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.”
The system works reasonably well across all breeds and in horses older than 2, as it was developed to use on mature horses, says Coleman. There are some variations in assessing different breeds, due to how certain ones accumulate more fat over the tailhead or in the neck area. For example, Thoroughbreds often have sharper withers than Arabians. Quarter Horses tend to be fleshier in their hips than most fine breeds.
Morgans, Mountain Horses, and some Warmbloods might also have more fat deposits in certain areas. Bottom line: Follow the system, and score the different areas to come up with a composite score, Coleman says. In addition to breed, a horse’s age and activity level factor into his body condition—other reasons it’s impossible to identify a “healthy weight range” you can easily and accurately apply to all horses, he says.
Learning to Use BCS
It’s impossible to determine a horse’s BCS with a visual evaluation alone, especially in horses with long winter coats. An accurate score requires a combination of observation and physical evaluation. Feeling the density of fatty tissue in the six key body areas provides a good indication of a horse’s overall condition.
When palpating these areas, start at the horse’s neck, and move across his body to the tailhead. Use a firm but gentle touch—similar to the amount of pressure a massage therapist would apply. After feeling each location for fat, assign the area a score from 1 to 9. You can refer to the chart (which you can also download at TheHorse.com/137703) for detailed descriptions of each category. Add the scores and divide by six to obtain an accurate BCS.
Once you’ve determined a horse’s body condition, it’s important to take action if he falls outside the ideal. A horse that scores 1 through 3 is in poor to thin condition. Malnourished horses are at a higher risk of having a compromised immune system, among other complications. But don’t make hasty ration increases to try to remedy the situation; introduce more food slowly to avoid gastrointestinal upset.
As you’re getting started, be sure to have your veterinarian check the underweight horse’s teeth; being able to chew forage and feed properly is important to his gaining condition.
“First you want to increase the amount of calories you’re providing your horse in the safest and easiest way possible,” Fabus says. “Horses should get most nutrients from forage, so increasing the nutrient density of your hay is often the first and best step for a horse with healthy teeth.”
Adding alfalfa to a primarily grass-based ration is one option. Another alternative is feeding second-cutting hay, which can be more nutrient-dense than first-cutting hay. If you have limited hay choices you can add alfalfa cubes or pellets.
“If you’ve decided that you need to try more than just adjustments to your hay, you can introduce more concentrates (grain) or add supplements to your existing concentrates,” she says. “I prefer a rice bran product. Adding oil, such as corn oil, is another quick and palatable way to add calories.”
Conversely, a horse with a score of 7 through 9 is categorized as fleshy to obese.
“Horses carrying too much BCS or approaching a score of 8 or greater could become insulin resistant (experiencing a reduction in insulin sensitivity that makes it more difficult for cells to take up blood sugar for metabolism or storage), develop metabolic syndrome, and may be prone to founder (chronic laminitis, or cases in which the horse has already had its coffin bone rotate or sink),” Coleman says.
Reducing or potentially eliminating grain is a first step in lowering a horse’s BCS. Feeding a less-nutrient-dense grass hay is a second step. As with humans, the key to an ideal body condition score is often exercise.
“Providing the horse ample turnout time, in addition to structured exercise, may be the key to bringing the horse back down to an ideal body condition score,” Fabus says.
She explains that a horse’s reproductive status also affects what we consider “ideal.” You might want a mare that’s about to foal to have a bit more fat cover, because the caloric shift that takes place when transitioning to nursing a foal can cause weight loss. Conversely, too much weight on a mare before foaling can lead to a higher rate of dystocia, or difficulty with labor and delivery, she says.
It’s Not One and Done
It’s important to monitor a horse’s body condition score regularly so you can pick up on changes quickly and make necessary dietary and exercise adjustments. Ask your veterinarian to teach you how to body condition score your own horse. Local extension agents and feed dealers can also recommend resources and publications that provide step-by-step instructions, says Coleman. TheHorse.com offers several resources, including a video in which Coleman describes the process (TheHorse.com/139137.) Regardless of where you turn, practice is the most effective method for using BCS correctly.
“Checking during routine grooming can work, but you might want to record the score every time you score the horse so nothing sneaks up on you,” Coleman says. “Horse owners need to learn how to use the system and then check horses on a regular basis to make sure they are staying where they need to be. Horses gaining or losing will need adjustments to their feed and management.”