Horses come in all sizes, so a number from a scale or weight tape reading isn’t very helpful in determining whether or not your horse is at a healthy weight.
Body condition scoring is an objective way to determine if a horse is fat, thin, or just right. Assessing a horse is a hands on process, especially in the winter when a heavy coat can disguise the true state of a horse’s condition.
There are five basic areas where we focus our exam:
- the tailhead (area around where the tail connects to the body)
- the crease down the back
- the ribs
- the withers
- the crest of the neck
Notice we are NOT focusing our attention on the horse’s belly. Horses do not have a tendency to put on extra weight in the lower abdomen like we humans do. Any distention you see in this area is the digestion process of the forage that makes up the majority of a horse’s diet. In fact, a “hay belly” is a normal, healthy part of hindgut fermentation (i.e. hay digestion).
The Body Condition Scoring System was developed in 1984 by Don Henneke, Ph.D. at Texas A&M University (Go Aggies!). This widely used system places horses on a scale of 1 (thinnest) to 9 (most obese). A description of each category follows. On this scale 4 is very fit; 5 and 6 are acceptable; 6 and 7 are acceptable for brood mares.
Henneke body Condition Score1
1. Poor/Extremely emaciated
The backbone, ribs, hipbones and tailhead are all prominent. The neck is hollow, and the bones of the shoulders, withers, pelvis and neck are easily discerned. The spine projects, with individual vertebrae clearly seen and easily palpated. No fat can be palpated.
2. Very thin/Emaciated
There is slight fat over the backbone yet it is prominent. Ribs, tailhead, and pelvic bones stand out. Bone structures of the neck, withers, and shoulder are evident.
The backbone is prominent. A slight fat layer can be felt over the ribs, the tailhead is evident, but individual vertebrae cannot be seen. The hip bones cannot be seen, but withers, shoulder and neck are emphasized.
4. Moderately Thin.
There is a negative crease along the back. An outline of the ribs can be seen. Fat is palpable around the tailhead. Hip bones cannot be seen. Withers, neck and shoulders are not obviously thin.
Back is level. Ribs can be felt but not easily seen. Fat around tailhead feels spongy. Withers are rounded and shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body.
6. Moderately Fleshy.
A slight crease is along the back. Fat on the tailhead feels soft. Fat over the ribs is spongy. There are small deposits of fat along the withers, behind the shoulders and along the neck.
A crease is seen down the back. Ribs may be felt but fat between ribs is obvious. Fat on tailhead is soft. There is noticeable fat along neck, behind shoulders and withers.
Crease down back is prominent. Ribs difficult to feel due to fat in between. Neck is thick and cresty. Wither area is filled with fat, and very soft fat is over the tailhead. The space behind shoulders is filled in and flush, and there is fat along the inner buttocks.
9. Extremely Fat.
The crease down the back is very prominent. Fat is in patches over rib area, with bulging fat over tailhead, withers, neck and shoulders. Fat along inner buttocks may rub together and flank is filled in flush.
Horses falling at either extreme of the scale are at increased risk for health problems and should be seen by a veterinarian. A physical exam and nutritional analysis can often determine the cause, although sometimes blood tests are required to get to the root of the problem.
Body condition scoring is an important way to track your horse’s health. Make a point of assessing it every few weeks so alterations from a healthy weight can be caught early and more easily corrected.
1. Henneke, D.R., et. al., 1983. Equine Veterinary Journal, 15 (4): 371-372.