Body Condition Scoring Guide

This guide was written for horse owners of all experience levels and covers what body condition scoring is, why it is important and how to do it.

Body condition scoring is one of the most important and useful skills a horse owner can have when it comes to the health and welfare of their horses.

There are many internet sites that contain information on Body Condition Scoring. However the information is often technical and boring and details about how to accurately create a Body Condition Score for horses is missing.

This document has been written to make Body Condition Scoring easy to understand and do.

What is Body Condition Scoring?

Like humans, horses vary largely in their sizes and shapes. The idea of ideal or normal body size or body weight is very outdated. Instead, human health professionals now use other methods to assess a person’s health based on how the body is made up – mostly they look at how much muscle or fat the body contains.

The same idea applies when assessing a horse’s overall health – we use a system called Body Condition Scoring. Body Condition Scoring is slightly different from human assessment methods because it looks at how fat builds up in certain key areas of the body.

The human body generally deposits fat in common areas such our abdomen and thighs, and different body types result in fat building up in different areas.

Horses are similar, there are key areas where the body deposits fat.

Some humans have a genetic tendency to store more fat than others and some horse breeds appear to favour some fat deposits more than others.

Cresty neck on a horse

Two horses in moderate / good body condition. On the left is an Australian Quarter Horse and on the right is an Andalusian. Part of the breed characteristic of the Andalusian is that they have an arched, or ‘cresty’ neck, which is simply a genetically influenced fat deposit. Things like breed traits – such as the Andalusian’s crested neck – should be taken into account when doing a condition score. Photos: Left: Rosie Cleve Right: Wikimedia / BS Thurner Hof

To be healthy, the body needs fat for everyday functions but like most things, too much or too little fat may cause health problems.

Body fat is stored when the amount of energy provided by the diet is more than required to replace the energy being used by the body throughout the day.

The stores of body fat can be used for energy at times when there is not enough energy being provided by the diet to meet daily needs.

In practical terms when we look at Body Condition we can see if:

  • We are feeding too much (the horse is storing excess energy as fat in the key areas)
  • We are feeding too little (the horse is losing fat covering in key areas)
  • We are feeding the horse just the right amount (the horse’s Body Condition is being maintained)

Aiming to keep your horse in moderate or good body condition will help keep your horse healthy. Learning how to body condition score correctly is a valuable tool for every horse owner.

Why is body condition important?

Body condition – also known as ‘fatness’ – is the most reliable way to tell if a horse diet contains too much, too little or just the right amount of energy.

It is important to understand that providing the daily energy requirement of horses is only one part of a balanced diet. For good overall health other parts of the diet such as protein, roughage, vitamins and minerals must also be well balanced.

Keeping horses in good or moderate body condition may assist in maintaining good health.

Thin horses (without any underlying disease):

  • Find it more difficult to protect themselves from extreme cold
  • Are at greater risk from disease and infection
  • Growth rates may be reduced in youngstock
  • May have reduced amount of energy to perform exercise
  • Can have decreased fertility and decreased live birth rates

Overweight horses:

  • Increased risk of skeletal injuries due to excessive weight
  • Increased risk of obesity related disease (insulin resistance, laminitis, Metabolic syndrome, etc)
  • Decreased ability to cope with hot weather


The Body Condition Score Systems

There are two main scoring systems that horse owners, vets, researchers and horse nutritionists use for assessing body condition. Both systems work in a similar way – they require us to look and feel when we assess the horse’s body condition. This helps us to gain a good picture of the horse’s overall body condition.

In Australia, the system developed by Carroll & Huntington (1988), which scores body condition on a 0 (very poor) to 5 (very fat) scale, is most commonly used. This BCS system assess fat deposits in 3 body areas (neck, back and ribs, and pelvis). This system is commonly shown as six diagrams which range from a very poor (thin) horse to a very fat horse.

The second method, developed by Henneke (1983), scores fat deposits over a larger number of body areas (neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin and tailhead) to rate body condition on a scale of 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat). Each body area is scored individually and then scores are averaged to obtain an overall BCS.

What is ‘Fatness’?

The term ‘fatness’ is not really about a horse’s weight.

‘Fatness’ occurs in areas of the body where bony structures are not protected by muscle.

‘Fatness’ – technically called ‘adipose tissue’ – provides ‘padding’ between the skin and the skeleton and has a protective role. For example it can protect the ribs from damage by cushioning them against bumps and knocks. It can also protect the lungs by acting as insulation.

‘Fatness’ occurs when the horse is receiving more energy from its diet that it needs to meet its daily energy requirements. The body will store the excess energy as ‘fat’ (adipose) tissue.

We measure the amount of ‘fatness’ in the key areas. It is important not confuse muscle build up with fat build up.

What are the key areas?

The six key areas (Hennecke)* that we look at when assessing ‘Fatness’ to give a Body Condition Score are:

  • The crest (neck)
  • The withers
  • The topline gutter (loins / backbone / hips)
  • The tail head (croup)
  • The ribs
  • Behind the shoulder

The horse is best viewed from the side to visually assess the key areas of fat deposits on the neck, shoulder, ribs and back, tail head and pelvis.

*The Carroll / Huntington BCS system assess fat deposits in 3 body areas: neck, back and ribs, and pelvis.

Body Condition Scoring

Why don’t we measure ‘fatness’ around the tummy of the horse like we do in humans?

Sometimes people see a horse with a big tummy and believe it is fat.

  • However, a large abdomen on a horse can mean several things:heavy internal parasite infestation
  • the horse consumes a diet high in fibre which increases water intake causing a large amount of gut fill. This is often described as a ‘hay belly’ – more common in horses not undergoing exercise
  • or it could be pregnant

By looking at the key areas of ‘fatness’ we can better understand if the horse is really fat, or maybe just has a large abdomen due to one of the above reasons.

hay belly on horse

This is a good example of a hay belly on your TB type horses. Both are in good condition. The horse on the right has a hay belly. Photos: Left: Anna Dalton Right: Hope O’Connor



Hay belly on heavy horses

These are heavier heavy-x types, both in good condition; the horse on the right has a hay belly. Photos: Leigh Erin Sullican



pregnant belly on mare

This is the same horse in good condition; in the photo on the right she is in foal. Photos: Abbie Hansen



hay belly on pony

Two ponies, both in good condition, but check out the belly on the right! Photos: Sarah Cloake


Touch as well as look

When you are checking the body condition score of your horse it is a good idea to feel for fat coverage as well as look.

Below is a useful guide for feeling the depth of fatness, particularly over the ribs.

 

 body condition score fat horse Use your hand as a reference guide to understand what you are feeling.

Close your eyes and feel the ball of your thumb. It feels soft and fleshy.

This is similar to ribs of a horse that has a lot of fat cover. You would be hard pressed to feel the bones at all. BCS 4+ (Carroll & Huntington) or 7+ (Hennecke)

Photo: Lea Lade

 body condition score moderate horse Make a fist and feel along the top of your finger bones. This is similar to a horse that is in moderate condition.

You can feel each rib, but they are nicely padded and you cannot see them. This level of padding exists in other places too – over the backbone and hips.

BCS 3 (Carroll & Huntington) or 4-6 (Hennecke)

Photo: Lea Lade

 body condition scoringthin horse With your hand still in a fist, feel along your knuckles. This is similar to the ribs of a thin horse. They can be easily seen and you will feel distinct ridges as you run your fingers over them.

This is really where you are experiencing bone covered in flesh, with little or no padding at all.

BCS 2 and under (Carroll & Huntington) or 3 and under (Hennecke)

Photo: Lea Lade

Adapted from Body condition scoring horses in winter, EquiSearch

How do we rate body condition?

Rating body condition is like those survey questions you see where they ask you “on a scale of 1-10 how likely are you to …”

“1” might be “not at all likely” while “10” might be “extremely likely”.

Body condition scoring works in the same way. The lower the number on the scale the less amount of ‘fatness’, or padding, is covering the bony structures, with 0 (Carroll & Huntington) / 1 (Hennecke) describing no fat coverage; you are literally seeing skin covering bone.

The higher the number on the scale, the higher the amount of ‘fatness’, or padding, is covering the bony structures, with 5 (Carroll & Huntington) / 8-9 (Hennecke) describing deep, bulgy fat coverage over the skeleton.

The idea is the same for both the Australian (0-5) and the Hennecke (1-9) systems, however the degree of variation is different between the two systems. The Carroll & Huntington system has 6 degrees while the Hennecke system has 9.

Another way to think of it is that each degree of fatness is like adding a rug to the horse.
Imagine starting with a skeleton and putting on a rug. It would hang loosely and you would be able to easily see and feel the skeleton underneath.

Start adding rugs one at a time. As you add each new rug the sharp edges of the skeleton’s shape begin to soften and become more rounded. If you touch the skeleton you find it becomes more padded with each new rug that is added.

The change in body condition occurs in a similar way. As condition improves – when more fat is stored by the body – more depth of fatness can be seen and felt.

Check out FeedXL’s page Why Body Condition Score? to see photos of the 9 stages of the Hennecke Body Condition Scoring system.

How do we create a Body Condition Score?

The Australian (Carroll / Huntington) six point system

If you want to keep things simple you can compare your horse to these diagrams (Carroll / Huntington) and decide which one is closest. Or you might say your horse is half way between two points eg, halfway between 2 and 3 = 2.5. This is easiest for beginners. A vet or experienced horse person can help.

 

 Body condition score 0 very poor  Body condition score 1 poor
 Body condition score 2 moderate  Body condition score 3 good
 Body condition score 4 fat  Body condition score 5 very fat
 Click any of the images to see the full size


The USA (Hennecke) nine point system

key areas of fat on a horseOnce you gain more experience you can start to rate the individual areas separately using the 1-9 Hennecke system then combine the scores to give you an overall score (mean average).

Check out FeedXL’s page Why Body Condition Score? to see photos of the 9 stages of the Hennecke Body Condition Scoring system.

This method is more accurate because the each horse is unique and their body stores fat at different rates in the six key areas.

For example you could say your horse is a “4” across its ribs, “4.5” over the whither and “6” down the shoulder; but a “5” along its topline and tailhead, while its crest is a “6”. So we would add the scores 4 + 4.5 + 6 + 5 + 5 + 6 = 30.5

We then divide that score by the 6 key areas to get the overall score (mean average): 30.5 ÷ 6 = a total body condition score of “5.08” which we could round up to “5.1” out of 9 = moderate body condition.

What do the numbers mean?

If your horse sits between 0 and 2 (Carroll & Huntington) / 1-3 (Hennecke) it is vital that their diet and overall health – including worming and teeth – are looked at and adjusted. If they are 1.5 (Carroll & Huntington) / 2 (Hennecke) or under we recommend seeking veterinary help.

If they are non-breeding horses and between 2.5 and 3.5 (Carroll & Huntington) / 4-6 (Hennecke) they are in the goldilocks zone (just right!) and the aim is to keep them here. For young horses aim to keep them around 2.5 to 3 (Carroll & Huntington) / 4-5 (Hennecke) maximum so as not to put too much pressure on their growing joints.

If your horse (non-breeding) is 3.5 (Carroll & Huntington) / 7 (Hennecke) or over it might be best to look at ways to increase exercise and lower feed intake.

 

Class of horse BCS  BCS Notes
Carroll & Huntington (0-5) Hennecke
(1-9)
Growing Horse 2.5-3 4.5-5.5 Keeping young horses in the right Body Condition is vital. Too much condition risks injury to their musculoskeletal system; too little condition risks their growth rates and future performance ability.

A lean moderate condition is best. Make sure you do no confuse “lean” with “thin”. Remember that young horses still need energy to grow. Read more at Feeding the weanling

Pregnant and/or lactating mare  3-4  5-7  Whether a dry mare ready for breeding, a pregnant mare, or a mare with a foal at foot, broodmares all need adequate condition to provide for the life they are nourishing.

Research shows that lower scores can lower conception rates and reduce the amount of milk a mare produces, which in turn reduces the foal’s ability to grow.

Lower BCS during pregnancy can also reduce the size and quality of a foal. Keeping mares in a moderate to fleshy condition is best for breeding and milk production. Read more at Optimal Body Condition Scores for Breeding Mares

 Breeding stallion  3-3.5  5-7  Like breeding mares stallions also require good condition during the breeding season particularly those with a heavy stud book. Lower BCS can result in lowered fertility. Read more at Stallion Diets Important for Body Condition, Fertility
 Performance horse  3  5  The Body Condition Score of sport horses may vary depending on the type of activity they are engaged in. For example the lean, athletic build of the Thoroughbred in race condition will be around a BCS of 2 (Carroll/Huntington) / 4 (Hennecke).Meanwhile a top level showjumper or dressage horse might be a fit moderate condition of 3 (Carroll/Huntington) / 5-6 (Hennecke).

Horses with lower scores will not have sufficient body fat to use as a reserve source of energy during prolonged or frequent physical activity. Horses with higher condition scores will have increased body heat production, reduced body heat loss and higher heart and respiratory rates. All of these factors will reduce performance. Excess weight also increases the strain placed on the skeletal system.*

 Idle Horse  2.5-3.5  4-6  Like all other horses it is important that the idle horse is kept in the optimum Body Condition.Lower Body Condition horses may find it more difficult to protect themselves from extreme cold and are at greater risk from disease and infection.

Higher Body Condition horses are at increased risk of skeletal injuries due to excessive weight, increased risk of obesity related disease such as insulin resistance, laminitis, metabolic syndrome, etc and have a decreased ability to cope with hot weather.

Ideal condition can depend on the environment, climate and type of horse.


Achieving Moderate Body Condition

Keeping your horse in moderate body condition means they are ‘just right’ – not too fat or too thin – and will help their overall health. When horses are in optimum condition they are less likely to suffer from weight related problems like those outlined above.

If you find your horse is not in the ideal range, what can you do to change it?

If your horse is too fat (4+ (Carroll & Huntington) / 7+ (Hennecke)):

  • Take a look at their diet and see if they are getting too much feed, or feed that is too high in energy. Ask for help from an equine nutritionist, vet or other professional.
  • Increase exercise – you might not do track work every morning, or arena work every afternoon but a half hour walk together once a day (if you don’t ride) can help and will also strengthen the bond with your horse.

If your horse is too thin (2, or less (Carroll & Huntington) / 3 or less (Hennecke)):

  • Have your horse’s teeth checked by an experienced and qualified dentist
  • Get a Fecal Egg Count done by your vet, or local testing centre, and worm your horse according to the results. Test again two weeks later to make sure it worked. Read about horse worms here
  • Take a look at their diet and find out if your horse is getting enough feed to meet its daily requirements. Ask for help from an equine nutritionist, vet or other professional.
  • Make sure the horse has access to good quality forage – hay or pasture
  • Get them checked over by a vet
  • If you have done all the above first, rugging your horse in the cooler months may also help


Take home message

  • Body condition scoring is a valuable skill for horse owners to know
  • Horses that are too fat or too thin can suffer from health problems
  • Body Condition Scoring allows horse owners to know if a horse needs to gain, maintain or lose weight
  • Using Body Condition Scoring methods allows horse owners to effectively monitor their horse’s health


Further information

For more detailed information on Body Condition Scoring for horses visit these sites

Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses, Dept Agriculture Victoria

Why Body Condition Score? By Dr. Nerida Richards

Body Conditioning Scoring: A useful skill for horse owners

Book: Feeding and nutrition of horses: the making of a champion by Dr John Kohnke

FeedXL 

KER EquiNews

TheHorse.com

Many thanks to Dr. John Kohnke, Dr. Nerida Richards and Dr Sam Potter for their immense support and assistance. Extra thanks to Sam for giving me the confidence to write this document.

© G. Chapman 2017