Body condition scoring horses in the winter

Long winter hair coats can hide both thin and fat horses. Body condition scoring a horse by rubbing your hands along their ribs can help you estimate their body fat cover.

Many Michigan horse owners will give horses a break throughout the winter months. This usually means the horse is turned out, riding frequency is decreased, and basic care like grooming and hoof care slow down. During the winter months, long and shaggy winter hair coats combined with a decrease in hands-on care can camouflage protruding ribs or excess fat.

shaggy pony

A winter hair coat can hide thin ribs or layers of fat.

What is Body Condition Scoring?

You have probably observed that 150 pounds looks better on some people than others, and the same is true for horses. Body Condition Scoring (BCS) estimates the amount of fat covering on a horse. Estimating the fat stored on a horse will help determine if the horse is too fat, too thin, or just right.

Weight measurements do not consider the body composition of the horse. Imagine two horses both weighing 1,000 pounds each and standing 15 hands (60 inches) high. If one horse is heavier boned and has more muscling, that horse will have less body fat stores than its finer boned, lighter muscled counterpart, even though their weight and height are the same.

How to Body Condition Score a horse

When estimating BCS, look at the horse and examine the areas where external body fat is stored. Stand about 10 feet away from the horse and appraise the top of the horse’s neck, shoulder, back, and hip. Is there a smooth or angular appearance to the top line? Can you see ribs? Does the shoulder blend smoothly into the horse’s front flank? Can you see a crease running down the center of the horse’s back, or is it flush or tent-shaped with the backbone protruding upward?

cart horse

This thin horse is a body condition score of 2. Note the protruding withers, shoulder blade, ribs and hip bones. This horse is a cart horse from Brazil.

Visual appraisal can only take you so far in the wintertime. You will need to feel through the horse’s winter hair coat to get a sense of the fat covering along their neck, ribs and topline. Can you easily feel the ribs, or do you have to press and rub hard before you can even imagine the rib cage?

Fat horse cheat sheet

You can use your hands as a reference guide for what you are feeling underneath a long hair coat. Close your eyes and feel the fleshy part of your hand where the thumb attaches to your palm. It feels plumb, soft and fleshy. It is hard to find the bone as you press your palm. This is a similar feel to the rib cage of a horse with a lot of fat cover over the ribs (BCS ≥7).

fat horse cheat sheet

A fat horse’s ribs will feel similar to the fleshy part of your palm.

Moderate horse cheat sheet

Now make a fist and feel the long bones of your fingers right above your knuckles. While you can make out each individual finger, overall it is still fairly smooth, which is a similar feel to the rib cage of horse in a moderate BCS (BCS = 5).

 moderate horse cheat sheet

A horse’s ribs with a moderate condition score will feel similar to the tops of your metacarpus.

Thin horse cheat sheet

Now, keeping your hand in a tight fist, run your other hand over your knuckles and notice the jutty, rigid feel. The ribs of a thin horse will likewise feel pointed and distinct (BCS < 4). Horses with a metabolic disorder may have visible ribs, but may store fat extensively in other areas so be sure to take diseases into account when determining the horse’s body condition score

 thin horse cheat sheet

A thin horse’s ribs will feel similar to your knuckles when you rub your palm across their rib cage.

Learn more about body condition scoring by testing your skills at Body Condition Scoring by trying this activity from eXtension.org/horses. Or watch Equine Energetics a My Horse University and eXtension.org/horses webinar that provides an overview of calorie requirements and energy utilization for horses.

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