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Fat scoring

Maintaining your horse at a healthy weight can be a real challenge and is a balancing act between providing the right diet, health care, exercise and management. 

  • Last reviewed: 31st May 2022
Health Clinic Image 1 Sophie Green (1) Health Clinic Image 1 Sophie Green (1)

Weight can change depending on the amount/type of food the horse is eating and how much exercise they are doing. There are a number of techniques to help with monitoring and it is really important to avoid your horse ever becoming obese as much as underweight.

Fat Scoring

Fat Scoring (also referred to as Body Condition Scoring) is an ideal way to assess your horse’s overall fat covering to help determine whether they are a healthy weight. 
 
There are three key areas to consider: neck, body and hindquarters and you will need to look at and get hands on to help you determine between muscle and fat. 

Score each of these key areas individually from 0-5 using the images and descriptions below. A healthy fat covering is a score of 2.5 – 3 out of 5 for most horses, unless your vet advises otherwise. 
 
It can be normal for some horses, such as fit event or racehorses, to maybe look underweight. However, they’re in fact physically fit and healthy with well-developed muscles. 
 
Fat scoring should also be used alongside weight taping and Cresty Neck Score (CNS) so you can monitor your horse’s weight. 

Why is obesity an ever-increasing problem?

Compared to Thoroughbreds, draught-types, cobs and native breeds are more likely to be overweight or obese. These types of horses have evolved to survive harsh, cold and wet winters and make the most of poor-quality grazing, with Shetland ponies being a prime example. Management nowadays means many horses have access to quality grazing all year round and are exposed to milder winters with additional rugging and stabling. The resulting factor is horses don’t have to use as much energy to keep warm and with plenty of calories being consumed, weight (and therefore fat) will begin to increase. 

What's the danger?

Worryingly, up to 50% of horses are obese with this figure creeping up to 70% in some native pony breeds1. Horses carrying too much fat can be at an increased risk of health issues such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), laminitis and arthritis which can be detrimental to their welfare. Recent research has shown that excessive weight gain more than doubles the risk of laminitis in horses and ponies2 - highlighting the importance of regularly monitoring your horse’s weight.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Cushing’s Disease

Horses with EMS and/or Cushing’s Disease can be trickier to fat score accurately. This is because horses with EMS tend to have fat distributed abnormally along their body, for example, fat pads on their neck and hindquarters. Horses with Cushing’s Disease may also have abnormal fat distribution but could have muscle wastage and a pot-bellied appearance with their ribs visible. Speak to your vet for advice if you’re fat scoring a horse with EMS or Cushing’s Disease. 

Donkeys

You will need to use a different fat scoring system to assess the weight of your donkey. You can find the Donkey Body Condition Score Chart on the Donkey Sanctuary’s website.  

Classifying a horse’s weight

The BHS has a detailed system to classify a horse’s weight:

Emaciated
0 - Emaciated

0 - Emaciated

  1. Neck very thin with little muscle and no fat covering the top
  2. No fatty tissue can be felt on the horse
  3. Ribs easily seen and felt
  4. Shape of each individual bone can be easily seen
  5. Skin tight over bones
  6. Spine easily seen and felt
  7. Very sunken and sloping from the spine to the ribs
  8. Tail bone protrudes
  9. Very sunken sloping hindquarters either side of the spine
  10. Pelvis and hips are very easy to see and feel
  11. Large gap in between top of back legs and under tail
Underweight
1 - Underweight

1 - Underweight

  1. Neck thin with little muscle and fat covering the top
  2. Very little fatty tissue can be felt on the horse
  3. Ribs can be seen and felt
  4. Sunken and sloping from the spine to the ribs
  5. Spine can be seen and felt without pressure
  6. Tail bone protrudes slightly
  7. Sunken sloping hindquarters either side of the spine
  8. Pelvis and hips are easy to see and feel
  9. Large gap in between top of back legs and under tail
Moderate
2 - Moderate

2 - Moderate

  1. A slightly thin neck
  2. Shape of the neck muscles can be seen
  3. A very thin layer of fat covering the body
  4. Ribs are just visible and can be felt
  5. Spine can be felt
  6. Tail bone protrudes slightly
  7. Slightly sunken sloping hindquarters either side of the spine
  8. Hip bones easily visible but covered by a thin layer of fat
  9. Slight gap in between top of back legs and under the tail
Healthy
3 - Healthy

3 - Healthy

  1. Shape of the neck muscles are less clear
  2. No crest (no fat underneath the mane) except for stallions
  3. Thin layer of fat covering the body
  4. Ribs cannot be seen but easily felt with light pressure
  5. Spine is covered but can still be felt
  6. Hindquarters are beginning to become rounder in shape
  7. Hip bones are just visible and can be easily felt
Overweight
4 - Overweight

4 - Overweight

  1. Shape of the neck muscles cannot be seen
  2. Spongy fat can be felt along the neck, below the mane (known as the crest)
  3. Ribs well covered with fat which can be felt with firm pressure
  4. Fat can be seen and felt behind the shoulders
  5. Pelvis and hips are difficult to feel
  6. Hindquarters are rounded
  7. Fat around tail head
  8. A ‘gutter’ can be seen along the spine to the tail head
Obese
5 - Obese

5 - Obese

  1. Wide and firm neck
  2. Large amount of fat below the mane (known as the crest)
  3. Neck muscles not visible
  4. Ribs are buried in fat and cannot be felt
  5. Pads of fat along body
  6. Back is flat and broad like a table top
  7. Hips are buried and cannot be felt
  8. Hindquarters are a well-rounded apple shape
  9. Large amounts of fat around tail head
  10. A deep ‘gutter’ can be seen along the spine to the tail head

References

1) Rendle, D., et al (2018) Equine obesity: current perspectives UK-Vet Equine. 2(5).  
 
2) Wylie, C.E., et al (2013) Risk factors for equine laminitis: a case-control study conducted in veterinary-registered horses and ponies in Great Britain between 2009 and 2011. The Veterinary Journal, 198(1), pp.57-69.

How to fat score your horse

Weighing your horse is a useful monitoring tool but it doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat. Also, horses are individuals and carry fat in different places.

Find out more
Health Clinic Image 2 Sophie Green

Get in touch – we’re here to help 

The Horse Care and Welfare Team are here to help and can offer you further advice with any questions you may have. Contact us on 02476 840517* or email welfare@bhs.org.uk – You can also get in touch with us via our social media channels. 

Opening times are 8:35 am - 5 pm from Monday – Thursday and 8:35 am - 3 pm on Friday. 

*Calls may be recorded for monitoring purposes.