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Veterinarian Technician September 2008 (Vol 29, No 9)

Equine Body Condition Scoring

by Cheryl Kimball, CVT

    CETEST This course is approved for 0.5 CE credits

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    All animals require balanced nutrition, but managing a horse's nutritional needs can pose special challenges. When it comes to health, nutrition, disease prevention, and injury recovery, the equine species has special needs. The additional factor of massive size makes the role of body weight important.

    One way to assess the adequacy of an individual horse's nutritional program is through body condition scoring (BCS). Equine BCS, while similar in concept to small animal BCS, has some unique elements. For example, small animal BCS is based on a scale of 1 to 5, but equine BCS is conducted on a scale of 1 to 9 (see The Equine Scale). In horses, each of various conformation points is scored separately (see Conformation Points)and then averaged, providing the overall score for the individual animal.

    When to Use Body Condition Scoring

    The equine BCS system was developed in 1983 by Don R. Henneke, PhD, of Tarleton State University. It was originally designed to help determine broodmare fertility but soon became an accepted benchmark in animal cruelty cases.1,2 According to an equine nutritionist, the Henneke System originally involved a sheer energetic factor, providing a measure for the caloric content of the diet: Too many calories, the horse gains weight; too few calories, the horse loses weight (personal communication, Stephen Duren, PhD, Performance Horse Nutrition, LLC, March 2008).

    The scoring system has since evolved from its original purpose and today can be used as part of a prepurchase examination or as a tool for educating owners about proper equine nutrition (see The Equine Scale).

    During a prepurchase examination, the veterinarian performs an initial assessment, including body condition, temperature, pulse, respiration, and capillary refill time, as well as auscults body systems, such as the cardiac, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. This can provide an objective opinion of the horse's overall condition and allows the veterinarian to give the prospective new owner advice regarding the nutritional requirements of the horse being purchased while considering the intended use of the horse by the new owner.

    The BCS examination also can be performed each time the horse presents to the clinic or the veterinarian visits the stable. It is an ideal opportunity to compliment owners whose horses are in excellent condition, to address the reason(s) for nutritional deficiencies if the horse is too lean, or to intervene when the horse is overweight or obese.

    If a horse receives a low score, for example, the veterinarian can determine whether there is a medical reason that the horse is underweight. If there is no underlying medical condition, the reason likely is diet — the horse is either not being offered enough food or not receiving a high enough quality of food. The veterinarian then can help the owner devise the best feeding plan for the horse's energy requirements, living conditions, feeding schedule, and daily exercise.

    Today the trend is toward horses being overweight rather than underweight. A recent cross-sectional study of 300 mature horses reported that 19% were obese, with a BCS of 8 or 9, and 32% were overweight, with a BCS of 6.5 to 7.51 (see Conformation Points).

    An overweight horse has greater potential for certain disease processes, such as laminitis; metabolic diseases, including Cushing's disease; and insulin resistance.3 Joints also are subject to more stress in the overweight horse.

    Fat initially accumulates around body organs, followed by accumulation along the base of the spinous processes.4 The ribs are a good example of the importance of palpation as well as visual inspection. An important part of scoring a horse's body condition includes whether the ribs can be seen and/or felt. Fat accumulated around the tailhead becomes soft as the horse becomes obese. A horse with a thickened "cresty" neck has a BCS of 8 or higher. As the score increases, fat is deposited behind the shoulder, especially in the region behind the elbow.

    The ideal equine score falls between 5 and 7. How the horse is used may determine what is considered ideal body condition. For instance, an event horse in top physical condition is going to be considerably leaner than a halter horse at the peak of its show career. Likewise, some pony breeds and such work horse breeds as the Morgan and Belgian can be predisposed to a cresty neck. However, the equine BCS system does not consider the horse's use or normal breed conformation, so the practitioner will make nutritional recommendations based on the horse's intended use and the technicians can follow up with owners.

    Reasons for Weight Gain or Loss

    Horses gain or lose weight for a range of reasons, most of which are similar to other mammals, including humans. The basic reasons include:

    • Meal size
    • Activity level
    • Type of feed
    • Digestive problems, including inadequate dental care
    • Metabolic problems

    If a horse consumes more calories than it needs to expend in energy during the course of a day, the horse eventually will gain weight. The reverse — not enough caloric intake for the energy expended — will cause weight loss.

    The lifestyle of the domestic horse today typically involves excessive feed and low levels of activity. Conversely, horses can become underweight during poor economic times or at the end of the winter when hay becomes scarce or expensive.

    Some equine breeds tend to be "easy keepers," such as the Quarter Horse and some ponies, and easily become heavy, whereas other breeds, such as the Thoroughbred and other so-called hot-blooded breeds, tend to have a higher metabolism than most other breeds and are often thinner. Therefore, horses have unique needs and require careful weight monitoring and constant assessment of their nutritional program.

    Disease and Injury

    In the wild, a horse will eat as much as it can when food is plentiful to develop energy stores for use when food is more difficult to find. But the domestic horse does not have the same roaming lifestyle as the wild horse does.

    The fact that horses weigh on average a half a ton and in domesticity lead a relatively confined and sedate life compared with wild horses means the implications of being overweight can be much more serious. Combine that with being unfit, and the problems can be exacerbated.

    Some of the problems that horses encounter when they carry excess weight are5:

    • Developmental orthopedic problems in young horses, as bones are growing and cannot withstand the added stress
    • Strain on all joints, especially the hooves and limbs
    • Increased risk for laminitis
    • Increased risk for metabolic disorders, such as Cushing's disease
    • Stress on the heart and lungs
    • Loss of efficiency in body temperature control, especially cooling
    • Fat buildup around major organs, such as intestinal lipoma causing colic
    • Reproduction problems, in both conception and delivery
    • Lethargy and fatigue

    Paying attention to body condition and, therefore, nutritional intake and exercise can help an owner offset the chances of injury and disease, especially in animals prone to certain conditions.

    In horses with a BCS lower than 5, the fat reserves may be too low. Lower than 3, there are no fat reserves at all, and the horse is drawing on the breakdown of protein in the muscles for energy. Mares with a BCS of 3 or lower can develop endocrine imbalances and have difficulty conceiving.4

    The Technician's Role

    Veterinary technicians play a key role in owner education on equine body condition. Technicians can use the score as an opportunity to confirm the veterinarian's recommendations for a feeding program that meets the horse's energy needs. In addition, the technician can gather information regarding the horse's diet at the time it presents to the hospital or is seen on the farm. This is especially important when horses are hospitalized, so there are no rapid changes in the diet. The technician also can weigh the horse on a scale when possible. The veterinarian can be consulted about what overall changes, such as a feed with less fat or a higher-protein feed, might be appropriate.

    In addition, the technician can:

    • Ask the owners if they have any questions about feeding their horse
    • Provide handouts/literature about how to feed a horse for weight gain or loss
    • Provide information on feed and/or forage analysis and balancing for proper amounts and quality of feed
    • Provide literature on hay and hay extenders
    • Provide literature on the disease conditions for which weight can have an impact, such as Cushing's disease and osteoarthritis

    The technician also can assist owners in learning how to monitor their horse's body condition. Because scales often are available only at equine hospitals, weight tapes offer a useful method of obtaining an approximate weight using the circumference around the girth. Although the number is only an estimate, it does allow an owner to assess whether the horse is losing or gaining weight. The technician also can help the owner learn how to use the BCS chart to assess overall condition.

    The Future

    Researchers at Virginia Tech have been conducting a study that involves a scoring system for assessing apparent neck crest adiposity in horses and ponies to be used to evaluate regional fat accumulation and risk for disease.

    Twenty-one barren Thoroughbred broodmares, 13 Arabian geldings, and 75 pony mares (Welsh, Dartmoor, and crossbreds) were clinically examined. The assessment included BCS and a "cresty neck score" (CNS) that rates the adiposity of the neck. Blood samples were analyzed for insulin, glucose, leptin, and triglyceride levels. According to the study, the objectives were to describe a scoring system for the assessment of apparent neck crest adiposity in horses and ponies and to evaluate morphometric measurements for assessment of neck and overall adiposity through associations with condition scores and blood variables.6

    The researchers found that this scoring system specific for neck adiposity is associated with metabolic blood variables, such as insulin. The study did not determine that neck crest fat is directly causing altered metabolism. However, a recent study did determine that ponies with a CNS at or above 3 out of 5 were at increased risk for pasture-associated laminitis.7

    This kind of research is just the beginning of where the evolution of BCS may lead.

    1. Henneke D, Potter G, Kreider J, Yeates B. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J 1983;15:371-372.

    2. Thatcher CD, Pleasant RS, Geor RJ, et al. Prevalence of obesity in mature horses: an equine body condition study. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr 2008;92(2):222.

    3. Bailey SR, Menzies-Gow NJ, Harris PA, et al. Effect of dietary fructans and dexamethasone administration on the insulin response of ponies predisposed to laminitis. JAVMA 2007;231(9):1366.

    4. University of Maine Cooperative Extension Bulletin #1010. Accessed August 2008 at www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/1010.htm.

    5. Loving NS. All Horse Systems Go. North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square Publishing; 2006.

    6. Carter RA, Geor RJ, Stanier WB, et al. Apparent adiposity assessed by standardised scoring systems and morphometric measurements in horses and ponies. Vet J 2008:1001-1029.

    7. Carter RA. Evaluation of criteria for pre-laminitic metabolic syndrome. Proc 20th Equine Sci Soc 2007:139-141.

    References »

    NEXT: Final View — Daisy Mae's Bodacious Mass

    CETEST This course is approved for 0.5 CE credits

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