Overweight, thin or just right? How to Assess Your Horse’s Fat and What the Numbers Mean

Overweight, thin or just right? How to fat score your horse and what the numbers means

The number of horses and ponies in the UK that are classed as overweight or obese – which poses a serious threat to their short and long-term health – continues to rise. Overweight horses and ponies are at increased risk of diseases such as laminitis, so we all have a responsibility to ensure our horses maintain a healthy body weight. That’s why Dodson & Horrell has partnered with Your Horse’s #fitnotfat campaign.

What is the fat score?

Fat Scoring – also known as Body Condition Scoring – is a convenient approach to tracking your horse’s body condition, allowing you to feel any changes in your horse’s condition. Visual scores are rarely as accurate as practical scores, so it is important to examine your horse carefully. Often it can be very difficult to see the difference between muscle and fat, but when you feel it, it becomes much more obvious. Muscle is firm while fat is softer, more spongy and can sometimes be lumpy as well.

How important is the fat score?

The fat score is not only useful for overweight horses, it can also be used to monitor the progress of those who need to gain weight. You should aim to grade your horse once every fortnight, to track changes in condition before they become too dramatic and potentially cause health problems. Ideally this will be done by the same person as they will get the same score – although there is nothing wrong with having a second opinion.

How can I assess my horse’s fat?

Fat scoring involves dividing your horse into three zones:

  1. Neck and shoulders – everything in front of the shoulder blade
  2. Middle – from behind the shoulder blades to the point of the hip
  3. Quarters – the hips, pelvis and hindquarters

Each section receives a score from 0 to 5, and an average is taken for the whole horse. This is very important as horses do not store fat evenly across their body, some horses may look ‘ribbed’ but have large amounts of fat on their necks, shoulders and hindquarters. These horses might actually have too much fat and be overweight despite being able to see their ribs.

Ideally, you should aim for an overall body condition score of between 2.5 and 3 on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 means very poor, as shown in the graph below:

How are the neck and shoulders assessed?

What to do:

  1. Find the nuchal ligament and with your thumb and index finger follow it down the neck.
  2. Run your hand along the neck, toward the shoulder, and around the shoulder. If your horse has too much fat on the shoulder, your hand will move smoothly from neck to shoulder, without the shoulder blade stopping your hand.
  3. Pinch the flesh behind the shoulder blade.
  4. Check for fat deposits in the supraorbital fossa above the eyes.

You can then score your horse for neck and shoulders, based on the criteria below:

0 Very poor Marked sheep’s neck, narrow and loose at the base
1 Poor Sheep’s neck, narrow and loose at the base
2 Moderate Narrow but firm
3 Good No ridge (except stallions), firm neck, clearly feel the shoulder blade
4 Big Slight crest, broad and firm; fat accumulation on the shoulder
5 Very fat Crest marked, very wide and firm, folds of fat on the neck and shoulders

How is the environment of the horse evaluated?

What to do:

  1. Run your hand diagonally across his ribcage with firm pressure.
  2. Place your hand on the horse’s spine – your fingers should be curved over the spine, if they are flat there is an accumulation of fat on either side of the spine. Also look for a gutter along the spine, which indicates fat.
  3. Feel the spinous processes along your horse’s back.

You can then assign your horse a score for its background, based on the criteria below:

0 Very poor The skin is taut on the ribs and the ribs are very visible; the spinous processes have sharp edges and are easily visible
1 Poor Well visible ribs, sunken skin on each side of the spine, well defined spinous processes
2 Moderate Ribs barely visible, spinous processes felt; the hand forms a C on the spine
3 Good Ribs barely covered, easily palpable; no gutter along the back and the hand does not lie flat on the spine; spinous processes can be felt
4 Big Well covered ribs, groove along the spine
5 Very fat Buried and imperceptible ribs, deep gutter, wide and flat back

How are trimesters assessed?

What to do:

  1. Place your hand flat on your horse’s hindquarters and lower the top of the pelvis.
  2. Run your hand from the hindquarters to the tail, feeling the tail bone.
  3. Find the hips and curve your hand to feel the outline of the bone.

You can then assign your horse a mark for the hindquarters, according to the criteria below:

0 Very poor The pelvis appears and feels angular with the skin taut over the bones; the croup appears sunken, with a deep cavity under the tail and on each side of the croup
1 Poor The croup is sunken but the skin supple; well-defined pelvis and croup, cavity under the tail
2 Moderate Croup flat on either side of the spine, well-defined croup with a slight recess under the tail; some fat can be felt on the pelvis
3 Good The pelvic and tail bones are covered in fat and rounded, but the pelvis is still easily palpable
4 Big The fat forms a gutter at the root of the tail; the pelvis is covered but soft to the touch and can only be felt with firm pressure
5 Very fat Deep gutter at the root of the tail; the skin is distended and the pelvis is buried and not felt

How do I determine my horse’s overall score?

Once you have a score for each section of your horse’s body, add them together and divide by 3. This will give you your overall score.

In addition to this, it may be helpful to also monitor the belly circumference measurement using a tape measure. It may take some time for the body condition score to change, but your horse’s internal fat may decrease. By using a tape measure, you may notice small changes, which can lift your spirits if you feel like you’re not seeing any results.

Print out the Dodson & Horrell Weight Card to make it easy to track and record your horse’s fat score and weight. You can download it here.

Have you heard of Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, backed by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is a huge welfare issue and we are on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in top health. It could save lives! Learn more

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