How much we feed our horses is determined by how much they weigh, their overall body condition, and the condition we want them to be.
Measure your horses body weight by measuring his heart/girth area and his length. Be sure you measure from the same spot each time to get an accurate reading. Your horses weight will equal his heart-girth times his heart-girth times his length divided by 330.
Heart-girth X heart-girth X length / 330 = Weight
While important in determining your horse’s overall nutrient requirements, knowing how much your horse weighs still doesn’t tell you if it is too fat, too thin, or in good overall condition with respect to fat coverage.
Since the 1980s, veterinarians and horse owners alike have been using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system to estimate fat coverage of horses. This system uses a scale of 1 through 9, determining body weight and ideal condition where 1 represents an extremely emaciated horse and 9 represents a grossly obese one. Areas of the body that are examined include the shoulder and elbow region, the ribs, the withers, the loin and tailhead region, and the crest of the neck.
Body Condition Scores
|General Description||Neck Area||Withers||Shoulder||Elbow||Ribs||Loin and Tailhead|
|1||Poor||No fatty tissue felt; bone structure obvious||Very prominent||Scapula prominent||No fleshy tissue||Ribs obvious||Spine and hip bones prominent|
|2||Very thin||Prominent bonestructure||Prominent||Prominent||Minimal fleshy tissue||Ribs clearly visible||Spine and hip bones visible|
|3||Thin||Lean||Lean||Obvious||Little Fleshy tissue||Outline of ribs visible||Moderate visibility of hip bones|
|4||Moderately Thin||Some fleshy cover||Some cover||Moderate blend into body||Some fleshy tissue||Faint outline of ribs||Faint outline of hip bones|
|5||Moderate||Moderate fleshy cover||Moderate tissue cover||Blends into body||Moderate tissue||Not visible but easily felt||Back level, tailhead fleshy|
|6||Moderately fleshy||Fleshy cover||Fleshy cover||Well-blended into body||Extra fleshy tissue||Spongy cover over ribs||Soft tailhead|
|7||Fleshy||Fat deposited along neck||Fat deposited along withers||Not obvious||Obvious fleshy tissue||Ribs felt with pressure||Soft tailhead; ridge beginning to appear|
|8||Fat||Obvious fat on neck||Not obvious due to fat coverage||Faint scapula||Fat||Barely felt with pressure||SCrease down back|
|9||Extremely fat||Obvious fat and potentially cresty neck||Bulging fat; withers indiscernible||Bulging fat; scapula not visible||Bulging fat||Difficult to feel ribs due to excessive fat cover||Crease down back due to bulging fat on either side of spine|
The scale is useful because it is easy to learn, but there are several drawbacks. For instance, it is very subjective; one horse owner might label a horse a 3 while another might label it a 2 or 2.5. This discrepancy generally isn’t an issue unless different people are keeping records. For example, if it wasn’t known that different people were scoring the horses, one might assume a horse has suddenly lost or gained weight. It is also difficult to use the scale when tracking a horse over time to observe small changes in body condition score. In this case, careful record keeping and photos can be helpful to monitor body condition score changes with dietary management.
Another problem with the Henneke system is that not all horses follow the chart smoothly. For example, some horses may carry more weight around their ribs but won’t have much coverage along the hind end. Therefore, it is possible for a horse to be a 6 at the ribs but only a 4.5 or 5 in another region. In these kinds of situations, owners and clinicians must average the entire body’s scores to obtain the horse’s true overall score.
So what is the ideal body score in horses? At this point, veterinarians and nutritionists aren’t certain. Most horse owners, veterinarians, and nutritionists agree that, in general, a leaner animal is healthier (within reason). In this sense, a horse with a body condition of 5 is generally considered to be in good condition. However, in some cases a leaner or fatter condition may be desired, as described below.
Determining an ideal weight for a horse is difficult, in part due to vast breed differences affecting bone and musculature. Muscle accounts for more than 50% of body weight in most athletic horses (and is usually still around 45% in non-athletic horses), compared to 30% to 40% in other species. As in humans, muscle weighs more than fat; therefore, a muscled horse will weigh more than a fat one for a given height and body type. Thus, it is difficult to make claims such as a 16-hand horse should weigh 1200 lbs. In reality, based on breed differences a 16-hand horse may weigh anywhere between 1000 lbs and 1800 lbs. This is another reason why body condition scores are useful.
In some cases it might be wise for a horse to have a slightly higher body condition score. The original work by Henneke studied reproductive efficiency in mares and found that mares with more condition (higher BCS) had higher conception rates than their leaner counterparts. So, it may be wise to keep a broodmare at a slightly higher condition (for example, around a BCS of 6), though keeping any horse at a body condition score greater than 7 may increase the risk of metabolic issues. It may also be recommended that older horses be kept in higher condition (BCS 6). As the ability to maintain weight during disease or times of stress becomes increasingly difficult with increasing age, having a bit of a “buffer” in body weight could be beneficial. However, the overall health of the animal should be taken into consideration, as an older horse with arthritis or a history of laminitis may do better without the excess weight.
Horse owners should work with their veterinarians and trainers to determine the ideal body condition for their horse and discipline, as serious consequences can result when a horse is too thin or too fat.
Hope this helps you understand the horses weight, condition and why it’s important to feed quality food to our equine partners.
Kate with OCHS