The best friend a horse can have is an observant, astute and informed owner who can look at a horse and accurately assess their condition as a reflection of their nutritional and health status. Following are some general notes and guidelines to be followed by more detailed notes on specific cases that we have encountered.
Body condition scoring is traditionally scoring the amount and distribution of fat that a horse has, which is a direct result of the calorie status of the feed they are on. Scoring charts will vary from country to country but most score within the range of one to five. Body scoring for fatness is independent of breed, weight, size and amounts of muscle.
Excess calories in the diet are stored as fat. Fat is laid down around the neck, withers, shoulders, topline (the area from the shoulders to the tail head), and the ribs. With increasing fat storage these areas fill out and become smoother. Feeling for fat over the ribs is a good guide as it is not then confused with muscle. Combine visual assessment with palpation to assess fat cover. If calories are deficient in the diet the horse will lose weight and become visibly thinner.
Another area to look at when assessing a horse's appearance is muscle development. Muscle development is usually assessed along the topline and a protein deficient diet will result in a poor topline. The topline is determined by the amount and balance of amino acids in the diet. Genetics also plays a role in muscle appearance. A horse that is spelling will have a different topline to a horse in full work. A sway back conformation will also affect muscle development along the topline. Aged horses will have a softening of their muscle structures and heavily pregnant mares will appear to have a poorer topline than other horses due to the weight of the foal in the uterus and the softening of ligaments around the tail head just prior to birth. Thoroughbreds tend to have more prominent withers while pony and draft breeds are fleshier.
Excess protein is not stored in the body and is excreted through the urinary system. If the diet is protein deficient muscle mass is sacrificed and the topline becomes compromised. Muscle development along the topline is the last to develop and the first area to be lost when protein is in short supply. If a horse is very muscle wasted and then put onto a good diet it will redevelop the muscles in the reverse order to when they were lost - i.e. hindquarter, croup, loin and topline.
In reality, if a diet is calorie deficient it is usually also protein deficient and the resultant appearance of the horse will reflect this with poor fat cover and wasted muscles. Occasionally a horse will be on a high grain diet (excess calories) but limited roughage (reduced protein quality and quantity) and combined with mineral and vitamin imbalances will give the appearance of very poor health and low body score.
The appearance of the coat will also give a good indication of condition and health - a smooth shiny coat with good depth of colour is a very good indicator of basic health and wellness. Dull, rough and washed out colours indicate dietary imbalances that need to be addressed.
A healthy well fed horse will have a bright demeanour and be alert and interested in the environment. Horses that are malnourished have a flat, lethargic look and their eyes will look dull. By looking at your horses eyes you can quickly assess if they are in pain, stressed, anxious or ill.
Good doers are those individuals who maintain their body weight and condition very easily in normal paddock or field situations. They require relatively less feed than the poor doers whose owners have difficulty keeping condition on. Draft breeds, ponies and quarter horses are largely good doers though there will always be some individuals within the breed who are
different. Arabs and thoroughbreds tend to be poor doers and require more food for their body weight than a good doer. Shy horses in a group or herd situation may have poorer body condition due to competition for food.
CONDITION SCORE 1 - VERY THIN
- Sunken rump
- Prominent poverty line in hind quarters
- Cavity under tail
- Ribs prominent
- Prominent backbone and croup
- Ewe neck, narrow and slack
- Dull coat Lethargic
CONDITION SCORE 2 - THIN
- Flat rump on either side of the backbone
- Poverty line still visible
- Ribs just visible
- Narrow but firm neck
- Backbone covered
- Dull coats
- Dull to slightly dull look in eyes
- Poor work tolerance
CONDITION SCORE 3 - IDEAL CONDITION
- Rounded rump
- Ribs just covered but easily felt
- No crest, firm neck
- Alert demeanour
- Bright eyes
- Healthy coats
The desired condition for a horse is a smooth body where the ribs are not visually evident but can be felt easily. The back is level when viewed from on top with no creases or ridges evident. The withers are rounded and the shoulder and neck blend cleanly into the body. The fat at the tailhead will feel spongy and muscles of the hindleg are evident.
A diet where there is no calorie excess and providing good quality protein and where, just as importantly, the minerals and vitamins are supplied in adequate amounts and in correct ratios will produce a horse that looks a picture of health.
CONDITION SCORE 4 - FAT
- Well - rounded rump
- Gutter along back
- Ribs and pelvis hard to feel
- Slight crest on neck
- A fat horse needs the hard feed intake reduced or eliminated from the diet.
A lot of ponies are good doers and become score 4 very easily. Reducing their calorie intake is important to prevent future health issues.?
Supplementation with minerals and vitamins is still essential to keep them healthy as reducing the calorie intake would also decrease mineral and vitamin intake.
CONDITION SCORE 5 - TOO FAT
- Very bulging rump
- Deep gutter along back
- Ribs buried
- Marked crest on neck
- Folds and lumps of fat
Condition score 5 horses should not be receiving a concentrated hard feed. A calorie free supplement is recommended to fed as a loose lick or with a handful of chaff.
A condition score 5 horse or pony is very fat and more likely to suffer laminitis, insulin resistance, metabolic disease and other chronic health issues. They would find physical exertion difficult and are not fit and healthy. Adjusting their diet and calorie intake is critical for their long term health.