Body Condition Scoring of Horses

by Toby Raymond

Has your horse been the target of constructive criticism? The kind of commentary that invariably draws attention to your horse's defects while at the same time casting the "well wisher" as the voice of experience?

And, since it’s almost always personal when it comes to horses, the comments usually cut to the quick, even if they are brought to light under the umbrella of concern.

Somehow we seem to equate pointing out the tiniest flaw with proving our eternal devotion to a creature that couldn’t care less as long as there is enough food, shelter, and companionship around. However, there really are situations that require intervention, like if a horse’s health is at risk; which leads me to ask, when should we shut up and when should we speak up?

Take weight; a subject about which my friends and I offer each other habitual advice, and which makes for some pretty lively discussions.

The Henneke System, developed in 1983, has become the standard by which a horse’s condition, regardless of breed, body type, sex, or age is evaluated. Based on a visual and palpable assessment, a rating from one (lowest) to nine (highest), covering six major areas – the neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loins, and the tailhead, has been devised to establish the degree of fat present in the body (not weight as so often thought).

Body Score and Description

1. Poor – Emaciated

Prominent bone structures on neck, withers, shoulders, backbone, ribs and tailhead; hook and pin bones (pelvis) project prominently. Fat tissue can not be seen or palpated.

2. Very Thin

Bone structures of withers, shoulders and neck are faintly discernible. The ribs, backbone, hipbones and tailhead are prominent.

3. Thin

Fat build up on backbone to the midpoint; fat just covers the ribs. Tailhead is still prominent but individual vertebrae are not easily identified. Hook and pin bones are no longer obvious. Withers, shoulders and neck are accentuated.

4. Moderately Thin

Negative crease along the back; faint outline of ribs. Fat can be felt around the tailhead. Hook and pin bones are not discernible. Withers, shoulders, and neck are filling in.

5. Moderate

Back is level. Ribs are not seen, but can be easily felt. Fat around the tailhead is beginning to feel spongy. Withers appear round. Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body.

6. Moderate to Fleshy

Slight crease down the back; Fat over ribs feels spongy. Fat around the tailhead feels soft. Fat is beginning to be deposited along sides of the withers, behind the shoulders and along the sides of the neck.

7. Fleshy

May have crease down the back. Fat around ribs is a noticeable; fat around the tailhead is soft. Fat deposits are noticeable along the withers, behind the shoulders and along the neck.

8. Fat

Definite crease down the back; difficult to palpate ribs. Fat around the tailhead is very soft. Fat filled withers. Fatty area behind the shoulder. Noticeable thickening of the neck. Fat is deposited along the inner buttocks.

9. Extremely Fat

Obvious crease down the back; patchy fat appearing over the ribs. Bulging fat around the tailhead, along the withers, behind the shoulders and along the neck. Fat along the inner buttocks may rub together. Flank is filled in.

Body score is a very helpful health management tool to determine your horse’s nutrition needs according to the season, amount of physical activity or training, and his herd behavior.

If you would like to calculate a horse’s weight without a scale, here is the equation: Heart Girth (measure in inches just behind the withers all the way around the girth area) x Heart Girth x Length (measure in inches from the middle of the chest to the tail) ÷ 330 = Weight

Even though there’s a system which we can rely (no longer is a horse considered “very fat” or “kinda’ thin”; he’s now referred to as an “eight” or a “three”), you’d think it would end the controversy, but there seems to be just enough subjectivity to keep the debate alive, and kicking.