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What Is a Horse Body Condition Score?

Obesity and emaciation have a large impact on a horse's overall health condition. Due to the importance of weight for their overall health, it is imperative that we maintain horses at their optimum body condition.

The standardized way to measure a horse's body condition score is called the Henneke System. The Henneke system measures a horse's body fat in six specific areas based on a numbering system of 1 (poor/emaciated) through 9 (extremely fat).

Some advantages of body condition scoring include:

  • Easy to perform

  • Incorporation of full body

  • Allows classification of weight condition (underweight, ideal weight, overweight)

  • Values can assess risk for disease

Disadvantages of body condition scoring include:

  • Only assesses subcutaneous fat

  • Variation between evaluator scoring can occur

  • Score does not distinguish between breed variation or body type

  • Score could be influenced by pregnancy, muscle, and coat length

How to Evaluate a Horse Body Condition Score (BCS)

The specific areas of the horse that are assessed for fat are:

  • Neck  

    • In a thin a horse, the boney structures of the neck may be visible. 

    • At a BCS of 5, the neck will blend in smoothly with the body.

    • With a heavier horse (BCS of 8 or 9), the neck will become thickened, and a crest will be evident where the mane attaches along the top of the neck. 

  • Withers 

    •  In a thin horse, no fat will be deposited making the withers stick up easily.

    • As the BCS increases, fat will be deposited and the withers will appear rounded with a BCS of 5. 

    • As a horse becomes a BCS of 8-9, the withers will continue to deposit fat and may appear to be bulging.

  • Spine

    • At a BCS of 5, this area will appear relatively flat.

    • When a BCS drops below 5, the spine will begin to stick up. 

    • As the BCS increases above 5, a crease may form down the back and buttocks of the horse.

  • Tailhead 

    • In a very thin horse, this area is prominent and easily visible.

    • As the BCS increases, fat fills in around the tailhead and will become soft.

    • As the BCS increase to above 7, the tail head will begin to bulge.

  • Ribs

    • If ribs are easily seen, then the BCS score will be below a 5.

    • If you cannot see the ribs, then the BCS score is 5 or above.

    • During winter, the horse's winter coat may make it difficult to access the ribs, and you may need to palpate the rib area to assess.

    • As the BCS score increases, fat will begin to fill in around and on top of the ribs.

    • Once the BCS score is above 7, the ribs are much more difficult or even impossible to feel.

  • Behind shoulders

    • At a BCS of 5, the shoulders will blend smoothly with the horse's body.

    • As the BCS drops below 5, the shoulders will become more prominent and bonier.

    • As the BCS increases, fat is deposited behind the shoulders and will appear to bulge. 

Horse Body Condition Scoring
A. Neck             B. Withers        C. Spine           D. Tailhead      E. Ribs            F. Behind shoulders

 

Horse Body Condition Scoring Chart

Score

Condition

1

Poor/Extremely emaciated  

  • No fat can be felt on palpation

  • Prominent spine, ribs, trailhead, point of hip and buttocks

  • Boney structure of withers, shoulders, and neck noticeable

2

Very Thin/Emaciated

  • Slight fat can be felt over base of spine

  • Ribs, tailhead, point of hip, and buttocks prominent

  • Withers, shoulders, and neck structure slightly discernible

3

Thin

  • Fat buildup halfway on spine/back

  • Side bones on vertebrae cannot be felt

  • Slight fat covering on ribs

  • Spine and ribs easily visible

  • Tailhead prominent 

  • Hip rounded 

  • Lower pelvic bones not visible

  • Withers, shoulders, and neck accentuated

4

Moderately Thin

  • Slight ridge on back

  • Faint outline of ribs visible

  • Tailhead prominent but fat can be felt 

  • Hip joints not visible

  • Withers, shoulders, and neck not obviously thin

5

Moderate

  • Back is flat

  • Ribs easily felt but not visible

  • Fat around trailhead, spongy when palpated

  • Withers are rounded

  • Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body

6

Moderately Fleshy

  • Slight crease down back

  • Fat over ribs is spongy when palpated

  • Fat around tailhead soft

  • Small fat deposits felt behind shoulders, along sides of neck and withers 

7

Fleshy

  • Slight crease down back

  • Individual ribs can be felt, but under a layer of fat

  • Fat around tailhead is soft

  • Fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck 

8

Fat

  • Crease down back

  • Hard to feel ribs on palpation

  • Fat around tailhead very soft

  • Withers filled with fat

  • Behind shoulders filled with fat

  • Thickening of neck 

  • Fat deposited along inner thighs

9

Extremely Fat

  • Obvious crease down back

  • Fat appears over ribs

  • Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck

  • Fat along inner thighs may rub together

  • Flank area filled with fat

Horse Body Condition Score Recommendations

Ideally, a horse should be maintained between a 4-6 BCS. Mares that are being used for breeding purposes should be maintained between 6-7 BCS. Stallions should be maintained between 5-6 BCS. Performance horses should be maintained between 4-5 BCS. 

Weight Tape for Horses

Generally, horse weight tapes use two different measurements to take an estimate of your horse's weight:

  • Girth width (around the withers and girth)

  • Horse body length (From point of shoulders to tail)

Using a weight tape is a great way to estimate your horse's weight and gauge if they are losing, gaining, or maintaining weight. It is important to use the same weight tape each time, read the directions for your specific weight tape, and be consistent each time you measure your horse. Weight tapes are not going to be perfectly accurate for every horse, but can be a great tool for determining trends of weight loss or gain.

References

1. The Body Condition Score. Equine Science. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/equine/body-condition-score

Featured Image: iStock.com/grandriver

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