Correctly assess body fat regularly to detect shifts
Unless you take your horse to a veterinary clinic or high-end training facility to weigh him on an equine scale, gauging his weight is an inexact science; most horse owners must rely on other methods for monitoring their horses’ body condition.
Weight tapes are popular and inexpensive options. When you wrap the soft measuring tape around the horse’s heart girth, inches get translated into pounds. But most weight tapes are designed only for light breeds and don’t always reflect the full picture of a horse’s overall wellness.
“A horse’s weight can be very subjective,” says Taylor Fabus, MS, an extension educator in Michigan State University’s animal science department, in East Lansing. “Factors such as height, breed, and reproductive status will affect weight, and you can’t identify a ‘healthy weight range’ that can easily be applied to all horses.”
Instead, veterinarians and nutritionists encourage horse owners to use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system. In the 1980s Don Henneke, PhD, developed the system as part of his doctoral studies at Texas A&M University. He devised a system based on a scale of 1 to 9. Each number correlates to the amount of fat stores on the horse’s body.
Originally, Henneke developed the system as a method for evaluating fat levels in broodmares and to determine the ideal body condition for reproductive efficiency. It quickly became a valuable way for horse owners to assess how their horses were doing related to energy consumption and use, says Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, an associate professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.
“Much like a scale weight, this number reflects stored body fat,” says Coleman. “As horses gain and lose body condition score (BCS), their weight also will fluctuate, but the BCS does not translate to pounds of weight.”
The system allows users to assess relative body fat with nothing more than a set of eyes, a pair of hands, and a little practice. Henneke identified six areas on the horse that are responsive fat deposits: the crest of the neck, the withers, behind the shoulder, across the rib cage, over the back in the loin area, and the tailhead. These areas change depending on a horse’s stored fat levels; palpating them during a BCS evaluation can yield valuable information.
“It is also a more subjective measure of body fatness rather than, ‘My horse is fat or thin,’ ” Coleman says.
With a little practice, every horse owner can evaluate his or her horse’s body condition using the Henneke system. Here, Fabus and Coleman offer tips for conducting an evaluation and advice on using those results to create a feeding plan that suits your horse’s age, breed, and activity level.
That Ideal Condition
A horse that’s above or below his ideal body condition score is less likely to be able to perform at his peak. Fabus says low body condition can also lower a horse’s reproductive efficiency, while excessive condition can potentially cause metabolic problems.
On the 1-to-9 scale, a horse scored as a 1 is considered in poor condition. A horse scored as a 9 is classified as extremely fat. A score of 5 is considered “ideal,” but 4 and 6 are also considered healthy for most performance horses.
“This range was noted in research at Texas A&M University, where they found less than 4 or greater than 6 horses showed signs of fatigue sooner,” Coleman says. He says horses scoring below 4 showed fatigue due to a lack of available energy, while the over-6 horses weren’t able to thermoregulate as easily and got hot.
Horses kept outside in colder climates, however, might require a BCS of 6 or 7 in winter, because more body condition provides some insulation against the cold, he adds. In hotter climates, keeping a horse at a BCS of 4 or 5 might help him better deal with the higher temperatures and allow for easier cooling.
“Think about a human athlete, and a horse is no different,” Fabus says. “A marathon runner at their peak physical condition would likely consider a lower body condition score to be ideal, while your average, healthy adult may aim for a different, higher body condition score.”
This article continues in the February 2020 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue, including this in-depth feature about how to correctly assess body fat to detect shifts in your horse’s weight.