What is Body Condition Score (BCS)?

Equine Nutrition

“Why all the hype about Body Condition Scoring? I’ve been a horse owner for a long time now and I think my horse looks just fine!”

Fine is fine, but could your horse look and feel better? Could your horse perform better and recover quicker? As horse owners we have a responsibility to provide the best care, nutrition and maintenance for our animals. Body Condition Score (BCS) is a visual and physical inspection that helps us to determine our horses’ calorie needs. Having a better understanding of what’s “ideal” for your horse is critical in maintaining healthy weight and a best practice for animal husbandry.

Did you know that a horse burns 253 calories (kcal) just walking around their paddock for an hour? Two year olds require 19,000kcal/day just to maintain ideal weight. Some horses require an enormous amount of calories to perform at their best. Combined training horses doing cross country will burn 11,550kcal/hr of work. That’s in addition to the 16,500kcal/day maintenance requirement for a total requirement of 28,050kcal/day just on the cross country day!

In essence, if we understand and diligently check our horses BCS we have a better chance of seeing changes quickly, before they become catastrophic. A horse carrying a few extra pounds into winter is not a bad idea. With dramatic temperature swings and lack of fresh pasture, many horses struggle to maintain weight during the winter months. Come spring, clients are often frantic to “get the weight back on”. If we monitor BCS monthly we can get ahead of these situations and reduce the YoYo effect.

BCS simply put is the metric in which we determine how much “fat” or “reserves” our horse has. We evaluate 4 separate points and score each from 1-9. We then average the 4 different scores to come up with the actual BCS. This metric is called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. The 4 point to consider are: crest of the neck, shoulder, rib cage and tail head.

What is an appropriate BCS for my horse? The answer depends depends on a variety of factors including age, breed and workload. Is your horse a performance animal? If so, what discipline: Hunter, Pleasure, Jumper, Dressage, Reining, Combined Training or possibly Endurance Racing? Each of these disciplines has a general weight that is desired and/or required to perform the task at hand. The current trend for dressage and hunter-type horses favors a BCS of ‘6’. This is more a “look” based on judges’ marks and comments, not necessarily a physical requirement. Combined Training horses tend to be “lean” with an average BCS of ‘4’. It’s not to say that a dressage horse couldn’t compete at a ‘5’ or that a racehorse cannot sustain at a ‘3’, these are simply guidelines based on years of observation. Each individual athlete has an “ideal” weight that allows them to do the task at hand, recover in a reasonable amount of time and be physically able to perform at their best.

What if my horse isn’t being ridden or competing, I have a broodmare? Broodmares should be maintained at a BCS of between 6-7. Mares in particular that are on an increasing plane of nutrition often conceive quicker and will maintain a healthier pregnancy at these levels. Mares with low BCS numbers 3-5, may have trouble conceiving, may slip the pregnancy or will mine nutrients from their own body to nourish the growing fetus. Calorie requirements for broodmares in early gestation are similar to that of a maintenance horse (16,500kcal/day) and increase as the pregnancy progresses. At the time of foaling a mare’s calorie requirement is 32,000kcal/day.

Growing horses are a little more challenging to maintain as they typically grow in spurts. One day your weanling looks fat and round, the next day they are 2″ taller and all legs with ribs showing. These youngsters should be monitored more frequently – weekly is best or at the very minimum every two weeks. Adjusting their feed program based on BCS allows you to help maintain smooth growth patterns.