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Condition Scoring from Fat to Fit

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Part 1

Do you know your horses body condition score? There is more to it than just 0-5. This article will take you through the 9-point body condition scale, common errors around fat versus muscle, thin versus fit and why body condition is so important.

Body condition scoring

This time of year (spring) many of our horses are looking a little rounder, so it’s a good time to look at body condition scoring (BCS). In pony club most of us become familiar with the 5-point condition scale, this is a rough guideline. Personally, I find the 9-point Henneke system more useful. And I like to consider condition (fat coverage) and muscle development separately.

Body Condition Scores look at the amount of fat (or adipose tissue) your horse is carrying. The 0-5 scale is simple to use and a great starting point (up to about Pony Club C certificate level).

With a score of 3 being ideal, the scale has 3 categories that are underweight and 2 categories that are overweight, sadly Veterinarians and welfare agencies see horses so fat they are off this chart >5. The 0-5 scale broadly focuses on the visibility of the ribs and the shape of the rump and neck.

When you are ready to move beyond that the Henneke system allows you to score individual body segments and then combine them for the overall score. This system focuses on deposits of body fat rather than body shape, so is more precise for body condition as a health and welfare indicator. Another advantage is whilst your horse might still fall within the same category you might see improvement in scores for individual sections sooner so can adjust feed and work more sensitively.

I suggest you print the score sheet out and circle each box that matches your horse. You can find more information and photographic examples of how to practice scoring with the Henneke system here, it includes some cases that might otherwise trick you on the 5-point scale, for instance an underfed pregnant mare, or a pony with visible ribs but large crest. Below I’ll discuss some of the more common and perhaps subtle BCS mistakes.

Using the Henneke system it is ok for a horse to score 4, 5 or 6. 5 is ideal for most horses, through don’t forget there is natural seasonal variation, it is normal for horses to gain a little weight in spring and lose a little in winter. So, if your horse varied between 4 and 6 over the year that would be fine.

Thin v’s fit, Fat v’s muscle

It is important to consider body condition (fat or thin) separately to muscle and fitness to avoid making mistakes. A horse scoring higher (perhaps 6) may be an overweight unfit paddock puff or it may be a well-muscled warmblood dressage horse or a fit barrel racing quarter horse. A horse scoring lower (perhaps 4) may be a neglected, underfed

rescue horse, a brumby during a poor season, an elderly pony or it may be a thoroughbred race horse, an eventer or endurance Arab at peak fitness. Just like a human athlete a fit muscly horse would be considered lean not skinny. Lean is lots of muscle, lots of energy and lots of feed. Skinny is a lack of muscle and condition, lack of energy and little feed. So, don’t get tricked by fat v’s muscle.

A small amount of fat is required for good health, it gives them reserves for time of illness or stress such as when away from home competing. Plus, padding around bony points e.g. hips, spine. Body condition also contributes to behaviour; a horse with too much energy may buck and play, and a horse that lacks energy will struggle with the work being asked of it, there may be a decrease in performance and a delay in recovery time. You need to feed and work to build muscle.

If your horse is not in peak fitness (doing a lot of exercise and being fed a lot) and it scores a 4 or less then it is too thin, underweight. I sometimes see this happen when a rider transitions from a pony to a horse and aren’t used to feeding the larger amounts a larger animal requires. Sometimes people unintentionally underfeed a horse because when they feed the horse more, they find they have more energy and are too much for their level of riding skills to handle. It is really important there is a good match between your skill set as a rider and the horse’s abilities and training level.

There is a societal trend to be skewed towards more rounded shapes, this leads to thinking that 7 is ok and 8 is overweight, when actually 5 is good, 6 is ok, 7 is overweight, 8 is obese and 9 is morbidly obese. 6 is ok for a pony club mount, ARC, pleasure horse that does light to moderate work. For a pony club eventer 5 is good. 6 is ok for a fit dressage horse or show hack that also has good muscle bulk. But 7 is overweight and your horse should be put on a diet.

For information on feeding for weight gain, weight loss and weight maintenance.

From a physiotherapy point of view

A horse that is too fat is placing extra load on his joints and muscles, which could contribute to the development of arthritis. Being overweight has health consequences on other body systems such as laminitis, insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) … Fat takes up physical space so it is harder to be supple and flexible. In the extreme it can limit exercise capacity and restrict breathing with fat through the neck and over the ribcage. Fat makes saddle fitting difficult as fat moves differently to muscle and could contribute to saddle slip sideways or forwards. The girth tends to slip to the narrowest part and pull the saddle forward with it.

A horse that is too thin doesn’t have the necessary energy and muscle to carry himself in a good frame. A certain amount of fat and muscle is necessary to provide padding along the back underneath the saddle; look at the pictures of a grade 1,2, if you put a saddle on that back it would be sitting directly on the bony parts of the spine. It is not appropriate to ride a horse until they gain weight. Insufficient muscle and fat along the back can contribute to back pain. So, it is important to monitor your horses BCS.

Next time we’ll look at how to assess muscle development, lack of topline versus muscle atrophy and how to take a back profile to monitor your horses muscle bulk through the saddle area (Part 2).

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