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Is your horse too fat, too thin, or just right?

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The ability to assess your horse's body condition is critical. Mastering this scoring system is not only important to establish a satisfactory feeding program but also for having a standard to measure your success in maintaining your horse’s body weight. Weight tapes are useful but the body condition scoring system is the true barometer. The nine-point scoring system provides a useful tool to objectively determine if a horse is too fat, too thin or just right.  The nine categories of this system range from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese) with 5 (moderate) to 6 (moderately fleshy) representing a satisfactory body condition for most horses.  Most horse owners will focus on the ribs as their guide is determining the degree of fatness or thinness. As you read on you will learn that there are 9 external body parts that are part of the body condition scoring system, the rib area is just one of them.

A couple of suggested approaches in learning this system:

  1. Become very familiar with the scoring descriptions for condition score 5 (CS5) and during your evaluation determine if the horse meets the criterion of a CS5, or is less than CS5 or is higher than CS5. Once you determine the direction then use the guide to narrow which numerical score best applies.
  2. You can also divide the condition scoring guide into thirds, where the bottom third are scores 1, 2 & 3, the middle third are scores 4, 5 & 6 and the top third are scores 7, 8 & 9.  Your first impression should be is the horse in the bottom third, middle third or top third. Then determine which of the 3 scores in the section best applies.

Most individuals start with the approach outlined in #1 and as they become more familiar with the system as well as more proficient, they will begin using the approach outlined in #2.
The major external anatomy areas to evaluate body condition by manual palpation and visual inspection include:

  1. Along the top side of the neck
  2. Withers
  3. Back or top-line
  4. Rib area
  5. Base of the tailhead
  6. Point of buttock
  7. Point of the hip
  8. Area behind the shoulder and above the elbow
  9. Area between the thighs (twist)            

Although scoring decisions can be based on visual observations, manual inspections are necessary and useful to properly assess the external body fat cover of the horse.  Use your hand (palpation) to feel the fat cover of the horse. For consistency and accuracy during the manual inspection, be sure that your fingers are together and your hand is flexible, not stiffed or cupped. As you move your hand along the surface of the horse’s body vary the hand pressure This will allow you to detect differences in the fat thickness. Practice and experience will provide most horse owners the skill and confidence that will eventually allow them to occasionally omit the palpation procedure for a rough estimate.  However, palpation will be especially useful for horses with long, heavy winter hair coats and to be more precise in identifying the degree of fatness for horses that are 7, 8 and 9.

In most circumstances, all external anatomy areas of the evaluation guide should receive equal emphasis.  You should observe the horse from all four views: rear, front, and both sides.  This scoring system actually involves evaluation of body fat if properly practiced; this evaluation system must be independent of size, conformation and quality and degree of muscling of the horse.  External anatomy areas of distinct conformation such as prominent withers, flat couplings, transition of neck into very straight shoulders, weak top lines and injuries that impair conformation must be considered and these areas will usually be eliminated in the evaluation or at least emphasized less.  For example, evaluation of horses with high withers and flat backs would require more emphasis on fat cover over the ribs, behind the shoulder and around the tailhead.  In addition, young horses appear to have more fat cover over the rib area than mature horses of the same body condition score.

As the horse ages the animal’s body gradually lose tone and tautness. Pregnancy is another factor that influences this change. Most aged horses will not maintain the level of fat cover over their ribs and withers areas when compared to their younger years.  It is not unusual to have an “old-timer” that is a condition score of 7.0 when the ribs are easily visible and the withers more pronounced because of less fat cover.
As the horse’s body condition score increases, you will notice increased fat along the side of the withers, behind the shoulders, along the side of the neck, over the ribs and around the tailhead.  Patchy fat deposits are not uncommon with horses that score an 8 and 9. Excessively fat horses (8 and 9) may also have fat deposits along the inner thighs, the flank area and the area behind the shoulder and above the elbow.

For visual examples and details of each body score, click on the numerical score in the left hand column

Score Neck/Shoulder Withers Loin/Back Ribs Tailhead
1
Emaciated

Skin draped-over a skeleton
Extreme angularity; clearly appears emaciated; bone structure easily seen; no fatty tissue felt Extreme angularity; emaciated; areas project prominently; no fatty tissue felt Extreme angularity; emaciated; spinal structures areas projected prominently; inverted V shape rump very pronounced;no fatty tissue can be felt Extreme angularity; each rib & space between ribs easily defined; emaciated Extreme angularity is apparent by the prominent projection of the tailhead, point of hip & point of buttocks
Shoulder & neck are noticeable visually & appear disjointed because of the lack of transition between these structures Visually evident & accentuated; inverted V shape Angularity is apparent throughout the body but easily noticed in the hindquarter;very slight fat over base of spinous processes; transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded Easily seen Angularity & prominent tailhead are still very noticeable; point of hip is prevalent
Withers, shoulders, & neck are noticeable & accentuated; structures do not blend smoothly Prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually; fat is partially prevalent on the spinous processes but they are distinguishable; transverse spinal structures can not be felt Slight fat cover over ribs; easily seen; spacing between ribs still evident Point of hip appears rounded but still easily seen; hindquarters appear as an inverted V; thigh area has a hollow or indented appearance form rear view
Withers, shoulders, and neck are not obviously thin but the expected transition of these structures is still not adequate. Fat is prevalent on the spinous processes but there remains a slight ridge or inverted V along the back; slight sloping of the hind quarter is common with CS #4. Faint outline seen so ribs are slightly noticeable Tailhead shows slight prominence although fat can easily be felt; point of hip not noticeable
Blending of major structures such as the neck with the shoulder & withers; blends smoothly into body or barrel Rounded over spinous processes Back is flat; no crease, no ridge or no V shape appearance Not visually noticeable but easily felt when palpated lightly Fat around area beginning to feel spongy; rump is uniform and blended with slight rounding appearance
Shoulder & neck blend smoothly into body; fat beginning to be deposited Withers are rounded over spinous processes; extra fat beginning to be deposited May have slight crease down back; rump has more bloom Ribs not visually distinguishable but the fat over the ribs is slightly spongy; can be felt with some pressure on palpation Fat around area feels soft; rump now has a slight rounded or bloom appearance
Neck & shoulder will show fat and are easily visible; smooth transition seen in CS 5 & 6 are compromised by too much fat Round in appearance; fat deposited along area A crease down the back is more likely but not required; referenced as a crease or “gutter” appearance & the appearance is influenced by breed Can feel individual ribs with significant pressure on palpation; noticeable filling of fat between the ribs More bloom to rump than a CS #6; beginning of the apple shape rump commonly seen in CS 8 & 9
Noticeable thickening of neck Area behind shoulder filled-in & flushed with body Area along withers filled with fat; may be patchy areas of fat Crease or “gutter” down the back; the distinction of the crease is dependent on muscle type of the horse Ribs are difficult to feel Fat around area feels soft but depending on age & breed the tautness of area may distort your evaluation; rump is round & apple shape
Bulging fat and patchy fat is not uncommon Round in appearance due to obvious fat Crease down the back is obvious Patchy fat may appear over area Bulging fat around area; rump is round and apple shape

References:
1. Henneke, D. R., G.D. Potter, J.L. Kreider and B.F. Yeates. 1983. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentages in mares. Equine Veterinary Journal, 15(4), 371-372.
2. National Research Council. 1989. Nutrient requirements of horses, 5th revised edition, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.
3. Bray, R.E. 2007. Equine Nutritional Management Manual. Body Condition Scoring of Adult Horses and Dietary Adjustments©  Bray Animal Nutrition, pp99 – 014.
4. Henneke, D. R., G.D. Potter and J.L. Kreider. 1984. Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency of mares. Theriogenology 21:897.

 

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