Making sure that your horse is healthy can sometimes feel like a balancing act, one where they need the right diet, level of exercise, and medical care to ensure they’re in great shape. However, you may find that it’s a challenge to know when they are doing well and when you need to take action.
As a starting point, being able to measure or estimate your horse’s weight is useful, as it can give you a good idea whether they’re under- or overweight. But just knowing how much they weigh doesn’t reveal the full picture, as it doesn’t account for how much muscle and fat they’re carrying.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the horse body condition scoring system, which can give you a more accurate picture of your horse’s health.
Horse body condition scoring is a visual assessment of the amounts of muscle and fat on a horse, as well as how each one is distributed across their body. It is a technique used to get a clearer picture of what is making up their weight and the implications this can have on their health. It can also be known as body scoring, fat scoring, and condition scoring, but they all refer to the same system.
Like other animals, your horse’s dietary system processes and stores excess calories as fat, while proteins are used to build muscle and other essential tissues, both of which make up a large portion of their body weight. A closer inspection of how fat is being carried can give an insight into whether they are getting the right calorie balance, while an assessment of musculature will help you to see whether their protein needs are being met or if their protein is of sufficient quality.
Body condition scoring has a key role to play in monitoring the health of your horse. In a nutshell, it can help you to identify issues with your horse’s diet and exercise plan, while helping you to decide if they are in need of any extra medical care.
Looking in more detail at how your horse is carrying their body fat can help you see whether you’re over- or underfeeding, and if the balance of nutrients is right in their diet. If a horse is carrying extra amounts of fat, it can indicate that they are eating calories in excess of their needs or their feed isn’t as balanced as it should be. If these problems persist, it can put your horse at risk of obesity, which puts them at further risk of developing serious health problems, including laminitis, arthritis, heart disease, lung disease, and hyperlipaemia (high fat levels in their blood). It is a very serious issue: next to colic, obesity is the leading cause of equine fatalities in the UK (Blue Cross).
Obesity is even more of a problem in modern times, where equine management ensures that they receive the best of care year-round. This means horses are sheltered and rugged in winter and get specialist feeds designed to deliver maximum nutrition. But, because horses were hardy animals that were always on the move before domestication, they haven’t evolved to maintain a healthy balance when they’re not as active and taking in more calories. Rather than grazing heavily in summer and undergoing starvation in winter, they have access to rich foods year-round, which means they can put on weight at a time they’re naturally meant to be losing it.
Some breeds of horse are genetically more at risk of obesity than others. The likes of draught horses, cobs, native, and Welsh breeds have evolved to live in locations where winters are cold and wet, and grass may be of lesser quality. This means they have developed more efficient digestion to get more efficiency out of poor grade roughage, so they’re much more capable of converting calories into fat. Because of this, when given the same food as other breeds — thoroughbreds, for instance — they’re much more likely to gain higher levels of fat, which makes them more prone to obesity.
Body condition scoring is also essential for keeping track of how your horse’s muscles are developing and whether the protein content in their diet is correct. If they’re not getting enough protein or if it is of poor quality, they will be missing out on important building blocks for their muscles and other body tissues, which can leave them underdeveloped. This can cause problems when you put them in heavier work as they progress through equestrian grades, severely slowing their progress. Without assessing their body condition, this can be easy to overlook if you only rely on calculating weight.
Body condition scoring is a technique that involves paying attention to various parts of your horse to visually and physically check whether the area is muscle or body fat. You then assign the part of the horse a rating from 0–5 depending on its condition, before working out an average across all of the sections. Because each horse carries fat in different places, moving from section to section and working out an overall score at the end ensures that a fair and complete assessment is made.
Start by splitting your horse’s body into three areas for assessment:
Next, you need to carry out both a visual and hands-on inspection to check the condition of the body in these areas. Just from sight, you may notice that your horse is bulky or skinny in some areas, but you should be able to feel the difference. Using your hand, very gently apply some pressure to your horse’s body: if it’s muscular it will feel firm, while fat will be soft and spongy.
Start by visually inspecting the neck to see if you can see your horse’s neck muscles. Try feeling along the crest area, which is the upper section of the neck between the ears and back, checking whether there is any hardened fat that sways from side to side when pressure is applied.
Move your hand down from the neck and to your horse’s shoulder and over the shoulder blade. This is a location fat can build up, so if it feels smooth rather than bony at the shoulder there may be a fat deposit. You may also feel an accumulation behind the shoulder blades as well.
After inspecting the neck and shoulders, you can move onto the middle body. Try running your hand over your horse’s rib area. You should be able to feel the ribs with only some light pressure, but if you need to press firmly to do so or can’t feel them at all, your horse is carrying too much fat here. There can be some between the ribs, but ideally not over them.
Gently move your hand over your horse’s spine and withers: ideally, you should be able to see the backbone and feel its arch with light pressure. A common area for fat to accumulate is on either side of the spine to create a gutter-like shape. If it has built up to the point it is reaching above the spine, your hand may be able to lie flat without feeling the bone.
Finally, move onto the hindquarters of your horse. Your horse’s hip bones should be defined, and you should be able to feel them with only a thin layer of fat present over the croup and point of hip. If firm pressure is needed to do this, or can’t feel them at all, then there is an excess build-up of fat. A horse with visually prominent hip bones that can be felt without squeezing may be underweight.
Safely inspect your horse from behind (keeping your hand on its body and moving around closely). A healthy horse will have a slightly rounded “C” shaped profile when viewed from the rear, while a horse carrying too much fat will have a top-heavy look — almost like an apple shape — and may also have a gutter visible on its back (“M” shape). You should also check the tail head for fatty deposits.
In this section, you can find a summary of the body condition score categories from 0–5, complete with images to help you identify what stage your horse belongs to.
Remember, each horse carries their body fat differently, so it may not be the case that your horse exactly matches one of the categories. Instead, work through each of the areas we have laid out above and find what best describes your horse for that part of their body to find their score.
Then, when you have three scores for areas 1–3, you can find the average score for your horse. For example, if you decide the neck and shoulders are a 3, the middle body is a 4, and the hindquarters are a 3, you would add them together and divide by 3 to get the overall body condition score. This would mean (3+4+3)/3= 3.33, which would put your horse firmly in the healthy weight category.
Note: You should also take the age of your horse into account. A young and fit horse will likely have more muscle and more of a defined topline than an older horse, though they may both fall into the same score category. Therefore, if an older horse has less muscle, it does not necessarily mean they should be in a different category.
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be emaciated. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be very thin. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be lean. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be healthy. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be overweight. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
A horse with a body condition in this category is considered to be obese. Some of the typical signs of a body score in this category include:
Once you’ve worked out your horse’s body score, you can begin to think about what that means for them. The table below will give you an idea — you may need to take some action depending on how easily they put on weight and whether they have suffered from laminitis.
|Score||Chronic laminitis||Previously had laminitis||Easily gains weight||Doesn’t easily gain weight|
|0||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk|
|0.5||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk|
|1||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk||Health is at risk|
|2||Lean and healthy but can’t lose more weight||Lean and healthy but can’t lose more weight||Very lean||Very lean|
|2.5||Lean but healthy||Lean but healthy||Lean but healthy||Healthy as long as in weight range for breed|
|3||At risk of becoming overweight||Healthy as long as in weight range for breed||Healthy as long as in weight range for breed||Healthy weight|
|3.5||Dangerous weight||Becoming overweight||Becoming overweight||Healthy weight|
|4||Serious health risk||Dangerous weight||Dangerous weight||Ok as long as in weight range for breed|
|4.5||Serious health risk||Serious health risk||Dangerous weight||Dangerous weight|
|5||Serious health risk||Serious health risk||Serious health risk||Serious health risk|
If your horse has had laminitis in the past, you should be monitoring them carefully to ensure they don’t exceed a body condition score of 3 to keep them in the best of health. Those that suffer from chronic laminitis (ongoing bouts) need to be kept leaner at no more than a 2.5 score. It’s worth noting that these are general recommendations, and you should always check what’s best for your horse with a vet or equine nutrition specialist.
In horses not affected by laminitis, the obesity of your horse begins to become a problem if they have a score of 4 or over, though there is more leeway if they don’t gain weight easily. Any score of 4.5 or more requires immediate action to reduce the risk to your horse. We recommend that you speak to a vet or equine nutrition specialist to come up with a weight loss plan of action.
Likewise, any horse not affected by laminitis that has a score of 2 is at risk of being underweight and action should be taken. This becomes even more of a pressing issue once a body condition of 1.5 has been reached, as a horse’s health is immediately at risk. Again, speak to a vet or nutrition specialist to create a plan for your horse to healthily improve their condition.
If you can accurately calculate your horse’s body score on a regular basis, as well as being able to identify what that score means, you will be much better placed to keep them fit and healthy. Alongside measuring your horse’s height and weight and planning their feeding, body scoring will play a key role in creating the ideal diet for them.
At Horse & Country, we have lots of other equestrian content for your viewing pleasure, including training and learning videos, sports coverage, and entertainment and documentaries. Simply subscribe to today to get even more helpful advice.
Why subscribe to H&C+?
Watch now, cancel anytime. Sign up risk free, you can change or cancel your membership whenever you like. Only $9.99/month.
Thousands of hours of video and competition archive
Whether you’re in the mood to learn, relax or watch today’s exclusive live event, we’ve got you covered.
With access available via mobile and tablet, you can take your favourite shows everywhere you go, and download to watch offline too.
From grass roots to elite international events in jumping, dressage and eventing, we offer even more coverage of your favourite equestrian sporting events.
Get top tips from leading riders (and drivers), in every discipline, with over 150 hours of top training content.