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Body scoring using Henneke’s Scale

By Georgia Harley

Body condition scoring, or BCS, is the subjective measure of the quantity of adipose tissue (fat) across multiple areas of the horse to give an overall indication of the horse’s weight status. There are two main body condition scoring systems used in the horse – one runs on a 1-5 scale and the other on a 1-9 scale. Here we look at the second of these scores, called the Henneke Body Condition Score. In the Henneke system, the body score is totalled across six locations on the horse, with a score of 1 being assigned to areas with no fat covering and a score of 9 being assigned to areas with excessive fat covering; the average score across the six regions is then calculated.

 


Did you know?

The Henneke Body Condition Score can be used in all breeds of horses and is a good predictor of health and fertility.


 

The six locations

  • Along the neck
  • Over the withers
  • Behind the shoulder
  • Over the rib cage
  • Along the back
  • Around the tailhead

There are essential things to look out for in each region.

  1. Along the neck

As part of the BCS, you feel along the neck to assess the amount of fatty tissue present. A good test to conduct is the ‘wobble test’, where if the neck is very ‘wobbly’, it will score higher. Likewise, if the neck has a cresty appearance, it will also score higher. In contrast, a hollow neck scores much lower on the scale.

  1. Over the withers

Over the withers, you need to assess the amount of fatty tissue present. Very thin horses will have clearly visible bony structures and accentuated withers. Overweight horses will have bulging, fatty withers.

  1. Behind the shoulder

Behind the shoulder, you can feel for any fat pockets. Fat pockets in this region cause the horse to score highly on the BCS. These fat pockets are easy to identify as they feel ‘squishy’ to the touch.

  1. Over the rib cage

With the ribs, you need to both palpate and examine. If the ribs are visible before touching the horse, the horse automatically scores below a five and below ‘ideal condition’. Fatty tissue over the ribs, on the other hand, gives the horse a higher score.

  1. Along the back

To feel this area, you want to place your hand flat on the horse’s back and run your palm back until the point of the rump. In a horse with the ideal condition, your hand will run flat along the back. A thinner horse will have a prominent spine, and a fatter horse will have a sunken spine surrounded by fatty tissue.

  1. Around the tailhead

When assessing the tailhead, it is essential to look for fat directly on each side of the tail. The horse is overweight if this region feels very squishy and there are visible fat deposits.

The meaning of the final score

Out of the nine scores, there are six dangerous scores. Scoring between 1 and 3 is dangerous as the horse is too thin or even emaciated, and scoring between 6 and 9 is dangerous as these horses are obese. Both horses who are too thin or too fat are at risk of major health issues.

Score 1 – 1.5 – Danger zone

This horse is emaciated. You can virtually see each bone of the skeleton. The danger in this situation is a desire to feed quickly to put on weight. Unfortunately, these horses are so emaciated that they are at risk of refeeding syndrome. Refeeding these horses is, instead, a long-term process and should be done in conjunction with your vet. Some horses can take six months to achieve an average weight, whereas others take well over a year. Each horse must be treated as an individual.

Score 2 – 2.5 – Danger zone

Although these horses are not showing every single bone, there are still many on view. This horse is slightly more covered, but most of the above still applies.

Score 3 – 3.5 – Danger zone 

These horses are still at risk but have a lower chance of refeeding syndrome when food is given to them; however, one must still be cautious. They have a bit more coverage, but the points of the hips and rump will be seen, and all ribs are visible.

Score 4 – 4.5 – Lower end of ideal

This score is just less than ideal; ribs are showing, but very few. These horses may have reasonable-looking rumps but still have a certain hollowness to their general appearance. Many fit Thoroughbreds hover around this score.

Score 5 – 5.5 – Ideal

At this ideal score, no ribs are showing, but there are no fat deposits.

Score 6 – 6.5 – Upper end of the ideal 

These horses are a tad fleshier than the horses that sit at the ideal score, and they have a certain roundness to their rumps. This is the highest score at which a horse can still be considered to be of a healthy weight.

Score 7 -7.5 – Danger zone

This score takes us into the other end of the danger zone. These horses are a ticking time bomb. Fat, if not attended to, interferes with hormone release as well as metabolic processes and can lead to a whole host of health conditions. These horses will look undefined, and parts of their anatomy will have a ‘marshmallowy’ feel.

Score 8 – 8.5 – Danger zone 

Ribs are difficult to find on these horses. Due to the weight, they have developed a grove down their backs. There are many fatty deposits.

Score 9 – 9.5 – Danger zone 

These horses have no definition and again feature a deep groove down their backs. This zone is highly unhealthy for a horse.

Final thoughts

Body Condition Scoring is a valuable way of monitoring your horse’s weight and health status. Calculating your horse’s BCS every month or so can give you a very clear indication of how your horse is doing and whether you need to be speaking to your vet or equine nutritionist about making changes to the diet.