Body Condition Scoring Systems
Body condition scoring is often more important than actual body weight when determining the health and fitness of your horses. Certainly accurate estimates of body weight is needed for dosing medications, dewormers, and supplements, and knowing your horse’s body weight helps determine how much feed per day and amount of forage your horse needs and specifics like the amount of protein, energy, vitamins, etc. But your horse’s body condition – or amount and distribution of adipose and muscle – is a major indicator of its energy state, metabolic risks, reproductive potential, and fitness, and fluctuations in body condition can be an indication of changes in dental health, GI health, digestion and absorption of nutrients, immune challenges, metabolic disruptions, and even pain or anxiety.
Some horses likely should be slightly higher in body condition (breeding mares, draft horses in work, those housed outdoors in more severe winter climates, etc.), while others should be maintained at slightly lower body condition scores due to their sport (such as race horses) or higher risk of metabolic diseases associated with higher body condition (such as ponies). Because of the value of understanding body condition scores and recognizing their changes, every horse owner should develop a working knowledge of scoring systems. Let’s spend some time discussing different common systems and reviewing their value and shortcomings, as every system has variations and may be a better fit for some horses than others. Regardless of the system, key areas of differences between scores is represented by this image, and some areas are more indicative of metabolic changes.
Probably the most widespread and popular, the Henneke system was developed in the early 1980’s at Texas A&M, primarily as a method to assess breeding mares since reproductive efficiency is widely associated with a mare’s stored energy sources, which is reflected in their body condition score (Henneke et al., 1984). This system has a 1-9 scale, with 5 being typically considered a healthy body condition score for average horses, and a change of 1 score correlates to approximately 44 lbs (20kg) in body weight for the average horse (Gill et al., 2017). Downfalls of this system are the great variability potential between observers and difficulty to reflect changes in adipose levels with changes in scores (Mottet et al., 2009), difficulty in applying the scale to less “normalized” body types (body frames that are very long, very tall, very stocky, very slight, etc.), and while effectively correlates to body fat percent in thoroughbred type bodies (Fowler et al., 2020), for stock type horses (quarter horses, paints, appaloosa, etc.), this system may only be an accurate indicator of body fat percent for stock horses on the lower side of the scale (5 or less) than for those scoring 6 or higher (Ferjay et al., 2017). This may be reflective of the difficulty in visually discerning adipose from muscle content in stock type horses. Nevertheless, this system warrants understanding due to its widespread use and its gauge of specificity (as in having 9 levels gives the opportunity for precision to differentiate between a 4 and a 5).
Another, more simplistic system uses 0-5, with 3 representing an ideal body condition (Carrol et al, 1988). This system is likely a better fit for horses on the lower end of the scale, as scores of 0, 1, or 2 can be given with some specificity. However, with fewer scoring options above the ideal 3, there could be more variability among horses scored within 4 or 5, making this system less sensitive to indicate metabolic risks in the overweight groups. A “low 4” may be ideal for a quarter horse, while a “high 4” pony would be at risk of metabolic issues, and yet both are technically a 4. The benefit of this system is its relative ease when compared to the Henneke scale, as there is more distinct difference in a 3 and a 4 and this is easier to determine with less training on the part of the scorer, but here again lies difficultly for this system to monitor changes in body condition score. A horse may be a 4 and slightly overweight and also be a 4 when particularly overweight, so even though the scorer can determine the horse is definitely not a 3 and not a 5, record keeping of the horse’s score is less indicative of fluctuations of the horse’s actual body fat appearance. Regardless, this system has value for its ease of use, and may be a good starting point for first time body condition scorers.
Cresty Neck Score
Final scaling system of interest is the cresty neck scale, which scores from 0-5, with 0 being absence of a crest and 5 being the most substantial adipose accumulation. Adipose along a horse’s neck can be used as a single indicator of body fat percent (Silva et al., 2016) and is particularly associated with risk of insulin resistance, laminitis, and metabolic syndrome. Interestingly, crest neck scores been correlated with insulin dysfunction risks even in the absence of increased body condition scores (Fitzgerald et al, 2019), making a cresty neck very indicative of metabolic issues even in the absence of other indicators. For this reason, a scale was established to help raise awareness and monitor changes within the adiposity of the neck tissues. Benefits of this scale is its relative ease of understanding and applying, as it includes visual, volume, and texture parameters to note, while downfalls could be found when attempting to score breeds with naturally curved and muscular necks (drafts, Icelandic breeds, Arabians, etc.), as well as in ponies or breeds with relatively compact necks (such as Morgans), and stallions with exaggerated muscle tissue development in the neck area due to testosterone. Regardless, attempts should be made to monitor cresty neck development due to its correlation with diseases of interest in horses.
Equations have been developed to estimate body fat indexes to calculate body fat percent in horses, similar to the concepts of Body Mass Index (BMI) for humans. One such example using common equine measurements was similar in accuracy to the Henneke 1-9 scale at predicting body fat (Potter et al, 2015).
Body Condition Index = [HG0.5 + BG+NC1.2)/H1.05])2.2
where HG = heart girth in cm, BG = belly girth in cm, NC = neck circumference in cm, and H = height to the withers in cm. While calculations like these are valuable for their inclusive of neck circumference (a known indicator of regional, fluctuating adiposity), the information received is difficult to fully interpret, as thus far there are little conclusions on appropriate percentages of total body fat in relation to equine health. However, tools like this could be a useful method to monitor changes in the index as a method of tracking alterations in adipose content, is relatively easy to measure and calculate, and would likely have less variability between those measuring the horse than other observational scoring systems.
It’s important to monitor changes in body condition score and regional adipose accumulation in horses as an indicator of energy reserves, fitness, and metabolic state. It takes some practice to learn how to use the different systems to note changes, but once understood, they can be a valuable tool in keeping track of your horse’s health and progress and may be a first sign of an underlying medical issue that can then be caught and addressed early.
Carrol CL, Huntington PJ. Body condition scoring and weight estimation of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. 1988;20(1):41-45
Henneke DG, Potter GD, Kreider JL. Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency in mares. Theriogeneolgy. 1984;21:897-909
Ferjak EN, Cavinder CA, Burnett DD, Dinh TTN. Effect of body condition score on body fat composition of stock-type horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2017;52:109
Fitzgerald DM, Anderson ST, Sillence MN, de Laat MA. The cresty neck score is an independent predictor of insulin dysregulation in ponies. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(7):e0220203.
Fowler AF, Pyles MB, Billa VT, Hayes SH, Harris PA, Lawrence LM. Relationships Between Measurements of Body Fat in Thoroughbred Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2020;85:102873
Gill JC, Lloyd KE, Bowman M, Siciliano PD, Pratt-Phillips SE. Relationships Among Digestible Energy Intake, Body Weight, and Body Condition in Mature Idle Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2017;54:32-36
Mottet R, Onan G, Hiney K. Revisiting the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System: 25 Years Later. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2009;29(5):417-418
Potter SJ, Harris PA, Bailey SR. Derivation of a new body condition index to estimate body fat percentage from morphometric measurements: Comparison with body condition score. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2015;35(5):410-411
Silva SR, Payan-Carreira R, Guedes CM, Coelho S, Santos AS. Correlations between cresty neck scores and post-mortem nape fat measurements in horses, obtained after photographic image analysis. Acta Vet Scand. 2016;58(Suppl 1):60. pmid:27766984