Horses: Body Condition Scoring (BCS)

Horses come in many different types and breeds, shapes and sizes. It can be difficult to see whether a horse is fat or muscled, healthy or skinny. Luckily for us, Henneke et al. developed a rather good system to analyse horse body condition back in 1983, that is still widely used. In the past weeks professor Anna Jansson provided us with some very informative lectures on horse feeding and health. Her lectures were so inspiring and thorough, she definitely made into my list of favourite teachers. I like her way of describing the body condition scoring system as ‘a subjective evaluation trying to perfom in an objective way‘. Even though subjective, when people are well trained in this method they can reach very similar scoring outcomes – accurate up to a decimal. To overcome individual differences in scoring, when used in scientific research it is recommended that one person completes all the scoring needed.

The focus regions of BCS in the system of Henneke
Source: Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine

In the picture above you can see which areas of the horse are mainly considered when giving a score. Note how the lower belly is not taken into consideration. The way the horse’s belly looks has a stronger relation to other factors such as forage intake and the training of belly muscles than to fat tissue. It can be very misleading – especially with broodmares – to judge the horse on the size of the belly.

Even though you can read all about it in theory, I think this is one of these things you won’t be great at from the start. The more you’ll do it, the more likely you will end up with accurate scores. Therefore I appreciated the practicals on this topic a lot. Not were we only showed what to look at, we were offered several horses to practise on as well. Great! 🙂

Professor Anna Jansson giving instructions about BCS to part of our class

An interesting approach we learned during the practical was not to score the horse directly in one number. We had to divide the body into 4 main regions and give individual scoring for these areas first. A&B formed the first region, C&D the second and finally both E and F got an individual number. Based on these four numbers you estimated an overall score. It was interesting to see the difference in fat storage location between different horses. Some horses may seem low in body condition on the ‘middle’, but store fat in neck and or back. Practising body condition scoring in separate parts can also be practical for research purposes. For example if you are enrolled in a study attempting to find whether there is a specific relation between adipose neck tissue and insulin resistance.

A practical guide to BCS based on the original paper of Henneke et al. in 1983
Source: Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine

I think it would be very useful if more horse owners would practise themselves in estimating body condition. Nowadays the amount of overweight and obese horses in Western-European countries is becoming a – literally – big issue. However, I reckon that at least half of the owners with overweight horses think their horses are in a healthy shape. From personal experience I’d say that many owners freak out when they can feel the ribs very easily. Though the optimal scoring – number five – literally says ‘ribs can be easily felt’. The horse body condition is mainly the result of the feeding and housing management of the owner – the owner has the power to change the conditions for the horse. Owners that do not recognise their horse is being overweight can lead to unnecessary health problems.

Any opinion on this topic, a comment or question? Feel free to leave a reply.



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