Just like in people, over- and underweight in horses can have serious health consequences. It can also be caused by an underlying health problem. Either way, a horse in healthy condition has a good amount of muscle, not too much fat and doesn’t lack any of the nutrients he needs for good immunity and healthy cells.
Research shows (and we can endorse this) that most people underestimate their horse’s weight, even while looking at their horse. As a consequence we’ve seen laminitis, a seriously debilitating desease, in horses of every type including riding ponies, valuable breeding mares, higher level competing horses, young horses, old horses and so on. Would you like to stay on top of your horse’s weight? In this article, you can read exactly how to do a Body Condition Score and monitor your horse’s weight throughout the seasons.
Obesity among horses in New Zealand is more prevalent than one might think. New Zealand has lush grass and most horses get unrestricted access most time of the year. Underweight also occurs, especially when horses are grazed on poor pasture, or if not fed enough for the amount of work they do, or possibly due to parasitism, dental issues or disease. Against some people’s beliefs, old age on its own does not cause underweight. If an older horse loses weight, a vet should assess the cause and treat it.
Besides the issues of over- or underweight, many horses we test turn up deficient in essential nutrients. The effects of this are often insidious, but become quite damaging over time. All together, we could really improve the way we feed our horses to make sure they have a long life and stay healthy and strong to do the things we ask of them.
Why do a Body Condition Score?
To know whether your horse has the right weight, you need to become familiar with the Body Condition Score (BCS). This is a method to determine how much muscle and fat your horse carries to know whether it’s too much or not enough. You can weigh your horse, but who is to say what the right weight should be? A Body Condition Score will help you better, and it’s easy to do at any time without any special equipment.
A horse’s diet changes from time to time. For example, how lush the pasture is, how rich the grass itself is, how much time your horse gets to spend on the pasture (for example when a competition horse goes into a spell) and whether you’ve changed your horse’s hard-feed all influences a horse’s caloric intake. A horse’s level of activity can also change quite a lot, depending on group dynamics and training or other exercise. Your horse’s exercise often changes depending on how much time or energy you have for it, or in case your horse gets injured. Because energy needs and level of activity can fluctuate so much, it’s prudent to do a BCS every 6 weeks. That way you stay on top of things without becoming too blinded for it, as often happens when you see your horse on a daily basis and changes come so gradually.
The equation is quite simple: if a horse takes in more energy than it needs, it’ll lead to fat accumulation. If a horse takes in less energy than it needs, it’ll start to use up it’s fat reserves before starting to eat away on its own muscle mass.
Fat accumulation takes place underneath the skin and inside the abdomen. When a horse starts to store more fat inside the abdomen it doesn’t become apparent on the outside until it’s become quite significant. Usually by that time, there’s also significant fat accumulation underneath the skin which changes the horse’s shape more visibly, so we make use of this in the Body Condition Score. This also explains why sometimes the results of a horse’s weight loss program can seem disappointing, if at first the horse is mainly losing the fat that sits inside its abdomen. When the horse starts to lose fat from underneath its skin more, it’ll become more visible that the horse is improving.
There are a few specific spots on the horse’s body where fat likes to accumulate firstly and most. Just like in people, horses have different body types, which means that some horses may store fat in different places than others. This is why we need to assess all those typical areas for fat accumulation and look at the overall score. That’s how we can determine whether your horse is a perfect 0, more of a plus size (+) or skinnier than it should be (-). At this stage I’d like to mention that every horse that’s otherwise healthy is able to reach a perfect weight. If you feel like your horse just doesn’t seem to get there or that your horse might have a condition that makes it more prone to obesity or underweight, then please contact your vet to discuss management or therapy options, as this has consequences for a horse’s health and lifespan.
The Body Condition Score is done in a specific order so that you don’t forget or skip any parts. We start from a distance, so that the whole horse is viewed from the side and from the back to look at the horse’s shape. Then we use our hands to feel how much fat is underneath the skin. This part of the exam especially needs some practice. It is important to compare horses and get a professional’s opinion a few times to get to know how much fat is healthy (score 0) and how much is too much (+) or too little (-). So to learn it the right way, make use of any visits from us to assess your horse(s) together. In case you’re interested in learning more about the Body Condition Score, keep an eye out on our upcoming events so you don’t miss out on a practice session!
From a distance we start standing off the side of the horse. We look at the horse’s contours, body shape and size. We specifically look at how body parts transition into each other, for instance, how the neck transitions into the shoulder area, how the shoulder area transitions into the mid section, etc. These transitions should be easily visible. If a horse becomes more overweight, the fat underneath the skin will start to fill up these areas, making the transitions less obvious. It’ll start to look like the horse is made out of one shape. The more underweight a horse is, the more accentuated the transitions become. When muscle starts to disappear too, the horse’s bones will start to protrude out more, giving the horse a less smooth and more angular shape.
When a horse becomes more obese, the body’s increased size will make the head look smaller in comparison. If a horse becomes more underweight, the head will seem relatively bigger.
In the second part of the distance exam we stand behind the horse to look at the shape of the hindquarters. The spine is normally the highest point.
The spine should be the highest point.
When a horse loses weight, the horse will first start to use up its fatty reserves. If weight loss continues, this will start to cause muscle wastage. Therefore, during ongoing weight loss, the muscles of the hindquarters will waste away and the spine will start to stick out more, causing a peak-shape. When a horse gains too much weight, the fat underneath the skin will build up and spread out from the usual areas. The fat will also cover the hindquarters, but not the spine. This will make it look like the spine has sunken, and the hindquarters will become more heart-shaped when seen from behind.
This obese horse has fat accumulation on both sides of the spine, which makes it look as though the spine has sunken in, making it look heart-shaped.
After the distance exam the horse is examined from up close. We palpate certain areas of the body where fat tends to accumulate first and foremost. In these areas we assess how much fat is present underneath the skin and what the consistency of that fat is. Fat normally feels a bit softer than muscle. It is important to be able to differentiate fat from muscle. Watch this video on how you can compare fat and muscle:
A healthy horse will have some minor fat reserves that are soft to the touch. If a horse becomes underweight, these natural fat reserves disappear. When a horse is overweight, there will be more fat underneath the skin, and in severe cases this fat will become hard. Hard fat is associated with more health risks. It’s also more difficult to get rid of, and some horses never lose it even if they become underweight.
For the BCS, we palpate six areas:
1) About halfway down the neck, just underneath the mane (“crest”). We measure how wide the neck is and what the consistency of the fat is. To check the width of the neck (how much fat is in there) we use our hand as a measure by sliding it over the top without pinching it (see images below). To see whether the fat in the neck has become harder, we palpate the fat an then check whether the neck bends easily by using two hands (see video). If the fat in the neck is soft and the neck bends easily, the neck has a healthy consistency. If the neck is rigid and doesn’t want to bend, the fat has become hard. Keep in mind that there are some breeds that genetically have a wider neck. The fat should however feel soft and be easy to bend. A thin neck is about 2-3cm wide, a fatty neck can even become 8-10cm wide depending on the size of the horse. Hard fat is very difficult to get rid of. It often stays, so even when a previously obese horse has lost weight and has reached the right body condition score, it can still have a residual thick and hard (“cresty”) neck.
NB: if the neck is wide, hard and stiff, this could be a sign that the horse has insulin resistance and a sugar/carbohydrate-rich meal or lush grass could cause acute laminitis.
This chestnut has a slightly cresty neck. This paint mini has an obviously cresty neck.
2) The withers. Theres hsould be some slight fat coverage on either side of the withers. Some horse have high withers, some low, but when a horse becomes underweight the withers may seem to stick out more than usual. Due to loss of fat the area starts to looks more pointy and feels more bony. Alternatively, an obese horse has more fat that fills up the dimples alongside the withers, making this area look more flat and wide, or the fat may even bulge out. These fatty areas feel softer than muscle.
In this chestnut, the fat on either side of the withers if filling up the area between the shoulder blade and the spine, ever so slightly more than it normally should. The grey (white) mini (below) has so much fat underneath the skin that it bulges out.
3) Behind the elbow/shoulder. Most horses have some slight fat reserves here. Only more skinny horses don’t have any fat in this area. Some fat is acceptable, but this should not become too much.
This chestnut has too much fat behind the shoulder.
4) The ribs. The spaces between the ribs are filled up with muscles that connect the ribs to each other. However, between the ribs and the skin are no muscles. Only skin covers the ribs. This means that the ribs of a horse with a good Body Condition Score can be easily felt immediately underneath the skin. If the ribs are visible too, this means that the horse is too skinny. Keep in mind that in a horse with a good Body Condition Score the ribs may also be visibleduring certain movements (when the horse breathes in deeply or goes in a bend) but not when it’s just standing still. If the ribs are not visible and can’t be felt immediately underneath the skin, that means that fat has accumulated in this area and the horse is (a bit or a lot) overweight. If you have to push to feel a rib, this means that the horse has excessive fat stored underneath the skin. Fat over the ribs often starts more to the front. Try to feel the ribs on different spots from front to back. First locate a rib, and then push and release repeatedly.
5) Loin. Again, we palpate this area to see if the loin is muscular or whether a layer of fat is covering the muscles. It is usually hard to see where the fat sits unless the horse is very skinny and the tuber sacrale becomes more visible, or when the horse becomes overweight and fat accumulation inderneath the skin spreads through this area. In a horse with a good Body Condition Score, this area feels more like muscle.
6) The base of the tail. A horse should normally have some nice spongy fat on either side of the base of the tail. Cows normally have a hollowing here, but horses shouldn’t. If a horse becomes overweight, the fat in this area will start to spread out and bulge out.
This horse has too much fat on either side of the tail base and spine.
Once we’ve looked at the horse and palpated these six spots, we can use the information we now have to decide whether the horse has the right weight (0), is too skinny (-) or too fat (+).
This table gives an indication of the different categories for the BCS. There are different numeric scales in use in different parts of the world. Some people may use a scale from 0 to 9, some use a scale from 0 to 5, and some use a scale from -2 to +2 (0 being perfect). The categories are the same, just the number you give that category depends on your preference.
The scale depicted below uses a -2 to +2 scale, which some people think is a bit easier to understand and remember. Zero is the perfect weight. If a horse becomes too skinny, it may become a -1 or a -2. If you feel like the horse sits somewhere in between, you can give it a -1.5. If a horse has gained a little weight but not as much as a +1, you could give it a +0.5 score if you like. Either way, it’s easy to understand the scale.
Keeping track of changes
The best way to stay on top of your horse’s weight is by keeping a record. Changes can be very difficult to notice on time when you see your horse every day. Therefore, it is best to do a BCS every 4-6 weeks. Your findings on the BCS, plus pictures, the weight tape result, the diet your horse is on at that time and the amount of exercise your horse gets, can all be added to your horse’s record. That way you can compare your horse’s condition in every season to see what you need to do to keep him/her in top shape. This especially helps when you have a horse that is an “easy do-er” or prone to laminitis.
If you have any questions about this article or if you think your horse may need to lose weight, have a chat with one of our vets by giving us a call.