You might not even realize you are doing it, but when you glance at your horse and start to put hands on them to get a general feel of their health, you are well on your way to determining their body condition score. Body condition score is a great way to evaluate overall health. Body condition score (BCS) was developed in the 1980’s following a PhD thesis by Dr. Don Henneke of Texas A & M and thus is referred to as the Henneke Body Condition Score. This scoring system is widely utilized throughout the equine industry from veterinarians to the backyard horse owner. This wide scope of use gives a glimpse into its importance and ease of use. Body condition score takes a look at the fat deposits on the horse’s body to determine a score on a scale of one to nine with one being extremely thin and nine being obese. The ideal body condition will fall around five depending on the horse’s use. A thoroughbred on the track would likely fall in the range of a four and be a healthy athlete at their peak, but a five is considered the happy medium when it comes to the majority of our recreational horses.
What can body condition score actually tell us? Body condition score can be an indicator of overall health. While it is not the end all be all of equine health, it does build a good foundation. If a horse is not depositing fat “properly”, you need to start asking some questions:
- How old is the horse?
- What was his BCS last month? Last year at the same time?
- Has something happened recently to cause the low BCS such as a change in forage or herd dynamics?
- Is this horse involved in heavy work?
If the horse is depositing too much fat, it can still be a concern. You will need to consider if there are issues to address or if changes need to be made to help ensure the horse’s health.
- How old is the horse?
- Is the horse showing any other symptoms of metabolic concerns such as abnormal hair coat?
- What time of year did they start to deposit more fat/ change BCS?
- What is their current feeding program? Does it match their nutrient requirement and work load?
To start the process of determining the BCS of a horse, first make a visual assessment of the overall horse. Stand close enough to the horse to be able to see each individual body part but far enough away get an overall picture. Ideally, you should visually assess from the side view to be able to see: crest of the neck, withers, shoulder, back, tailhead and ribs. If the ribs are visible, the horse should not score higher than a BCS 4. If ribs are not visible, the horse will be a BCS 5 or above. Once you have determined the portion of the scale 1 through 9 that you are working with, start with the crest of the neck and with a firm but gentle hand, palpate each of the six fat deposit areas that were visually assessed. You will be feeling for structure and fat cover. Structure will feel hard and clearly be bone while fat has more of a spongy give when felt. Use each of the six areas to determine a score. While some people like to get an overall feel of the horse before determining a score, others like to give each area an individual score 1-9 and then divide by 6 to get an average for the horse. This can be an effective method for breeds that like to deposit fat disproportionately in areas such as those that tend to get “cresty” such as Paso Finos and Morgans.
- A horse which is at a BCS 1 will not be exhibiting body fat deposits. Spinal processes, ribs, hips, and shoulder will all be highly visible with no fat covering. This condition needs to be immediately examined by a veterinarian to help determine a course of action. A BCS this low will likely only ever be seen in extreme cases.
- A horse which scores a BCS 2 will likely need veterinary attention as soon as possible. This horse will be very thin with minimal fat deposits. Fat deposits will just start to deposit around base of the spinal processes and other structures but will not fully cover.
- A horse which scores a BCS 3 will have fat deposits which start to make structures appear smooth but are still discernable. Ribs are visible. Withers and neck are accentuated and will lack smooth cover.
- A horse which scores a BCS 4 will have visible ribs and smooth fat cover throughout. Fat and structure can be easily found through visual and physical examination. This horse is likely an athlete or young horse. This BCS is rarely a concern unless it is a sudden change or if the horse is old and needs additional BCS for health.
- A horse which scores a BCS 5 is the industry standard and baseline for which most recommendations are made. Again, this is not for every horse, but serves as a great baseline. This horse’s ribs are not visible but are easily palpable upon inspection. This horse has a blended appearance and smooth lines are created by fat cover. This horse’s back is level and does not peak at spinal processes.
- A horse with a BCS 6 is considered fleshy. This horse may start to develop a crease along its back due to fat deposits along the spine. Fat deposits covering the ribs, along the withers and behind the shoulder will feel spongy.
- A horse with a BCS 7 is very fleshy with fat deposits that start to interfere with palpating structures. Fat will feel spongy in all areas. Individual ribs may be difficult to feel at a BCS 7. The horse’s back will likely develop a crease due to fat deposits along the spine.
- A horse which score a BCS 8 is considered fat. This horse will have a noticeable crease down its back, very difficult to palpate the ribs and area behind the shoulder. The crest of the neck will be well-filled and firm. A horse with this BCS may have issues and should be addressed with your veterinarian.
- A horse which scores a BCS 9 is obese. This horse has structures which are covered in visible fat deposits. This may make areas look dimpled and abnormal. This horse has large fat deposits at the tailhead, over the ribs, and crest of the neck. This horse’s back has an exaggerated crease. This BCS should be examined immediately by a veterinarian to determine a safe weight management plan and check for any underlying issues.
Knowing your horse’s BCS can be a useful tool in keeping your horse healthy through the seasons and catching when he is not feeling his best. If you are just starting to learn this system, ask your local Extension agent or veterinarian for help assessing your horse’s current BCS.
Brooklyne Wassel, Pike County Extension Coordinator