Book Excerpt: How to Assess Body Condition

Learn how to put a horse's condition into quantitative terms that even the courts can understand in this excerpt from the new book How to Start and Run a Rescue.

In 1983, Dr. Don Henneke, a graduate student at Texas A&M University, was working on a study of conception rates in mares, depending on body weight. He needed a precise method to gauge the overall physical condition of the mares so they could be divided into classifications, such as “average,” “thin” and “overweight.” Within the thin and overweight classifications, he further required a system to determine which mares were “slightly” thin or overweight, “moderately” thin or overweight, and to those who were emaciated or obese. What he came up with is the Henneke Body Condition (HBC) Scoring Chart, which rates the condition of a horse regardless of breed, age or sex.

The HBC Scoring Chart is now used throughout the country to objectively describe the condition of horses. Law-enforcement agencies often use HBC scores when obtaining a warrant to seize horses and in court cases to demonstrate neglect. Rescues and humane societies routinely record HBC scores upon an animal’s arrival and use them as a baseline to track his progress throughout rehabilitation. Breeding farms, veterinary clinics and university horse programs also use HBC scores to quantitatively identify the condition of horses upon arrival at their facilities.

At Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in Rosharon, Texas, we frequently use HBC scores. When a new horse comes into the rescue, we record their body-condition score (BCS). The foster homes of horses that are undergoing rehabilitation submit monthly reports to our horse coordinator that include photographs and updated HBC scores. This allows us to track how much each horse improves from month to month, and to identify those that aren’t progressing as quickly as expected.

When one of our volunteers performs a post-adoption or foster followup home visit, she assigns a BCS to each horse. For our foster homes, this helps to ensure that they’re submitting adequate body-condition scores during their monthly reports. If a horse’s condition fails to improve as expected, or his score decreases, our coordinator can discuss the horse’s care with the foster home or adopter, or make an appointment to have a veterinarian examine the horse. In the worst cases, a decreasing BCS may indicate that we need to move the horse to a new home.

Our volunteers also use HBC scores when working with law enforcement. During a neglect or abuse investigation, our investigators assign body-condition scores to every horse on the reported property. When HBC scores are low enough to show neglect, we then present that information along with photographs of the animals to law-enforcement officers, and request that the authorities obtain a warrant to seize the horses and any other equines. During an actual seizure, each horse is caught, assigned a case number, photographed, and then given an HBC score before being loaded into a trailer and transported to a holding facility.

In court, HBC scores are presented along with a description of the scoring system to quantifiably demonstrate neglect. Even when judges or jury members lack knowledge about proper horse care, once the scoring system has been explained to them, they can understand that a horse with a low score is underweight and suffering from neglect.

How This System WorksThe HBC scoring chart divides a horse’s body into six major parts: neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loins and tailhead. Each area is rated from a 1 (extremely poor) to 9 (extremely fat or obese). A scoring chart provides a description for each score (1-9), for each area of the horse’s body. For example, when the bone structure of a horse’s neck is easily visible it earns a BCS of 1; when bulging with fat it scores a 9. Scores are assigned after visual assessment, as well as palpation of the area when possible. (Sometimes it’s not possible to palpate wild horses or those that have been severely abused and are unwilling to be touched.) When horses have long hair coats, those assigning body-condition scores must palpate the horses because long hair can obscure a horse’s condition. If you can’t touch them, you have to visually assess them but know that your scores are likely higher than normal since you cannot touch the horse to see what’s underneath the long hair.

Scores for all six areas are totaled and divided by six to give an overall BCS. Horses with a BCS near 1.0 are often referred to as “walking skeletons” because most of their bone structure is easily visible even from a distance. Horses who receive a score of 8 to 9 are obese, with visible bulges and rolls of fat. A BCS of 5.0 is ideal, although scores between 4 and 6 are acceptable. Horses that score over a 7.0 are in danger of health problems, such as laminitis, joint problems and colic. Racehorses, endurance horses and others that are involved in demanding disciplines may score around 4.0–they appear very lean but well-muscled. Horses with a BCS under 4.0 are considered neglected, and those with a BCS of 1 to 2 are in critical need of intervention. Courts throughout the United States accept HBC scores as a means of demonstrating neglect and will often remove horses that score below 3.0 from their owners.

While some horse owners claim that mares that are in foal, nursing a foal or recently weaned a foal, have reason to be in less-than-ideal body condition, the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Chart doesn’t make allowances for this. Additionally, many people argue that it’s normal for aged horses to be in lower body condition, but HBC scoring doesn’t allow for differences by age either. The fact is that horse owners may simply need to supply aged horses, pregnant mares and nursing mares with additional food or supplements to help them maintain their weight.

In some cases, there are medical reasons why a horse can’t or shouldn’t be maintained in a BCS of 5.0. For horses with lameness problems, such as laminitis or severe arthritis, any additional weight could actually complicate their lameness issues. In these cases, a BCS between a 4.0 and 4.5 is better for the horse’s comfort. (Since horses naturally carry the majority of their weight on their front end, the heavier a horse is the more weight he’ll carry on his front feet. For the horse with front-end lameness this means increased mobility problems and pain.) Veterinary records should document any specific health conditions, but even then a horse shouldn’t drop below a score of 4.0.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. You may come across a horse with a poor BCS, but when you speak to the owner you learn that he’s feeding the horse an appropriate diet, maintains him on a good deworming program, and has routine dental work performed. If the owner isn’t already working with his veterinarian to determine the cause of the horse’s condition, you can encourage him to invest in a blood-chemistry panel and complete blood count (CBC), as well as an overall veterinary examination. This may help him determine what’s wrong with his horse. If the owner and his vet can’t determine a reason for the horse’s body condition, and the horse seems otherwise happy and free of pain, he’s not a candidate to be seized or removed from his owner.

Ensure Proper TrainingSince body-condition scoring is an important tool for rescues, your organization needs to provide training to volunteers who will use the HBC scoring chart. Volunteers who have participated in a comprehensive body-condition scoring training program will make more credible witnesses in court, and will provide your organization with more accurate assessments than those who are inexperienced. Your training program should include three components:

1. Give each volunteer a printed copy of the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Chart. Include an outline of a horse that indicates each area the volunteer must score. This handout should also include a description of how to score each area of a horse’s body. (See “BCS: What Body Condition Score Means” in the August 2006 issue of EQUUS magazine.) A volunteer with experience in assigning body-condition scores or a trainer needs to review the chart with each new volunteer.

2. An experienced volunteer should then assign body-condition scores to several horses while describing how she determines the scores.

3. The trainee should then assign body-condition scores to several horses. The trainer, or an experienced volunteer, can discuss any discrepancies in scoring with the volunteer. If the new volunteer’s scores are more than 0.25 points different from the trainer’s scores, she should continue practicing until her scores match those of the trainer’s.

When you put together training classes, invite local animal-control officers, sheriff’s deputies and other law-enforcement officers who investigate reports of neglect. This not only will help educate the officers about scoring the horses they investigate, but also will give you a great opportunity to introduce your rescue and network.

After you’ve trained some volunteers, consider initiating a policy that one trained volunteer will assign body-condition scores in the following situations:

  • When investigating a report of neglect. While the volunteer may not be able to palpate each of the horses, she can visually assess them and assign an approximate BCS.
  • When removing horses from neglectful owners. This is especially important when preparing a court case. Each horse should be assigned a BCS before it is moved from the owner’s property. Unless the horse is wild and cannot be touched, the volunteers who assign body-condition scores should visually assess the horse as well as palpate each area. Then before going to court, re-evaluate each horse and assign a new BCS. This will demonstrate how the horses have improved while receiving proper care.
  • Whenever a new horse comes into your rescue, and at least once every other month while he’s in your care. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much weight a horse is gaining when you see him every day. However, if you document his body condition when he enters your rescue, and then record his BCS each month or every other month, you can easily identify changes in condition.

You’ll find this method of assessing a horse’s condition will become an invaluable tool in your quest to save horses. The use of body-condition scoring will enable you to put neglect into quantitative terms that members of the court can more easily understand.

The drive to help horses led Jennifer Williams to obtain a masters and doctorate degree from Texas A&M University in animal science, with an emphasis on equine behavior, learning and welfare. While at A&M, Jennifer also co-founded Lone Star Equine Rescue (LSER) and ran the organization for seven and a half years. During her tenure as president, the rescue brought in over 500 horses and helped countless more through educational programs. In 2005, Jennifer left LSER to co-found and run Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, an organization helping equine animals throughout both Texas and Arkansas.

Through How to Start and Run a Rescue, Jennifer hopes to share her experiences so that other animal lovers can create and run successful rescue organizations. To order, call 1-800-952-5813 or visit




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