Horse Body Condition Scoring

Is your horse the correct weight? An underweight horse is quite easy to spot, but would you notice that your horse is overweight? It's essential that you do, because excess fat carries a serious health risk e.g. triggering laminitis.

Body Condition Scoring helps you take an objective view of your horse's weight. Score your horse every two weeks to monitor any changes in condition.

Why is being overweight such a problem?
Przewalskis horse Wild horses travel considerable distances to find enough rough pasture to survive. Nowadays leisure horses tend to live in a confined space and graze on rich grassland - not only do they get less exercise but they get more calories. In addition wild horses put on weight in the summer when forage is plentiful and lose it during the winter when food is scarce. For most leisure horses the lean times never arrive and, far from losing weight in the winter, some put more on.

Being overweight can result in serious health issues including joint, heart and lung problems. It is also a known trigger for laminitis - an extremely painful condition which can affect all types of horse and pony at any time of the year (despite the common misconception that it only affects fat ponies in the spring).

How to condition score
Areas of fat accumulation The photo shows the 6 areas where fat is deposited. The amount of fat in each area should be assessed (both by eye and touch) and given a score. The scores are then averaged to give the horse an overall score.

Look at, and run your hands over, each of the following areas to assess the amount of fat
1) Neck - fat build up along the crest (below the mane)
2) Withers - along either side
3) Shoulder - how it meets the neck and ribs
4) Ribs - whether they can be seen and felt
5) Loins - whether backbone can be seen
6) Tailhead - shape of the rump viewed from behind

Fat or muscle?
How do you tell whether what you are feeling is fat or muscle? In general fat feels spongy, muscle feels firm - compare the muscle of your upper arm with the flesh on the other side. Bear in mind, though, that older or unfit horses will have softer muscle. Also note that a large build up of fat on the crest will harden and often moves from side to side as the horse walks.

Confirmation may also need to be considered e.g. a thoroughbred with very prominent withers may give the impression that he is thin; and a sway back can make it difficult to assess the amount of fat along the spine.

Scoring systems
Two systems are in common use:

1) Carroll & Huntington
This system is commonly used in the UK and uses a scale of 0 (emaciated) to 5 (obese). Ideal condition is a score of 2 to 3.

The horse is divided into 3 sections - front, middle and rear. Areas to score are:

  • neck, withers & shoulders (front)
  • back & ribs (middle)
  • hindquarters (rear)

Each section is examined and given a score. The scores are added together and the total divided by 3 to give an average overall score.

2) Henneke scoring
This system is used throughout the world and uses a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese). Ideal condition is a score of 5 to 7.

Using this system the 6 areas where fat is deposited are examined and each is given a score. These areas are: 
  neck / withers / shoulder / ribs / loin / tailhead

The scores are added together and the total divided by 6 to give an average overall score.

The system you use is a matter of personal choice but many people find the Henneke system easier. Details of each system can be found in the links below.

My horse is too fat - what should I do?
Horse eating hay in snow You should aim to help your horse lose weight over a period of months - suddenly starving a horse can also cause health problems. Do not use a 'starvation' paddock - it may look like an overgrazed paddock has very little grass but the stressed grass, which is struggling to grow, is high in sugars and could trigger laminitis.

Any changes to diet should be made gradually over several weeks to reduce the risk of colic. The following are suggestions for weight loss. If in doubt consult your vet or an equine nutritionist (most feed manufacturers are happy to give free advice).

1) Exercise
Brisk walking or steady trotting are the best ways to burn fat. This can be done in hand, on the lunge or ridden depending on your preference and your horse's circumstances.

2) Reduce hard feed
Does your horse really need hard feed? Forage alone is often adequate for leisure horses. Weigh hard feed and make sure you only feed the amount needed for the level of work your horse does. Many owners over-estimate the level of work and consequently over-feed.

3) Feed soaked hay
Soaking hay for 12 hours significantly reduces the nutritional value. However, as well as reducing the calories it will also remove vitamins and minerals so a supplement will probably be needed. This can be added to a handful of unmolassed chaff if your horse is not receiving any hard feed.

4) Reduce grazing
Reducing grazing time is usually not effective as horses will just eat more in the time available. Instead strip graze or top the paddock to reduce the amount of grass available.

5) Reduce rate of consumption
Use small holed haynets and, when at grass, use a grazing muzzle. A muzzle should not be left on all the time as it can rub.

6) Reduce rugs
Rugs are often used for the convenience of the owner rather than because the horse needs them. Horses are able to keep themselves warm in quite low temperatures by burning calories. Provided they have adequate shelter from wind and rain a rug may not be necessary. Read our article Does my horse need a rug?

More information

Posted on 21 November, 2013

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