Body condition and body weight are two very important metrics for understanding and measuring the health of your horse. Both can be assessed easily and without any expensive equipment.
Body weight alone gives us very little insight into how much stored fat your horse has. For example, a 12hh, 400 kg pony would have a wildly different body condition than a 17hh, 400 kg thoroughbred.
An accurate Body Condition Score (BCS) can tell you whether your horse is underweight, overweight or at an appropriate weight for his or her size.
Equine obesity is an increasingly prevalent health and welfare concern. A recent study reported that over 40% of horses and ponies are considered overweight or obese. 
Research has also shown that ponies have a 3x higher rate of obesity, with Shetland ponies being at the highest risk.  Obesity can increase the risk of many health problems such as laminitis, insulin resistance, and joint problems. 
Conversely, horses that are too thin can experience muscle wasting, poor performance, or difficulties reproducing. Horses with a low BCS may have dental issues, poor appetite or other serious problems that can affect gut health.
Ensuring your horse is at an ideal weight and body condition is critical to their long-term health and well-being. This article will review how to accurately body condition score your horse and the importance of maintaining appropriate body weight.
What is Body Condition Scoring?
Body Condition Scoring is an objective measurement of the amount of subcutaneous adipose tissue that your horse has. A body condition score estimates the amount of body fat that sits directly under the skin.
The scale is designed to provide a consistent method of evaluating a horse’s overall body condition based on observations from specific points on the body of the horse.
Using visual and physical (palpation) techniques, you can gain a better understanding of your horse’s body condition. This will help you determine how best to feed your horse.
Quite often, horse owners only assess body condition by looking for fat cover over the ribs. However, this does not give us a very good picture of the overall body condition score of the horse.
BCS is assessed by looking at and feeling six key areas of fat deposition on your horse.  These six areas were selected as being points most responsive to changes in body fat.
These areas are listed below and can been seen in Figure 1:
- Behind the shoulder
- Rib cover
Figure 1: The six key areas to visually and physically (via palpation) assess when body condition scoring your horse
The BCS Scale
The modern BCS system scores your horse on a scale of 1 to 9, with a score of 5 being recognized as ideal. This scale is based on research by Don R. Henneke and colleagues in 1983. 
A previous system used a scale of 1 to 5, but the nine-point scale is more commonly used today.
The score takes into account the fat accumulation compared to muscle tissue at each of the six key regions listed above.
1) Poor (Emaciated)
Horses with a body condition score of 1 are very emaciated and in critical condition with no palpable fat deposits. Bone structure of neck, shoulders, and withers are easily noticeable. Ribs are projecting prominently and boney projection of the vertebrae (spinous processes) are clearly seen along the loins (back) and at the tailhead.
- Overall: Poor condition with no fat tissue felt
- Neck: Visible bone structure
- Withers: Visible bone structure
- Shoulder: Visible bone structure
- Rib cover: Ribs projecting prominently
- Rump: Spinous processes clearly seen
- Tailhead: Tail head, hip joints and lower pelvic bones projecting prominently
2) Very Thin (Very Underweight)
Horses with a BCS score of 2 have slight fat cover that can be felt behind the shoulder. The bone structure of neck and withers is faintly noticeable. The ribs are projecting prominently and there is slight fat covering the boney projection of vertebrae (spinous processes) of the loins (back) and tailhead.
- Overall: Emaciated with slight fat cover in some areas
- Neck: Faintly visible bones
- Withers: Faintly visible bones
- Shoulder: Faintly visible bones
- Rib cover: Ribs projecting prominently
- Rump: Slight fat covering the spinous processes and transverse processes of lumbar
- Tailhead: Bones projecting prominently
3) Thin (Underweight)
Horses with a body condition of 3 are characterized as having slight fat cover between the ribs with the ribs clearly visible. The neck, withers and shoulders are accentuated. On the back, there is a slight fat covering the boney projection of vertebrae (spinous processes), but they are clearly seen. The tailhead is boney but individual vertebrae cannot be seen.
- Overall: Thin with some fat cover but not an adequate amount
- Neck: Accentuated neck
- Withers: Accentuated withers
- Shoulder: Accentuated shoulders
- Rib cover: Slight fat cover over and between ribs; ribs are easily visible
- Rump: Spinous processes easily discernable but with some fat covering; Transverse processes no longer palpable
- Tailhead: Tailhead prominent but individual vertebrae no longer visible; Hook bones are visible but rounded; Pin bones no longer prominent
4) Moderately Thin (Slightly Underweight)
Horses with a body condition score of 4 are considered to have an acceptable body condition, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.  The neck, withers and shoulders are not obviously thin, but they may have dip between wither and neck depending on their conformation. A faint outline of ribs can be seen. The spine is clearly shown with a negative crease along the back while tailhead prominence will depend on conformation.
- Overall: Moderately thin with an acceptable amount of fat cover
- Neck: Not obviously thin
- Withers: Not obviously thin
- Shoulder: Not obviously thin
- Rib cover: Faintly visible outline
- Rump: Negative crease along the back; backbone protrudes with a “peaked” appearance
- Tailhead: Varies depending on conformation; Fat can be felt; Hook bones are rounded; Hip joints are not discernable
5) Moderate (Ideal)
A score of 5 is an ideal body condition for a horse. The neck and shoulders blend smoothly into body and the withers are rounded over boney projections of vertebrae (spinous processes). Ribs may not be visibly seen but can be easily felt under the skin. The back is smooth and level with a slight fat covering felt around tailhead.
- Overall: Moderate body condition with ideal fat accumulation
- Neck: Blends smoothly into body
- Withers: Rounded over spinous processes
- Shoulder: Blends smoothly into body
- Rib cover: Ribs are not visibly seen but can be easily felt
- Rump: Back is smooth and level
- Tailhead: Slight fat covering felt around tailhead; fat begins to feel soft to touch
6) Moderately Fleshy (Slightly Overweight)
Horses with a BCS score of 6 have some fat covering along withers, neck (especially along the crest), and behind the shoulders. The ribs are not easily seen but individual ribs can be felt. They may have slight crease down back and the tailhead feels spongy from fat deposition.
- Overall: Additional fat accumulation typical of pleasure horses; Top end of ideal body condition range
- Neck: Some fat covering along crest and sides of neck
- Withers: Some fat covering
- Shoulder: Some fat covering; Point-of-shoulder no longer discernable
- Rib cover: Fat covering on ribs feels spongy; Ribs are not visibly seen but can be felt
- Rump: Slight positive crease (groove) along the back
- Tailhead: Fat deposited around tailhead begins to feel soft
7) Fleshy (Overweight)
Horses with a 7 on the BCS scale have fat clearly deposited along the withers, neck (especially along the crest), and behind the shoulders. The ribs are not visible and have noticeable filling between them. Individual ribs can be felt with some pressure. They may have slight crease down back and the tissue around the tailhead is soft.
- Overall: Fleshy
- Neck: Fat deposited along neck
- Withers: Fat deposited along withers
- Shoulder: Fat deposited behind shoulder
- Rib cover: Noticeable fat accumulation between ribs; Individual ribs can be felt
- Rump: Positive crease (groove) along the back
- Tailhead: Fat deposited around tailhead feels soft
8) Fat (Obese)
Horses with a body condition of 8 have fat deposited along the withers and neck (especially along the crest) with a noticeable widening of neck. The area on either side of the withers filled with fat and the area behind their shoulders is filled with fat. The ribs not visible and it is difficult to feel them. There is a noticeable crease down back and the tailhead is soft with noticeable fat cover.
- Overall: Excess accumulation of fat; Fat deposited along inner buttocks
- Neck: Noticeable widening of neck
- Withers: Area on sides withers filled with fat
- Shoulder: Area behind shoulder filled with fat and flush with body
- Rib cover: Ribs are not visible and difficult to feel individually
- Rump: Positive crease (groove) along the back
- Tailhead: Fat deposited around tailhead feels very soft
9) Extremely Fat (Very Obese)
There is a large fat deposit along the crest and sides of neck with creases present. There is bulging fat along the withers and behind the shoulder. The fat over the ribs may appear patchy with the ribs difficult or impossible to feel. There is an obvious crease down back and the tailhead is very soft with prominent, bulging fat cover.
- Overall: Excessive fat accumulation; loss of muscle definition and contours; Fat along inner buttocks rubs together; Flank filled in flush
- Neck: Bulging fat accumulation
- Withers: Bulging fat accumulation
- Shoulder: Bulging fat accumulation
- Rib cover: Patchy fat accumulation over ribs
- Rump: Obvious positive crease (groove) along the back
- Tailhead: Bulging fat around tail head
How to Body Condition Score your Horse
Body condition scoring is very easy with this step-by-step process:
Step #1: Print out our Body Condition Scoring Worksheet.
Step #2: Start by scoring each of the 6 key areas separately, using visual cues and feeling these areas to assess body condition. Some horses may have a score of 5 in some areas but a score of 6 in others.
Step #3: Take the average. Add all 6 scores together and divide by 6 to get the average score.
When evaluating your horse’s body condition, only look at the six key areas listed above. Do not look at belly size as this can give an inaccurate impression for some horses. 
BCS scores for horses with long hair coats are subject to error as the hair coat can make it difficult to visually assess fat accumulation in some areas. It is important to conduct an in-person evaluation for such horses to palpitate the six regions and not rely entirely on visual cues.
Conformation differences can make it difficult to consistently apply body condition criteria to all horses, as in the case of a horse with a sway back.
These differences need to be taken into account when adding together scores from the six key areas. It is recommended to discount but not ignore areas that are affected by conformation. 
There are also natural differences between certain breeds. Thoroughbreds naturally have more prominent withers and back, which can result in a lower score being assessed. Pony and draft breeds are naturally fleshy and may have a higher score assessed. 
Senior horses that have lost some muscle tone may score lower on the BCS scale. It is recommended to add half a score for aged horses to reflect differences in muscle structure. 
What is an Ideal Body Condition?
There is slight variation on what an ideal body condition looks like for each horse. Ideally, a horse should score a 5 on the 9-point Henneke body condition scoring scale.
This means that their ribs may not be clearly seen, but are easily felt, with slight fat cover around withers, tailhead, neck and shoulder. The back/loins should be rounded and smooth, and the neck and shoulders should flow into the body.
While a score of 5 is ideal for most horses, it is important to acknowledge that some horses, like performance horses or broodmares, may have a slightly different ideal body weight to suit their needs and for optimal health.
While all horses can perform at a body condition score of 5, many high-performance horses such as racehorses, endurance horses and elite 3-day eventers will have a body condition score between 4 and 5.
A body condition score between 4 and 5 appears to be ideal for endurance horses. Research on endurance horses has shown that horses with a BCS of 3 or less have a significantly lower chance of completing a race.  This study also found that a BCS of 5 may be ideal for the optimal performance of endurance horses.
Other research suggests that a body condition score between 4 to 5 is ideal, with horses that score closer to 4 having better finishing scores. 
For sprint horses like racehorses, barrel racers or eventers, research has shown that body fat percentage is inversely related to race performance, meaning horses with less body fat tend to have faster race times.  A BCS between 4 and 5 may also be ideal for racehorses, barrel racers, and three-day eventers.
Horses at a body condition score of 6 or higher may experience difficulties exercising. Many sports such as dressage reward horses that are considered overweight or obese, but it is not in the best interest of the horse to maintain that level of body condition.
Ideal Body Condition for Broodmares
For peak reproductive efficiency, broodmares should be kept at a body condition score between 5 and 6. Broodmares kept below a score of 5 may have difficulties conceiving or maintaining pregnancy. 
A decrease in body weight during the period between conception and conceiving is associated with a higher risk of abortion.  Therefore, pregnant mares should not lose weight during pregnancy for optimal fertility.
Milk production and the growth of the foal can also be impacted by the mare’s body condition score.
Scoring your horse’s body condition can be more difficult during pregnancy. In the last trimester, pregnant mares tend to score lower because the weight of the foal causes downward pressure on the rump area. Hormones can also affect the appearance of the tailhead area. 
It is recommended to add a half score to your horse’s BCS during the last trimester of pregnancy. 
Correcting for Perceptual Bias
Studies show that horse owners are more likely to underestimate their horse’s body condition score than to overestimate the score.
In a recent survey of senior horses aged 30 years and old, 16% of the horses were underweight according to their BCS and 10% were overweight. These results were based on veterinary examination. 
However, horse owners rated 23% of the horses as underweight and only 3% were rated as overweight based on survey responses.  This suggests a perceptual bias among horse owners that a healthy horse should be heavier than it ought to be.
In another online survey study, only 11% of horse owners were able to correctly identify all overweight animals when presented with pictures of 12 different horses. 
Horse owners that perceive their horse as underweight when he or she is actually at an appropriate weight may unintentionally overfeed their horses. Similarly, horse owners that cannot identify when their horse is overweight may not appropriately reduce caloric intake to prevent potential health complications.
It is important to correct for this bias through application of proper body condition scoring techniques. If you would like help with body condition scoring your horse, take a side-view photo of your horse and submit it with their dietary information online and our nutritionists would be happy to help for free.
Determining a Horse’s Body Weight
In addition to keeping track of your horse’s body condition score, regularly measuring their body weight is another indicator of your horse’s health and well-being.
A scale is the most accurate way of measuring body weight, but many of us do not have access to a scale large enough to weigh our horses. Luckily, there are other tools we can use to get a good estimate of our horse’s weight. These include weight tapes and measuring tapes.
Weight Tapes are easy to use and provide a general estimate of your horse’s body weight. You can purchase weight tapes from most tack or feed stores.
To use a weight tape, wrap the tape around your horse’s girth, placing the tape directly behind the elbow. Make sure the tape is straight and not twisted. The tape should be snug, but not tight, around your horse and the reading should be taken when your horse has exhaled.
The accuracy of weight tapes depends on your horse’s conformation (such as the size of their withers). This measurement is not accurate for small ponies, miniature ponies and foals.
While less accurate than other methods, weight tapes are convenient and useful for understanding changes in your horse’s body weight. This is an important monitoring too for horses who need to lose or gain weight.
Girth and Body Length Measurements
If you don’t have a weight tape, a household measuring tape can also be used to measure the girth and body length of your horse. These values can be inputted into a standard equation to give you a more accurate estimate of your horse’s body weight.
To measure the girth, place a measuring tape or string around your horse’s girth, directly behind their elbow. Make sure the tape is straight, and not twisted for the most accurate measurement.
The tape should be snug, but not tight, around your horse and the reading should be taken when your horse has exhaled. If using a string, mark where the string overlaps and measure.
To measure body length, place a measuring tape or string at the point of shoulder and measure to the point of buttock. You will want another person to hold one end of the tape or string for an accurate measurement. If using a string, hold one end on the point of shoulder, then mark where the point of buttock is and measure.
Input these values into the calculator below to estimate your horse’s body weight.
Average Horse Weight Chart
How much your horse should weigh to be at a healthy body weight will depending on your horse’s breed and age.
The following ranges are common for adult horses of the breeds listed below. There may be individual variations account for size, muscle mass and conformation differences.
|Horse Breed||Average Weight (kg)||Average Weight (lbs)|
Complications Associated with Overweight Horses
A BCS higher than a 6 means your horse is overweight and you need to implement dietary strategies to manage their weight and get them to an ideal body score.
It is important to note that whether obesity causes these metabolic disorders or whether these metabolic disorders predispose horses to obesity is currently unknown.
Weight gain is often due to a positive energy balance, or more energy being consumed than being expended with exercise and normal bodily functions. Reducing the energy density of your horse’s diet will help to reduce excess body fat.
Complications Associated with Underweight Horses
A BCS lower than a 4 means your horse is underweight and you need to implement dietary strategies to safely increase their weight to get them to a body condition score of 4 or higher.
As weight loss progresses, the body will start breaking down the protein in muscle to use as energy. This will result in muscle wasting, or loss of muscle mass.
Weight loss is caused by a negative energy balance, or less energy being consumed than what is being expended with exercise and normal bodily functions. Increasing the amount of feed your horse consumes and opting for calorie-dense feeds will help your horse gain healthy body weight.
Looking for assistance with feeding an underweight or overweight horse? Our nutritionists can help you design a feeding program for free. Submit your horse’s information and current diet online to receive a complementary review.
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