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How to Condition Score a Horse

Condition scoring is a method of determining the general fitness of your horse. This story tells you how to go about it.
Mukulika Mukherjee

Did You Know?

There are two different condition scoring methods―the Henneke horse body condition scoring system and the Carroll and Huntington Method.
The Henneke method of condition scoring is more detailed among the two methods, and hence, considered to be more accurate. It was developed by Dr. Don Henneke in 1983 at the Texas A&M University, and the method assigns a numerical value (1 to 9) to indicate the cumulative fat deposit in the body of the horse.
It is based on visual assessment and palpitation of the 6 key areas on the horse's body (as shown in the adjacent diagram), namely the loin, ribs, tailhead, withers, neck, and shoulders.
The best thing about this method is that it can be used on different breeds of horses. Also, it can be used by anyone to evaluate the general fitness of a horse in a few simple steps, without the use of any equipment.

Steps to Condition Score Your Horse

While the ideal condition score for a horse is 4 or 5, certain factors, such as the age of your horse, should be taken into consideration. Here we shall see how to condition score your horse by evaluating the presence of fat tissue in the key areas of the horse.
These are the areas where the pattern of accumulation of fat is common across all horse breeds, including thoroughbreds, quarter horses, and Arabians.
Step 1: Begin by carefully looking at the neck region that normally remains covered by the mane. Do you notice a prominent bony structure or does the neck blend smoothly to the body? If the horse appears healthy, look for fat deposits along the neck, or the presence of a crest.
Step 2: Run your hands along the withers, note any protruding bones or accumulation of fat.

Step 3: Once you're done with examination of the neck and the withers, run your hands along the ribs. Are they clearly protruding? If not, can they be easily felt when you run your hands? Can you feel the presence of fatty tissue? Is there a groove along the spine?
Step 4: Move to the shoulder region. Do you see any protruding bones? If the horse appears fat, run your hands along the shoulder region to see if you can feel the presence of fat.
Step 5: Moving on to the hind region, note the shape of the quarters. Do they appear bony and protruding? Run your hands to detect the accumulation of fat, if any, along the sides of the buttocks.
Step 6: Now, refer to the chart given below, and determine a score for each region of the horse's body. You'll get six different values, each corresponding to the regions you've evaluated. Now, add them together and divide by 6, to get the average condition score for your horse.

Chart for Condition Scoring of a Horse

1. Poor

  • Horse extremely emaciated
  • Bones of the neck clearly visible
  • Bones of the withers visible
  • Protruding bones in the shoulders
  • Spinous processes prominently visible
  • Protruding bones of the back, and vertebrae clearly visible
  • Hook bones, pinbones, the tailhead projecting prominently
  • Quarters appear diamond-shaped, large gap between buttocks
  • No fatty tissue felt

2. Very Thin

  • Horse is emaciated
  • Very slight fat covering over the vertebrae
  • Bones of the neck easily felt
  • Bones of the withers easily felt
  • Protruding bones of the shoulder
  • Protruding ribs
  • Protruding bones of the back
  • Protruding hip bones, and quarters appear diamond-shaped
  • Very prominent tailhead

3. Thin

  • Buildup of fat halfway on the vertebrae
  • Bones of the neck can be felt
  • Bones of the withers can be felt
  • No fat can be felt on the shoulders
  • Ribs are fairly visible
  • Transverse processes cannot be felt
  • Presence of fat in the loin and inner buttocks
  • Rounded hook bones, pin bones not visible
  • Tailhead prominent

4. Moderately Thin

  • Horse not very thin
  • No protruding bones in the neck
  • Withers not very thin
  • Shoulders not very thin
  • Faint outline of ribs visible
  • Negative crease visible on the back, due to the spine being slightly raised
  • Visible dip in the quarters and presence of fat
  • Hook bones not visible
  • Presence of fat on the tailhead

5. Moderate (Ideal Weight)

  • Horse looks healthy
  • Neck blends smoothly with the body
  • Withers have a rounded appearance
  • Shoulders appear smooth, and blend with the body
  • Ribs can be felt but not visually distinguished
  • Back is level
  • Quarters appear filled out
  • Presence of fat on the inner buttocks
  • Presence of fat around the tailhead

6. Moderately Fleshy

  • Horse fairly healthy
  • Beginning of fat deposition in the neck
  • Fat beginning to deposit in the neck region
  • Deposition of fat in the withers
  • Fat beginning to deposit in the shoulder region
  • Spongy layer of fat over ribs
  • Slight positive crease along the back
  • Quarters appear rounder Tailhead region feels soft due to presence of fat

7. Fleshy

  • Horse begins to look fat
  • Fat deposited along the neck
  • Fat deposited on withers
  • Fat deposited behind the shoulder
  • Ribs can be felt; presence of fat between ribs
  • Presence of a groove along the spine
  • Quarters appear round Small space between buttocks
  • Fat around tailhead

8. Fat

  • Horse looks fat
  • Neck visibly thickened; formation of crest
  • Withers filled with fat
  • Smooth appearance of the shoulder
  • Ribs difficult to feel
  • Positive crease formed along back
  • Smooth appearance of hip
  • Quarters appear round
  • Soft layer of fat around tailhead

9. Extremely Fat

  • Horse extremely fat
  • Crest on neck appears obvious
  • Bulging fat in the withers
  • Bulging fat in the shoulder region
  • Patches of fat on the ribs
  • Prominent crease on the back
  • Ribs cannot be felt
  • No space between the buttocks
  • Bulging fat in and around tailhead

Ideal Condition Score

Now, you've calculated the condition score for your horse. But, how do you know if it's the ideal score i.e. if your horse is healthy as he should be? The ideal condition score is not the same for every horse, and is affected by numerous factors.
Normally, a score of 4 is ideal for a horse subjected to heavy race training, while a horse used for light riding should ideally have a score of 5. Also, it is normal for mares to gain weight during the breeding season and before foaling, which means a score of 6 or 7 is fine.
In fact, for mares, a condition score of 5 or above is ideal for their reproductive health. Most stallions are highly active during the breeding season, which means they should ideally have a condition score of 6 or 7 before the commencement of the breeding season.

What Affects Body Condition Score

  • Availability of food
  • Reproductive activity
  • Weather conditions
  • Exercise and other activity
  • Parasitic infestation
  • Dental problems
  • Feeding habits
Note that horses have a digestive system that is sensitive to changes in diet. Sudden changes can lead to colic or Founder's disease in horses. Hence, you should make gradual changes in the horse's diet if you want to reduce or increase his condition score.
For an average horse that is 14 to 15 hands tall, the difference between two consecutive scores is between 100 and 165 pounds. To help your horse gain weight, you should choose feeds with high energy density. You can also ask your vet to recommend vitamin or mineral supplements.
To prevent any adverse effects on your horse's health, you should never attempt to increase 1 level in less than 8 weeks.
A horse can be thin due to many reasons, including parasite infestations and poor nutrition. Note that horses grow a coat of long, thick hair during winters, which can make a thin horse appear healthy. Always remember to keep the body type of your horse in mind when calculating the condition score.