Body condition scoring is a method of practically assessing the horse or pony’s level of fat covering across several areas of the body where fat is normally laid down. At SPILLERS, we recommend using the 1-9 scale based on the method developed by Henneke et al (1993), and a well as our guide to assess by eye and by touch using a numerical grading system, we here are some essential tips to make the process as easy as possible.
1. Remember to score each area or the horse (there are 6 areas on the 1-9 scale) individually and then take an average to calculate your final score, otherwise it can be easy to under or overestimate your horse’s score based on one area alone.
2. Ideally monitor your horse’s body condition score (BCS) every two weeks. Although it may take several weeks for changes to occur, it’s easy to miss subtle differences when you see your horse every day.
3. Always try to refer to a guide sheet or tool - remaining objective and consistent can be difficult, particularly when scoring your own horse!
4. In general, making sure your horse’s BCS is monitored by the same person helps to prevent individual variation. Having said this, getting a second opinion can sometimes be helpful.
5. Remember that body condition scoring is an assessment of fat covering, not muscle development although differentiating between the two can sometimes be tricky. As a guide, muscle feels firm whilst fat feels soft. Be careful not to mistake a lack of muscle tone or ‘softer’ muscle in older or unexercised horses for excess fat. Equally, a loss of muscle development can easily be mistaken for lack of fat coverage.
6. Dieting can be hard work and to begin with, weight loss in overweight horses does not always result in a change in BCS initially, even though internal fat (around you horse’s organs) may be reducing. Don’t get too disheartened if your efforts don’t seem to be paying off straight way and try monitoring belly girth in addition to BCS.
7. Uneven or regional fatty deposits such as a cresty neck, fat pads behind the shoulders and lumpy fat over the ribs or tailhead may be a warning sign that metabolic changes are occurring and should be discussed with your vet.
8. For most horses a score of 5 out of 9 (moderate) is considered ideal although most is will know that maintaining the perfect figure is far from easy! Provided the horse/ pony is otherwise fit and healthy and not laminitic, a score between 4.5 and 5.5 is generally considered acceptable depending on the time of year.
9. Seasonal fluctuation in BCS score is a natural phenomenon, particularly for natives! Horses evolved to gain weight during the spring when grazing was plentiful in order to build reserves for winter months. Allowing good doers to slim down to a leaner score of 4.5 over winter months as nature intend can help to prevent excess weight gain in the spring.
10. Remember that what constitutes an ‘ideal’ or ‘healthy’ may vary between individuals. Whilst a leaner score of 4-4.5 may be acceptable for a racehorse in training whilst a score of 5.5 may be fine for a native horse/ pony at the end of summer.