by Emily Dickson Collaborator

Is my horse too fat?

Is my horse too fat?

We haven’t personally seen your horse, but research suggests that the answer to this question is yes

Obesity in America has become a major public health concern and unfortunately, has translated to our animals. The obese horse has become all too common due to energy-rich feeds and a lack of exercise and turnout. 

In fact, a 2006 survey in Virginia evaluating 300 randomly selected mature horses concluded that 50% were classified as overweight or obese. And this is likely to be a low estimate. 

What is a body condition score?

The Henneke horse body condition scoring system was first designed by Dr. Don Henneke in 1983 during his graduate school career at Texas A&M University and has since been used as the standard for measuring horse body fat. 

The body condition scoring (BCS) method assesses fat coverage via palpation (you must put your hands on the horse rather than just looking visually!) over 6 areas of the horse’s body: the ribs, behind the shoulder, along the withers, loin, trailhead, and neck. A value on a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese) is assigned to your horse based on the average of all those areas.

What is the ideal body condition score of a horse? 

While there are always exceptions, a good rule of thumb is if the ribs are not easily noticeable visually, but are easily felt, then the horse has a BCS score close to 5. If the ribs are difficult to feel and see, the horse's body condition is most likely above a 6. On the other end of the spectrum, if ribs are easily visible, the horse's body condition score is probably under 4.

It's all about the amount of fat deposited along those key 6 areas.

A BCS between 5 and 6 is considered ideal depending on your horse’s individual discipline and use. 

Why is my horse’s body condition important? 

We know that obesity is related to many diseases, but at its core, the most concerning underlying issue with obesity is the chronic inflammatory state that it imposes on the body, which could be at the root of virtually all disease.  

A fat horse does not just have extra load on its joints; the fat is actually considered an endocrine organ that secretes its own damaging hormones and cytokines.  

Problems associated with obese horses include exercise intolerance, impaired reproductive performance, and an overall mild state of chronic inflammation, which negatively affects aging.

In terms of clinical diseases, overweight and obese horses are at a much higher risk of developing insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and laminitis. 

If you believe your horse’s body score is too high, don’t fret. 

First, re-evaluate your feeding program to include more mature, average to high-quality forages that contain fewer sugars. Testing hay quality is a great, cost-effective first step.

Second, work with an equine nutritionist to design a diet that meets your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements without excess calories. A ration balancer may be in your horse’s future.

Third, put your horse on an exercise program. A weight loss program for your horse will always be most effective when diet and exercise are used in tandem. 

Remember, a change from one body condition score to another is approximately a 50-pound gain or loss, so be patient and realistic with your timeline. It can take as many as 60 days to change one body condition score. 

In the meantime, you can be confident that optimizing your horse’s BCS is one of the most loving things you can do for your horse’s long-term health, performance, and success. 

And don’t forget that research in humans suggests that the gut microbiome plays an important role in fat and weight management. Check out FullBucket’s high quality equine probiotics to naturally support your horse’s ideal body condition score.


HENNEKE, D. R., POTTER, G. D., KREIDER, J. L., & YEATES, B. F. (1983). Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Veterinary Journal, 15(4), 371–372. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.1983.tb01826.x 

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