The number of horses and ponies in the United Kingdom who are classed as overweight or obese — posing a serious threat to their short- and long-term health — are ever-increasing. Horses and ponies carrying excess weight are at increased risk of medical conditions such as laminitis, and so we all have a responsibility to ensure that our horses stay at a healthy bodyweight. That’s why Dodson & Horrell has teamed up with Your Horse’s #fitnotfat campaign.

What is fat scoring?

Fat scoring — also known as body condition scoring — is a hands-on 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 hands-on scoring so it is important to thoroughly examine your horse. Often it can be really tricky to see the difference between muscle and fat, but when you feel it, it becomes much more obvious. Muscle feels firm whereas fat feels softer, more spongy and can sometimes also be lumpy.

How important is it to fat score?

Fat scoring isn’t only useful for horses who are overweight, it can also be used to track progress in those who need to gain weight. You should aim to score your horse once a fortnight, to track changes in condition before they become too dramatic and potentially cause health concerns. Ideally, this will be done by the same person as they will score in the same way — though there is nothing wrong with a second opinion.

How do I fat score my horse?

Fat scoring involves splitting your horse into three areas:

  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 is given a score from 0 to 5, and an average is taken for the whole horse. This is really important as horses do not store fat evenly over their bodies, some horses may appear “ribby” but have large amounts of fat over their neck, shoulders and hindquarters. These horses could 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 is very poor, as indicated by the graphic below:

How are the neck and shoulders assessed?

What to do:

  1. Find the nuchal ligament and with your thumb and first finger, follow it along the neck.
  2. Run your hand along the neck, down towards the shoulder and around the shoulder. If your horse has too much fat over the shoulder your hand will run smoothly from the neck to the shoulder, without the shoulder blade stopping your hand.
  3. Pinch the flesh behind the shoulder blade.
  4. Check for fat deposits in the supra-orbital fossa above the eyes.

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

0 Very poor Marked ewe neck, narrow and slack at base
1 Poor Ewe neck, narrow and slack at base
2 Moderate Narrow but firm
3 Good No crest (except stallions), firm neck, clearly feel shoulder blade
4 Fat Slight crest, wide and firm; build-up of fat over shoulder
5 Very fat Marked crest, very wide and firm, folds of fat over neck and shoulders

How is the middle of the horse assessed?

What to do:

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

You can then give your horse a score for his middle, based on the criteria below:

0 Very poor Skin is tight over ribs and ribs are very visible; spinous processes have sharp edges and are easily seen
1 Poor Ribs easily visible, skin sunken either side of backbone, spinous processes well-defined
2 Moderate Ribs just visible, spinous processes felt; hand forms C shape over spine
3 Good Ribs just covered, easily felt; no gutter along back, and hand doesn’t lie flat across the spine; spinous processes can be felt
4 Fat Ribs well covered, gutter along back bone
5 Very fat Ribs buried and cannot be felt, deep gutter, back is broad and flat

How are the quarters assessed?

What to do:

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

You can then give your horse a score for the hindquarters, based on the criteria below:

0 Very poor Pelvis appears and feels angular with skin tight over bones; rump appears sunken, with a deep cavity under tail and either side of croup
1 Poor Rump is sunken but skin supple; pelvis and croup well defined, cavity under tail
2 Moderate Rump flat either side of backbone, croup well defined with a slight cavity under tail; some fat may be felt over the pelvis
3 Good Pelvic and tail bones are covered by fat and rounded, but pelvis is still easily felt
4 Fat Fat forms a gutter to the root of the tail; the pelvis is covered but feels soft and can only be felt with firm pressure
5 Very fat Deep gutter to the root of the tail; skin is distended and the pelvis is buried and can’t be felt

How do I determining 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 can be useful to also monitor the belly girth measurement using a weigh tape. It can take a while for body condition score to change, but your horse’s internal fat could be reducing. By using a weigh tape, you may notice smaller changes, which can encourage morale if it feels like you are not seeing any results.

Print off Dodson & Horrell’s weight card to make it easier to track and record your horse’s fat score and weight. You can download it here.

Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, which is supported by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more

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