When Is My Horse Too Thin?

The body condition of horses used in tourism


One of the most contentious issues regarding horses is their weight: when is my horse too thin? Too fat? A lot of this is dependent on cultural conditioning. It is now widely accepted that many  horses kept in western societies carry far more weight than is healthy for them leading to all sorts of welfare and health issues.

It is widely assumed that many horses in “racing” or fit condition are underweight when this is not in fact the case. However poor musculature and even emaciation are seen too. How do you differentiate?

To complicate matters further the conformation of some horses with eg hip bones which protrude more than other breeds, can be mistaken for being underweight.

To help you asses if your horse is too thin there is a more impartial and scientific method to answer this very difficult question: Body Scoring. One can Body Score a horse and objectively and come to a conclusion about the advisability of riding a horse. Below is the Body Condition Scoring. A body score of 2-4 is acceptable when other considerations are also in order (please see our blog post Check the Health of Your Horse Before you Ride.

Is your horse too thin? Asses it using the Body Condition Scoring

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is an objective system of evaluating a horse’s level of body condition (amount of stored fat) and assessing a numeric score to facilitate comparisons between horses. Many people fail to recognize significant variations in the weight of horses or variations due to age and breed types.

Horse too thin
Figure 1. Diagram of Areas Emphasized in Condition Score (Adapted from Henneke et.al. 1981, Texas A&M)

Body condition scoring involves the feeling and visual assessment of the degrees of fatness of various areas of the horse, such as: over the ribs, tailhead area, neck and withers, and behind the shoulders. (See Figure 1.) Fat reserves in these areas depend on the balance between energy intake and energy loss, for various activities.

If there is a negative energy balance (energy loss greater than energy intake), then weight, and subsequent body condition, will be lost. This energy balance depends on such factors as: availability of food and water, weather (e.g., ambient temperature and wind chill), reproductive activity (e.g., pregnancy, lactation) and physical activity demands for growth and health status. A positive energy balance (energy expenditure less than energy intake) will result in a horse adding fat and muscle and improving body condition.

Horse Condition
Figure 2. Lumbar Vertebra-Anterior View Indicating Profile Lines for Each Body Condition Score

Figure 2 shows the profile lines for the various body condition scores.

The profile of BCS 0 and 1 follow the anatomical skeleton and describe stages of emaciation and extremely thin respectively.

A score of 3 has a smooth appearance to the skeletal structure and represents a horse in optimum body condition for maintenance and is neither gaining nor losing weight. Horses scoring

3+ to 4 have a rounded appearance to their skeletal structure. They are in above average flesh but this should not impair their reproductive ability, especially if they are being maintained in outdoor housing during the winter.

A long hair coat can be misleading.

Some conformational differences make it difficult to apply certain criteria to a specific animal. For example, animals with prominent withers, or flat across the back and mares heavy in foal (weight of the foal pulls skin taut over the ribs) may cause body condition scores to be lower than they actually are. However, when properly applied, the scoring system is independent of size or conformation of the horse.

Horse Condition
Figure 3. Body Condition Scoring (adapted from Carroll C.L. and Huntington P.J., Body Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses)

When evaluating animals, there will be an animal-to-animal variation; thus the use of the terms “easy-keeper” and “hard-keeper”. Easy-keepers include any of the individuals of the draft breeds, ponies and quarter horses. They also include the dominant animals in a herd situation. Hard-keepers include many of the individuals of the following breeds: Arabian, thoroughbred and gaited horses. Hard-keepers will also include the shy individuals who are lower on the pecking order in a herd situation.

Table 1 summarizes the various body condition scores, while Figure 3 depicts the changes in body appearance.

Table 1. Descriptions of Anatomical Differences Between Body Condition Scores
 Condition  Neck  Withers Back & Loin Ribs  Hind Quarters
 0 Very thin bone structure easily felt- no muscle shelf where neck meets shoulder bone structure easily felt 3 points of vertebrae easily felt (see Figure 2) each rib can be easily felt tailhead and hip bones projecting
 1 Thin can feel bone structure- slight shelf where neck meets shoulder can feel bone structure spinous process can be easily felt
– transverse processes have slight fat covering
slight fat covering, but can still be felt can feel hip bones
 2 Fair fat covering over bone structure fat deposits over withers dependent on conformation fat over spinous processes can’t see ribs, but ribs can still be felt hip bones covered with fat
 3 Good neck flows smoothly into shoulder neck rounds out withers back is level layer of fat over ribs can’t feel hip bones
 4 Fat fat deposited along neck fat padded around withers positive crease along back  fat spongy over and between ribs can’t feel hip bones
 5 Very fat bulging fat bulging fat deep positive crease pockets of fat pockets of fat

As a guide to learning the scoring system and interpreting the results, examples of “typical” horse condition scores are listed below. There will be a range of condition within each score so it is sometimes convenient to assign +’s and -‘s or half point scores as in 2.5 or 3.5.

I hope that this article has been useful and, even in a small way. helps to improve the lot of horses in tourism. Please remember that this 8 page leaflet ‘Tourism Horse Condition Check’ is available free of charge from Unicorn Trails.

Wishing you all happy and safe travels

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