight. Created by the late Dr. Don Henneke in 1983, the equine body condition score system provides horse owners with a standardized method for assessing the amount of fat on their horse’s frame.
“Fat versus thin is a very subjective assessment, and even experienced horse owners and managers will vary in opinion regarding the ideal fat cover of a horse,” said Rhonda Hoffman, Ph.D., professor and Director of Horse Science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “Body condition scores are a systematic approach that helps to put the feeder, the horse owner and humane officials all on the same page regarding a particular horse’s fatness or thinness, with the horse’s welfare in mind.”
Henneke’s body condition score system is an essential tool for horse owners to learn, especially if you don’t have access to a horse-sized scale or struggle with putting weight on your horse (or keeping the weight off!). Hard keepers can lose weight very quickly, while easy keepers can put it on faster than you realize. By learning the body condition score system and practicing it on your horse on a regular basis, you can train your eye to keep track of changes in your horse’s body condition and change your management accordingly.
“Understanding body condition score in horses may be one of the most important concepts in horse nutrition and appropriate care,” Hoffman said.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
In the Henneke system, body condition scores (BCS) range from 1 (Emaciated) to 9 (Extremely Fat), based on the amount of fat cover on the crest of the horse’s neck, at the withers, behind the shoulders, over the ribs, over the loin, and around the tailhead. These six areas are the most responsive to changes in body fat in horses, which means they’re the areas to watch if you’re concerned about your horse’s weight going up or down.
The ideal body condition in this system is a score of 5 (Moderate). Horses with a score of 5 have ribs that aren’t visible but can be easily felt by your hand. The back and hindquarters are flat and level, with no crease down the center, and the spine does not protrude above the surrounding flesh. The neck blends smoothly into the body without being “cresty.” The fat around the tailhead is just beginning to feel soft to the touch.
By contrast, in horses with a score of 2 (Very Thin), the bone structure in the neck, withers and shoulder is faintly discernible, while the ribs, tailhead and spinous processes are prominent. Horses who score 8 (Fat) exhibit a noticeable thickening of the neck. The area along the withers fills with fat. Meanwhile, the area behind the shoulders is flush with the body and it’s difficult to feel the ribs. These horses typically have a crease down their back, and the fat around the tailhead of a BCS 8 is very soft.
“Body condition scores offer an indication of overall horse health,” Hoffman said. “Horses with BCS of 3 or less often have compromised immunity, so they are at higher risk for disease. It is considered that a BCS of 4 is the minimum for adequate immune competence and health. Body condition scores of 7 and higher have been associated with insulin dysregulation, with BCS of 8 and 9 having a greater risk of grass-associated laminitis, or founder, and equine metabolic syndrome.”
While 5 is the ideal BCS, it’s important to note that some horses may have occupations that demand more or less body fat.
“As Dr. Henneke himself would say, ‘Each has his own ideal body condition for his breed and occupation,’” Hoffman said. “It is perfectly fine for a broodmare near foaling to have a BCS 7, because she will lose fat and body condition during the demands of lactation. It is expected for an extremely fit racehorse to have a BCS 4, while a highly fit dressage horse is a BCS 6. Some horses lose a lot of weight through the winter in spite of the owner’s best care, so it may be necessary for that horse to be BCS 7 in October to avoid it getting far too thin by March.”
HOW SHOULD I USE IT?
If you’re a beginner, start practicing by assigning body condition scores to horses that have shed to their summer coats. Long winter hair can make a visual examination more challenging. Follow these tips from Dr. Rhonda Hoffman about the best way to start learning the Henneke BCS system on a horse with a shed or clipped haircoat:
- To start, look at the horse straight from the side. Are the ribs visible? If yes, the BCS must be a 4 or below (and technically, the horse is too thin). If no, the BCS will be a 5 or above.
- For horses scoring a 5 or higher, feel the horse’s ribs to help determine the amount of fat cover. Then evaluate the fat over the withers, behind the shoulder and at the crest of the neck.
- Look at the horse from the rear. Is the horse more tent shaped, flat, or like a loaf of bread? Is the spine protruding through the top of the loin and rump? Is there a crease over the midline of the spine, with rising fat pads on either side? Is the neck cresty, with fat at the top? Compare these assessments with the Henneke BCS system to help determine your horse’s body condition score.