Beyond Basic Health: Body Condition Scoring

Regularly scoring your horse’s body condition will help you manage him properly for good health and welfare.
Horses with an unhealthy BCS are at risk for a variety of health problems. | iStock

How often do you evaluate your horse’s condition by his appearance?

“Eyeballing” is not an accurate assessment, said Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, associate professor and equine extension specialist for the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. He recommends horse owners use the Henneke body condition scoring (BCS) system, an objective assessment of stored body fat, to ensure horses have enough energy for their activity level and can thermoregulate effectively.

Based on the Henneke system’s scale of 1 to 9, a horse rated 1 through 4 is classified as emaciated to moderately thin. Those rated 6 to 9 are considered moderately fleshy to obese.

Recognizing a horse is too thin tends to be easier than noting the consequences of a horse carrying excess body fat. Not only are horses rated 7 to 9 at a higher risk of developing metabolic issues, but they also have a reduced ability to thermoregulate.

“When a horse gets to a 7, they’re going to fatigue faster,” Coleman explained. “Muscle activity builds up heat. An extra layer of insulation makes it harder for them to cool off, and their athletic activities are going to be greatly reduced. However, if they don’t have some store of body fat, they’re going to run out of gas.”

Geographic location is important to consider. For example, a 7 might be necessary for a horse living outdoors in North Dakota during winter. However, 7 is not desirable for a horse living in Texas with 100-plus temperatures, because they can’t dissipate body heat efficiently.

Ideally, horses should be maintained at an average BCS of 5. “(These) horses are going to be happier and easier to maintain,” said Coleman.

5 Tips for Using BCS

It takes practice to get comfortable using the BCS system. Purdue University and the Horse BCS app offer an illustrated guide to the nine body condition scores and how to evaluate a horse.

These tips can also be helpful when evaluating your horse’s BCS:.

  1. Position the horse so he is standing square on all four feet and looking straight ahead.

“Stand perpendicular to the horse for a first impression. If ribs are visible, even if only slightly, the horse is less than a 5,” Coleman said.

  • Start at the shoulder and run your hand across the rib cage toward the point of the hip. How easy is it to feel ribs?
  •  Next, feel the fat deposit behind the shoulder. It should be “spongy,” but in overweight horses, it will jiggle.
  • Then, look down the back at the vertebrae. Level indicates the horse is in good condition. A negative crease suggests the horse might be too thin. Conversely, a positive crease shows excess fat stores.
  • Next, palpate the tail head for sponginess.
  • Finally, run your hand midway behind the poll to the withers.

“When I look at a horse, I give them an initial score and then go up or down on that score based on what I feel, how easy or hard it is to feel the ribs and fat cover, and go from there,” he said.

If the ribs are not at all visible or palpable and you can see and feel excess fat over the body, your horse is likely overweight or obese. However, if you can’t easily see and feel the ribs and notice a lack of fat and muscle mass on your horse, he might be underweight.

Understanding where your horse lies on the BCS scale will help you make management decisions to improve his health and well-being and potentially reduce the risk of chronic disease and illness.


Katie Navarra
Katie Navarra has worked as a freelance writer since 2001. A lifelong horse lover, she owns and enjoys competing a dun Quarter Horse mare.





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