How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on equine health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

By Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD; Laurie Lawrence, PhD; and Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, PAS, of the University of Kentucky Department of Animal and Food Sciences

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on animal health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition. Since 1983, a procedure developed by Don Henneke, PhD, has served to provide a standard body condition scoring system that can be used across breeds and by all horse people. The system assigns a numerical score—1 through 9—based on the amount of fat that has accumulated in the important areas used to assess horses’ body condition.

The Body Condition Scoring System

The Henneke system assesses accumulated fat both visually and by palpation in each of six areas: ribs, behind the shoulder, withers, loin, tailhead, and neck. A numerical value is assigned based on the fat accumulated in all six areas (Table 1).

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

The first place to look when assessing a horse’s body condition score (BCS) is the ribcage. If ribs are easily seen, the horse will have a score over the ribcage below a 5. If you cannot see the ribs, then the score should be a 5 or above. During winter and spring it might be difficult to see ribs because of the horse’s coat, so it is always important to run your fingers across the ribcage to assign the correct score.

A very thin horse will have prominent ribs—easily seen and felt—with no fat padding. As the horse gains weight and body condition, a little padding can be felt around the ribs. By score 5, the ribs will no longer be visible, but can be easily felt. Once the body condition score is above 7, the ribs become more difficult to feel.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Shoulder

A BCS of 5 means the shoulder blends smoothly with the body. At increasing condition scores, fat is deposited behind the shoulder and becomes bulging. This observation is especially true in the region behind the elbow. The shoulder’s bony structures will become more visible as the scores drop below 5.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Withers

If a horse is very thin, no fat will be deposited between the top of the shoulder blade and the spinal vertebrae, making the two structures easily discernible. As the horse’s condition score increases, fat fills in between the top of the shoulder blade and spinal vertebrae; so, at a condition score of 5, the withers will appear rounded. As horses approach the high end of the condition scoring scale, the withers will be bulging with fat.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

The loin is the area of the back just behind where the saddle sits. At a condition score of 5, the loin area will be relatively level—the spine is not sticking up, nor is there a dent or crease along the spine. At condition scores below 5, the spine starts to become prominent; this is sometimes called a “negative crease.” A very thin horse will have an obvious ridge down the back where the vertebrae of the spine become obvious. As the condition score increases above a 5, fat begins to build up on either side of the spine and a visible crease starts to appear.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Tailhead

In a very thin horse, the tailhead is prominent and easily discernible. Once the horse starts gaining weight, fat fills in around the tailhead. As the condition score exceeds 7, the fat will feel soft and begin to bulge.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

In a very thin horse, you might be able to see the neck’s bony structures. As the horse gains condition, fat will be deposited on the top of the neck. At a condition score of 5, the neck blends smoothly into the body. Body condition scores of 8 and 9 are characterized by a neck that is thick all around with fat evident at the crest.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Overall Score

After each area is assessed and assigned a score (not all horses will get the same score at each location) you can average all the scores to get to a final overall score. For example, a horse might score 6 on some areas and 7 on others. For research purposes, the overall score can have decimal numbers, but for practical purposes, most people would record a value of 6+ or 7-.

Putting the System to Work

Horses can perform almost every activity at a BCS of 5. Many athletic horses are kept at a BCS of 5, sometimes 6, depending on their discipline. Some equine athletes, such as endurance horses, will have condition scores between 4 and 5.

However, keeping broodmares at condition scores below 5 could reduce their reproductive efficiency. In addition, horses with condition scores below 5 could lack the fat stores necessary to withstand a cold winter or other stressful situation.

On the other hand, horses that have condition scores above 6 could be less exercise tolerant than their trimmer counterparts, and very fat horses could put extra stress on bones, joints and hooves.

Horse owners should regularly condition score their horses to determine whether a change in body condition would be desirable.

The body condition of horses based on the degree of fat cover is a good indicator of a horse’s general health. The body condition score (BCS) allows one to access if the horse is too thin, too fat, or about right. Horses are scored on a scale from 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat) in six areas where they deposit fat – neck, withers, spinous processes (part of back vertebrae that project upwards) and transverse processes (portion of vertebrae that projects outward), tail head, ribs, and behind the shoulder. The subjective assessment is based on visual and physical (palpation) of the specified body regions including the hooks (tuber coxae and hip joints) and pins (tuber ischia and lower pelvic bones). Comparisons of relative adiposity can be made within or between horses. Categorization of body condition as underweight (BCS ≤ 3, 1–9-point scale), moderate (BCS 4–6), overweight (BCS ≥ 7) or obese (BCS ≥ 8) can be used as an aid in the management of body condition for optimal health and performance

Advantages of the body condition score are

  • Integration of all body areas
  • Easy to perform
  • Allows for classification of horses into underweight, overweight, or obese categories
  • Cutoff values available to imply risk for disease

Disadvantages of the body condition score are

  • The method only assesses subcutaneous fat
  • Bias between evaluators may influence results
  • The score can be influenced by coat length, gut fill, muscle mass, pregnancy, etc.
  • The score may not be comparable between different breeds or body types

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Description of Individual Body Condition Scores

Horse is extremely emaciated. Spinous processes, ribs, tail head, hooks, and pins project prominently. Bone structure of withers, shoulders, and neck easily noticeable. No fatty tissue can be felt.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Emaciated. Slight fat covering over base of the spinous processes, transverse processes of lumbar (loin area) vertebrae feel rounded. Spinous processes, ribs, tail head, hooks, and pins are prominent. Withers, shoulders, and neck structures are faintly discernible.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Fat is built up about halfway on spinous processes, transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat cover over ribs. Spinous processes and ribs are easily discernible. Tail head is prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be visually identified. Hook bones appear rounded, but are easily discernible. Pin bones are not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders and neck are accentuated.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Negative crease along back (spinous processes of vertebrae protrude slightly above surrounding tissue). Faint outline of ribs is discernible. Fat can be felt around the tail head; however, the tail head may or may not be visible depending on the breed. Hook bones are not discernible. Withers, shoulders and neck are not obviously thin.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Back is level. Ribs cannot be visually distinguished, but can be easily felt. Fat around tail head begins to feel spongy. Withers appear rounded over spinous processes. Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

May have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs feels spongy. Fat around tail head feels soft. Fat begins to be deposited along the sides of the withers, behind shoulders and along neck.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

May have crease down back. Individual ribs can be felt, but with noticeable filling of fat between ribs. Fat around tail head is soft. Fat is deposited along withers, behind shoulders and along neck.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Crease down back. Difficult to feel ribs. Fat around tail head is very soft. Area along withers is filled with fat. Area behind shoulder is filled with fat and flush with rest of the body. Noticeable thickening of neck. Fat is deposited along inner thighs.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Obvious crease down back. Patchy fat appears over ribs. Bulging fat around tail head, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck. Fat along inner thighs may rub together. Flank is filled with fat and flush with rest of the body.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

The recommendation is for horses to be maintained between a 4 to 6 BCS. Breeding mares should range between 6 to 7 and stallions have the best success with scores between 5 to 6. Performance horses typically have a BCS of 4 to 5. Henneke et al (1983) developed the BCS system.

Rehabilitating emaciated horses to nutritional health is a challenge–there’s a fine line between not getting results and risking the horse’s health by introducing too much, too soon.

Rehabilitating emaciated horses to nutritional health is a challenge–there’s a fine line between not getting results and risking the horse’s health by introducing too much, too soon. Maria Luke, DVM, discussed one system used to facilitate weight gain in these horses at the 2008 Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif.

Luke focused on horses with body condition scores (BCS) between 1.0 and 2.5. Using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring scale, a horse with a BCS of 1 is emaciated, while acceptable ranges are from 4 to 6, with 5 being ideal.

Feed offered to horses in the study (which were housed at the State of Georgia’s equine impound facility) was not weighed, but it rather was quantified with the system commonly used by horse owners–flakes and scoops. All horses resided in groups arranged by age and temperament. They had the shelter of barns, trees, and/or sheds, and wore blankets temporarily in cold conditions. Additional feed was provided when overnight temperatures dropped below freezing.

Dr. Maria Luke explains her approach to rehabilitating emaciated horses.
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To begin the rehabilitation process, caretakers gave the horses oral electrolytes and probiotics on Day 1. During the initial three days, they fed

Being able to follow trends in your horse’s body weight is important in tracking his overall health. One method is to estimate his actual weight by using a commercially available weight tape or by calculating his body weight from the heart girth and length formula (click here to have us do the calculation for you!) However, it is just as important to regularly assess your horse’s body condition score, or his amount of fat cover.

An excellent tool for making this assessment is the Henneke Horse Body Condition Scoring System, because it provides a standard scale for you, your veterinarian, your equine nutritionist, and other health care professionals to use and compare. The scale ranges from a 1, which is the thinnest, to a 9, which is the fattest—a score of 5 is ideal for most breeds and disciplines.

There are six areas on the horse’s body where the degree of fat in relation to muscle is assessed. These are the neck, the area behind the shoulder, the withers, the ribs, the loin, and the tailhead. When evaluating the level of fat in each of these locations it is important to feel its thickness with your hands as well as to visualize it, because looks can be deceiving! Using the descriptive chart below, assign a numerical value to each area then average them to come up with your horse’s Henneke body condition score.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

1 – Poor
Animal extremely emaciated. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, and tuber coxae and ischia projecting prominently. Bone structure of withers, shoulders and neck easily noticeable. No fatty tissue can be felt.

2 – Very thin
Animal emaciated. Slight fat covering over base of spinous processes, transverse processes of lumbar spinous processes feel rounded. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae and ischii prominent. Withers, shoulders and neck structures faintly discernible.

3 – Thin
Fat buildup about halfway on spinous processes, transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat coverover ribs. Spinous processes and ribs easily discernible. Tailhead prominent, but individual spinous processes cannot be visually identified. Tuber coxae appear rounded, but easily discernible. Tuber ischii not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.

4 – Moderately thin
Negative crease along back. Faint outline of ribs discernible. Tailhead prominence depends on conformation, fat can be felt around it. Tuber coxae not discernible. Withers, shoulders and neck not obviously thin.

5 – Moderate
Back level. Ribs cannot be visually distinguished but can be easily felt. Fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy. Withers appear rounded over spinous processes. Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.

6 – Moderately fleshy
May have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs feels spongy. Fat around tailhead feels soft. Fat beginning to be deposited along the side of the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the sides of the neck.

7 – Fleshy
May have crease down back. Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat. Fat around tailhead is soft. Fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders and along the neck.

8 – Fat
Crease down back. Difficult to feel ribs. Fat around tailhead very soft. Area along withers filled with fat. Area behind shoulder filled with fat. Noticeable thickening of neck. Fat deposited along inner thighs.

9 – Extremely fat
Obvious crease down back. Patchy fat appearing over ribs. Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck. Fat along inner thighs may rub together. Flank filled with fat.

Henneke DR, Potter GD, Kreider JL, Yeates BF. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J. 1983 Oct;15(4):371-2.

Improve your ability to horse body condition score by evaluating as many different horses as possible, assessing the six areas in the same order each time so that you develop a system. You’ll find that in some disciplines, like racing, and some life stages, like pregnancy, a higher or lower score than the moderate 5 might be preferred. Also, some extremes in conformation (such as very high withers or a swayback) can make evaluating the degree of fat cover over a certain area challenging. In these cases, you may have to throw out one or two of the six scores before averaging the rest to come up with a single numerical value. And because some horses didn’t read the book, it’s okay to record an in-between value like 4.5 or 6.5 using half points.

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Regularly monitoring your horse or pony’s weight and body condition is very important. It should be encouraged to become an integral part of the stable management routine. Weight taping and body condition scoring can go hand in hand and will enable horse-owners to notice any small changes as they occur throughout the year. This means that owners/carers can pick up quickly on any small changes that occur throughout the year, meaning that feeding regimes and calorie intakes can be adapted if required. Working closely with clients and motivating is key to success. Misclassification of body condition score by owners is most commonly due to them underestimating their horse’s body condition score, with owners of fat horses most likely to score their horses incorrectly and it has been found that only 50% of owner estimates for fat horses agreed with the body condition score [1]. Underestimating body condition score leads to increasing calorie intake, compromising health and performance .

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  • Get unlimited access to books, proceedings and journals.
  • Get access to a global catalogue of meetings, on-site and online courses, webinars and educational videos.
  • Bookmark your favorite articles in My Library for future reading.
  • Save future meetings and courses in My Calendar and My e-Learning.
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Affiliation of the authors at the time of publication

Saracen Horse Feeds, The Forstal, Beddow Way, Aylesford, Kent ME20 7BT, UK.

Preparing a yearling for sale is an important event in the stud calendar for both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds and involves a carefully tailored balance between correct nutrition, conditioning, growth and fitness. Properly prepared yearlings will be fit, sound and well grown, with shiny coats and little body fat. When preparing a yearling for sale it is important to understand the nutrient requirements of the horse and the critical balance between feed intake and exercise as they impact on condition and soundness.

Forage should always be the first consideration in any horse’s diet, and some amount of pasture along with a high quality/high energy hay is important for yearlings. Higher energy hays such as lucerne and clover blends will contribute to energy requirements and work to decrease the amount of starch in the yearling’s diet. Also, using a high quality, early cut hay minimises the appearance of gut-fill that is often associated with a mature hay of high lignin content. Including additional fibre sources through chaff, ensiled forages and super fibres such as beet pulp and soy hulls is often highly beneficial for reducing the amount of hard feed or grain the horse requires, which can in turn reduce symptoms of starch overload including diarrhea, colic, laminitis and behaviour problems.

Yearlings do best on a 14-17% protein ration balanced for macro and micro-minerals, and fat and water soluble vitamins. Feeding rates of hard feeds for yearlings are extremely variable depending on choice of feed, growth history, skeletal size, individual metabolism, actual age and quantity and quality of forage. It is essential that all yearlings are fed as individuals, paying careful attention to body weight, weekly weight gain and body condition score and adjust feed intake appropriately. Selecting a muesli style textured hard feed is often beneficial as the high palatability encourages consistent intake of feed through somewhat stressful times of increased workload, travel to sales complexes and new surroundings.

To avoid hindgut disturbances and digestive conditions in yearlings it is also important to consider feeds that contain grains that have been processed to enhance digestion. Heat processed feeds such as pelleted or feeds containing steam flaked grains ensure most of the digestion takes place in the small intestine thus reducing the risk of unprocessed starch entering the hindgut and causing acidosis. NRM Assett or NRM Prepare are great options of well balanced textured feeds containing steam flaked grains that are ideal for sales preparation.

While there is an over-whelming array of supplements that claim to enhance coat quality and condition, including a fat source is always one of the best ways to achieve that sale ring shine. Suitable fat sources include vegetable oils, sunflower seeds, or a stabilised rice bran such as KER Equi-Jewel. Equi-Jewel is a high fat low starch conditioning supplement that is highly beneficial for improving topline and coat quality.

For more information and diet advice on preparing a yearling for sale, contact a reputable equine nutrition advisor.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

This blog is for those who might have heard some erroneous information through “old horse tales” or lines of misinformation about what body condition, top lines and big bellies mean in horses.

I often say, “You don’t know what you DON’T know.” Well, we want to help you
know.

One of the biggest errors we encounter relating to the weight of a horses are equines with big bellies. They are often mistaken as being fat. Too often. This happens from horse owners who are experienced and those who are novices all of the time.

Folks will actually say, “My horse is so fat,” and yet when we see the horse, we see a horse that is actually somewhat thin. You gauge a horse’s weight from the neck, rib coverage and top line (croup and spine). You do not measure weight based on the belly size. They aren’t especially related.

Bellies on horses may be large for many reasons, and unless the above mentioned areas match, the belly size has little to do with healthy weight. Bellies may be large due to poor quality hay (doesn’t digest well), poor teeth condition (thus good hay isn’t ground properly and doesn’t digest well), heavy parasite load, being used as a broodmare or being an aged horse. A belly is almost the last place you look to gauge healthy weight.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

If you notice the ribs showing, the spine being visible at all or/and the croup pointing (top of the rump) and the horse has a massive belly, this horse is still too thin.

This is a young horse above. This foal likely has a heavy parasite load and may not be getting enough food quality forage. The distended belly is not a sign of health.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

This photo may show a bred mare who has been neglected, but we often will see horses with bellies like this that are not bred but have been used as a brood mare often through their lives, and folks will see the belly and honestly believe that has something to do with a healthy weight. This mare is very thin. If wormed, if teeth were done, the belly may go down some, but brood mares may keep an out of shape figure for the long term. That doesn’t mean you cannot get the topline to fill in, and until it does, the horse is underweight.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

This is a horse that is getting close to a good weight but still carries that disproportionate belly. It sometimes starts to look more reasonable as the topline totally fills in, though. In the case above, the croup is still pointy and the spine a bit too prominent. The ribs can faintly be seen, but with continued good dental care and good forage and parasite protocol, this horse is close to being where he needs to be.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

This horse has gotten almost there where he should be, as well, but he does still need a bit more. His spine and croup have mostly covered over. The belly still looks a bit too large for the rest of him, and the ribs are too obvious. So as with the horse before him, though this condition isn’t ideal, with the right care, he would soon be in tip top shape.

Sometimes you will hear folks talk about Narrow horses and athletic horses as a way to explain thinness, but we need to understand that skinny isn’t athletic. Narrow doesn’t mean to thin, either.

The horses below are examples of conditions on other equines I’ve seen described as Narrow or athletic. These horses do not have the large bellies, but they are not skin and bones, either. When you look at them, both have necks which look to even an untrained eye to be too small for their heads, and you notice the rumps are too pointy. All ribs can be seen. Horses that look like these may not have dental issues or parasite issues, but they are simply aren’t getting quit enough hay of good quality or enough pasture. They may need a bump up in their grain. This body condition is a quick fix once an owner realizes there is a problem. A True Athletic example can be found here at this link.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings
How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Lack of topline strength doesn’t mean the horse looks thin. We will hear things like, “the topline looks thin because he needs more muscle.” But, while the topline will look weak or slightly dipped because of lack of muscle, sometimes people use this as an uneducated reason for a horse actually being too thin. A horse with a topline lacking muscle should look out of shape, maybe even flabby, but the horse should not score lower on the body chart simply because of an out of shape topline.

Horses need quality protein to build muscle, and muscle accounts for a large amount of a horse’s weight, though, so make sure your horse’s nutritional needs are met with a forage or feed that gives the horse quality protein levels. You can safely add protein by adding alfalfa hay or pellets soaked to feedings. You can use various protein supplements, as well.

This collage from The Natural Horse Magazine shows a horse at a good weight but with a need for topline condition and the progress made with training and exercise.

How to do condition scoring for horse yearlings

Or for a dramatic difference but no weight change, see this image collage from The Horse Gym

Toplines relate to fitness not the weight of your horse most of the time. Your horse can fill in with fat, have a weak topline and be an acceptable weight. If you see spine and croup, you have a weight issue. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a stronger topline, but that isn’t why you see spine, ribs, etc.

If this blog helped you, it means it has helped a horse, so please take a moment and share, as our goal is more horses helped through extending education.

(Most Photos are from blogs concerning bellies, toplines and so forth. They aren’t HOP horses. The featured image shows an aged mare in foal rehabbing after rescue. She is too thin in this photo)

When the decision is made to wean a foal, it is important that the foal is eating sufficient solid food to support its genetic growth rate.

Some individuals will slow down their growth rate at 6 to 12 months, while others continue to grow rapidly. It is important to feed the horse’s physiological growth rate, not necessarily its chronological age. Many yearlings grow as fast as weanlings, and must be fed a diet to support such a growth rate in a sound manner.

A common belief is that high protein diets can cause developmental orthopedic disease (D.O.D.). This is not true!! Current research suggests that diets excessively high in calories, especially from non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), can contribute to D.O.D., particularly if the balance of calories to the other critical nutrients in the diet is not correct.

An approach we call “ground-up” nutrition, starts by meeting the growing horse’s non-calorie nutrient requirements – amino acids, minerals and vitamins – then adding a calorie source as needed to maintain desired body condition. This can be accomplished by feeding a ration balancer designed for the forage being fed at recommended levels. Then, if more calories are needed for body condition, we can add a fat supplement or complimentary low NSC product. This approach might be slightly more expensive in cost per day, but can save many times the cost in veterinary bills and lost sales value due to D.O.D.

The requirements for crude protein, lysine, calcium and phosphorous increase faster than the energy requirement. There is evidence that copper levels 3-4 times higher and zinc levels 2-3 times higher than the current Nutrient Requirements of Horses (NRC, 2007) recommendations may help alleviate the incidence of D.O.D in many situations, especially programs with faster-growing horses. We believe that low copper and zinc levels are a major contributor to D.O.D. and must be addressed from the 1st trimester of pregnancy until the resultant foal has ceased growing.

The concentrate (grain) component of the diet should be carefully chosen to complement the forage (hay and pasture) source, with particular attention given to the calcium to phosphorus ratio in the total diet. The ideal calcium to phosphorous ratio in the total diet of growing horses is between 1:1 and 2:1. Growing horses consuming forage sources composed of 50% or greater alfalfa or other legumes should be fed a concentrate specifically designed to balance the nutrient profile of legumes.

Young, growing horses require a specially designed diet to meet their unique needs. With many poorly designed feeds, horses may have to be fed more to meet the requirements of non-calorie nutrients, thereby developing excess body condition, which can aggravate D.O.D. Try to keep young, growing horses in moderate flesh, with a body score of 5-6, and monitor body weight with a scale or weight tape every 2-4 weeks, so adjustments can be made as growth rate increases or decreases.

A. Make sure the total diet (forage and concentrate combined) is balanced for the weanling and yearling. See Tribute Essential K and Growth for use with grass hay. See Alfa Essentials and Alfa Growth for hay greater than 50% legumes.

B. Most likely nutrients to be imbalanced or deficient:

  1. Essential amino acids (starting with lysine).
  2. Calcium to Phosphorous ratio (especially if using legumes).
  3. Copper and Zinc levels.

C. Monitor growth rate and keep young horses in moderate body condition (body score 5-6).

D. Consult a qualified EQUINE nutritionist to help balance diets and adjust to problem situations.