Is My Horse Too Fat or Too Thin?

Equine Nutrition

As an equine nutrition consultant, I see hundreds of horses each year and spend countless hours teaching the latest metrics for equine nutrition evaluation. Today we have some very exciting tools to help us understand where our horses are and where we want them to be. In addition to Body Condition Scoring*, we also have a metric for muscle development called Topline Evaluation Scoring**. Understanding the two different ways that we look at horses, is the key to answering our question.

The Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS) is a metric to determine fat deposition on any given horse. The score varies from 1-9. One being emaciated (think skeleton with skin covering it) and nine being morbid obesity. For most horses, the goal is between a 5-6. Individual disciplines, breeds and performance levels are also factors to consider. Broodmares are best kept at 6-7 while racehorses are traditionally between 3-4. Social acceptance may play a role as to how equine BCS is managed. For example, Dressage and Hunter horses are commonly kept around a 6 while barrel horses are managed at 4-5.

Since balancing the equine diet begins with calories, this scoring system allows us to determine if the daily caloric requirement is being met or exceeded. This standardized system also allows veterinarians, nutrition consultants and other professionals to discuss BCS with a more consistent visualization of the animal in question. Because people’s interpretations vary, the BCS system allow us to have a consistent metric and a common language.

Visual examples of BCS

Client says: “My horse is perfect, his BCS is 5″

While our horse may have a BCS of 5 and look shiny, it doesn’t mean that his overall condition is ideal for his workload. I’m 5.10” and weigh 150lbs (about a 5 BCS for humans), but I couldn’t run the Boston Marathon or bench press 150lbs. A better evaluation of the horse’s condition is found with the Topline Evaluation Score (TES). This allows us to evaluate more efficiently and accurately the horses overall muscle condition. Understanding how the muscles grow or shrink, based on nutrition, is vital to understanding if there are gaps in our feeding program.

The scoring system for TES is graded from A-D. “A” being ideal or having a perfect topline and “D” representing severe muscle deficiency. When we discuss topline, we are referring to the area from the withers to the tail head, including the “back, loin and croup”. The “A” horse will be able to perform at top levels with sufficient muscle to complete required tasks. His croup will be full and he will not have wither “pockets” or “hollow spots”. The “D” horse will tire quickly and may be unable to perform specific tasks or movements – he does not have the adequate muscle to do so. This horse might be resistant to work and could potentially become frustrated under saddle. He will most likely have a prominent wither, the spinous processes may be visible and he will have a “dropped-off” croup with visible hip bones.

Individually, BCS and TES only give us a piece of the puzzle. Used in conjunction, they create a more complete evaluation of the horse’s overall physical condition. Nutrition plays an important factor in maintaining a healthy BCS and TES for your horse. Balancing the equine diet to calories is the first step in achieving an optimal BCS. Filling in nutritional gaps with essential amino acids and micronutrients will help you achieve your overall nutritional goals.

*Henneke Body Condition Score credit goes to Texas A&M
**Topline Evaluation Score credit goes to Progressive Nutrition