Body condition scoring is one of the most important and useful skills an owner can have when it comes to monitoring the health and welfare of their horses. And while the way we ‘condition score’ horses is uniform no matter their breed, certain breed traits should always be considered when deciding on the score.

Unless you take breed or type into account when you assess the body condition of some horses, their breed-specific traits can deceive the eye and lead you to rate them higher than you should.

Here I am referring to the naturally crested necks of Iberian horses, to the apple bottoms of Gypsy Cobs, and the well-sprung ribs and short coupled bodies of native pony breeds.

This article contains the practical and relevant information you need to accurately create a body condition score for your horse – whatever the type.

This article is the result of a decade-long passion for body condition scoring in the real world. From what it is and why it is important to horses and their welfare, to how to score different types correctly. As the owner of a small but heavy horse breed, I often receive well-meaning but unfounded advice about the body condition of my horses, and in this article, I have filtered the noise to bring you only the practical and relevant information you need to accurately create a body condition score for your horse – whatever the type.

Body Condition Scoring

A brown horse in good condition

A hack-type in good body condition.

Like humans, horses vary greatly in size and shape, and the concept that there is a single ideal or healthy body size or body weight is very outdated. Today, human health professionals use other methods to assess a person’s health; ones which focus on how the body is made up. In simple terms, they look at how much muscle and fat the body contains.

The same idea applies when assessing a horse’s overall health. Instead of simply measuring and weighing our horses, researchers came up with a system called ‘Body Condition Scoring’.

Body Condition Scoring (sometimes abbreviated to BCS) is slightly different from human body assessment methods because it looks at how much fat has built up in specific and key areas of the horse’s body.

“Just right”

Human bodies generally deposit fat in areas such our abdomen, buttocks and thighs, and different body types result in fat building up in different areas.

Horses are similar in that their bodies deposit fat in key areas. Unlike humans however, fat stores in certain areas of the horse’s body are not always harmful and as we will discuss later, they can play a protective role.

The horse’s body needs fat for everyday functions, but just like Goldilock’s porridge, it must be the right amount; too much or too little fat can cause a variety of health problems.

In the same way that humans have a genetic tendency to store more fat than others, some horse breeds appear to favour fat deposits more than others.

Body fat is stored when the amount of energy provided by the diet is more than required to replace the energy being used by the body throughout the day.

The stores of body fat can be used for energy at times when the diet does not provide enough energy to meet the horse’s daily needs. This is a survival strategy for when food is scarce (due to drought or heavy snow), or when the energy demand increases (due to extreme cold, breeding and/or lactating).

In a domestic setting, because we can manage our horses’ access to feed, roughage and pasture, we use Body Condition Scoring to figure out if:

    • we are feeding too much relative to the activity level (the horse is storing excess energy as fat in the key areas)
    • we are feeding too little relative to the activity level (the horse is losing fat covering in key areas)
    • we are feeding the horse just the right amount (the horse’s Body Condition is ‘moderate’ or ‘good’ and is being maintained).

We aim to keep our horses in ‘moderate’ or ‘good’ body condition because, on average, it shows that our horse’s body has just the right amount of fat to function correctly.

We aim to keep our horses in ‘moderate’ or ‘good’ body condition because, on average, it shows that our horse’s body has just the right amount of fat to function correctly.

It’s about health

You should think about body condition as ‘fatness’, and condition scoring as the most reliable way to tell if a horse’s diet contains too much, too little or just the right amount of energy.

At this point I will highlight that providing the daily energy requirement of horses is only one part of a balanced diet. For good overall health, other components such as protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and trace elements must also be well balanced.

The right amount of fatness is associated with healthy body function, whereas horses who are either too thin or too fat, are known to be at a higher risk of developing health problems.

This Shire horse is in good body condition.

Thin horses (without any underlying disease):

    • find it more difficult to protect themselves from extreme cold
    • are at greater risk from disease and infection
    • growth rates may be reduced in youngstock
    • may have reduced amount of energy to perform exercise
    • can have decreased fertility and decreased live birth rates

Overweight horses have:

    • an increased risk of skeletal injuries due to excessive weight
    • an increased risk of obesity related disease (insulin resistance, laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, etc)
    • a decreased ability to cope with hot weather and exercise

There are two scoring systems

Two body condition scoring systems have been developed and are used by horse owners, vets, researchers and horse nutritionists.

Both systems work in a similar way – they require us to look and feel when we assess the horse’s body condition. This helps us to gain a good picture of the horse’s overall body condition.

In Australia, the system developed by Carroll & Huntington (1988), which scores body condition on a 0 (very poor) to 5 (very fat) scale, is most commonly used. It evaluates fat build up in three key areas; the neck, the top line (withers, back and pelvis), and ribs, and the tail.

An Exmoor pony in good body condition. Notice that a large belly does not represent ‘fatness’. In this case, it is more likely caused by pregnancy.

It is easy to learn, and in the following pages, you will see three charts that use this system, each showing six diagrams which range from ‘very poor’ (thin) horse to ‘very fat’ horse.

The second method, developed by Henneke (1983), divides and scores fat deposits over a larger number of body areas (neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin (pelvis) and tailhead) to rate body condition on a scale of 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat). Each body area is scored individually and then scores are averaged to obtain an overall BCS.

The Henneke system is good when you need a more in-depth picture of your horse’s condition. To learn more about it, check out this article.

What is ‘fatness’?

The term ‘fatness’ does not refer to a horse’s weight but rather the amount of fat that is deposited on the key areas of the horse’s body – where bony structures are not protected by muscle, such as the spine, the ribs, the pelvis and tail head.

‘Fatness’ (correctly termed ‘adipose tissue’), provides ‘padding’ between the skin and the skeleton and has a protective role. For example, it can protect the ribs from damage by cushioning them against bumps and knocks. It can also protect the lungs by acting as insulation.

It is also important not to confuse muscle build-up with fat build-up, and you will learn how to feel the difference with a little experience (see also the exercise on the right)

When the horse is receiving more energy from the diet than they need to meet their daily energy requirements, the body will store the excess energy as ‘fat’ (adipose) tissue.

What are the key areas?

When assessing ‘fatness’ to give a Body Condition Score using the Carroll & Huntington system, the three key areas we look at are:

  1. the neck
  2. the ribs and top line (withers, back and pelvis)
  3. the tail head.


    Sometimes people see a horse with a big tummy and believe it is fat. However, we do not assess ‘fatness’ around the tummy of the horse like we do in humans!

    This is because a large abdomen on a horse can mean several things:

    • heavy internal parasite infestation
    • a diet high in fibre which increases water intake causing a large amount of gut fill. This is often described as a ‘hay belly’ and is more common in horses not undergoing exercise
    • pregnancy
    • in some compact breeds such as miniature ponies, the internal organs are not as miniaturised as the rest of the pony’s body, giving them the appearance of a disproportionately large belly.

    By focusing on the key areas of ‘fatness’ listed above (neck, ribs and top line and tail head), we will be able to assess if the horse is really fat or just has a large abdomen due to one of the above.

    How do we evaluate body condition?

    Evaluating body condition is like those survey questions you see where they ask you “on a scale of 1-10 how likely are you to…”

    “1” might be “not at all likely” while “10” might be “extremely likely”.

    Body condition scoring works in the same way. The lower the number on the scale the less amount of ‘fatness’, or padding, is covering the bony structures, with 0 describing no fat coverage (you are literally seeing skin covering bone).

    The higher the number on the scale, the higher the amount of ‘fatness’, or padding, is covering the bony structures, with 5 (Carroll & Huntington) describing deep, bulgy fat coverage over the skeleton.

    The idea is the same for both the Australian (0-5) and the Hennecke (1-9) systems, however the degree of variation is different between the two systems. The Carroll & Huntington system has 6 degrees of ‘fatness’ while the Henneke system has 9.

    To download the FREE Body Condition Charts for Heavy Horses and Ponies, click here. 

    In some compact breeds such as miniature horses and ponies, the internal organs are not as miniaturised, giving them the appearance of a disproportionately large belly. Remember a big belly is not fatness.

    A useful exercise

    Another way to think of body condition is that each degree of fatness is like adding a rug to the horse. Imagine starting with a skeleton and putting on a rug. It would hang loosely, and you would be able to easily see and feel the skeleton underneath.
    Start adding rugs one at a time. As you add each new rug the sharp edges of the skeleton’s shape begin to soften and become more rounded. If you touch the skeleton, you find it becomes more padded with each new rug that is added.

    The change in body condition occurs in a similar way. As condition improves (more fat is stored by the body) more depth of fatness can be seen and felt.

    How do we create a Body Condition Score?

    Focus on the key areas (neck, topline, ribs and pelvis, and tailhead) and, if you want to keep things simple, compare your horse to the most appropriate of the breed charts presented in the following pages to decide which one is closest to your horse or pony.

    There is one chart for heavy breeds, like Clydesdales, Shires and Percherons, one chart for lighter ‘hack’ breeds like stockhorses and riding ponies (kindly provided by Pony Club Australia), and a chart for native pony types which can be used for minis, Welsh ponies and sturdy cross breeds.

    You might say that your horse is halfway between two points, for example, halfway between 2 and 3 would be 2.5. That’s perfectly acceptable also.

    Once you have scored your horse, get your vet, farrier or experienced horse person do the same and compare.

    But if your horse is a heavy or pony type, be sure to show them the appropriate chart as a reference, because this is the very first time that anyone has published breed-specific charts that are supported by equine researchers and nutritionists!

    What do the numbers mean?

    (Note that all the numbers refer to the Carroll & Huntington system illustrated in this article).

    To download the FREE Body Condition Charts for Heavy Horses and Ponies, click here. 

    If your horse sits between 0 and 2, it is vital that their diet and overall health – including worming and teeth – are looked at and adjusted.

    If they are 1.5 (Carroll & Huntington) or under it is important to seek the advice of your veterinarian.

    Non-breeding horses who score between 2.5 and 3.5 are in the goldilocks zone (just right!) and the aim is to keep them here. Performance horses who are very active, like racehorses and endurance horses will be on the lower end (2 to 2.5) and dressage horses and stallions on the higher end (2.5 to 3).

    Young horses should stay around 2.5, with 3 being the maximum so as not to put too much pressure on their growing joints but still give them enough body condition to grow properly.

    If your horse (non-breeding) is 3.5 or over, it might be best to look at ways to increase exercise and lower feed intake.

    Achieving moderate body condition

    Keeping your horse in moderate body condition means they are ‘just right’ – not too fat or too thin – and will help their overall health. When horses are in optimum condition, they are less likely to suffer from weight related problems like those outlined above.

    If you find your horse is not in the ideal range, what can you do to change it?

    If your horse is too fat (BCS 4+):

    Assess their diet and see if they are getting too much feed, or feed that is too high in energy. Ask for help from an equine nutritionist, vet or other professional.

    Increase exercise (unless your horse is unwell or unsound). Track work every morning or arena work every afternoon is ideal, but if you don’t ride, even half hour walk together once a day can help, and it will strengthen the bond with your horse.

    If your horse is too thin (BCS 2, or less):

    Have your horse’s teeth checked by an experienced and qualified equine dentist (check the Equine Dental Association of Australia or an Equine Dental Veterinarian.

    Arrange a faecal egg count with your vet or local testing centre and worm your horse according to the results. Test again two weeks later to make sure it worked.

    Get professional advice to ensure your horse’s diet is providing enough energy to meet your horse’s daily requirements.

    Make sure your horse has constant access to good quality forage and preferably, source hay that is tested for nutrients and energy content.

    Keeping young, growing horses in the right body condition is vital. Too much can cause injury to their musculoskeletal system, too little, will risk their growth and future performance.

    Monitor the herd dynamics to check they can access the hay or pasture without being intimidated by others.

    Have him or her checked by a vet and/or body worker, to rule out other conditions, chronic pain or disease.

    If you have done all the above first, rugging your horse in the cooler months may also help them conserve energy.

    To download the FREE Body Condition Charts for Heavy Horses and Ponies, click here. 


    Many thanks to Dr Peter Huntington, Rebecca Ham and Dr Sam Potter for their support, feedback and assistance in compiling this article and reviewing the new charts.

    This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2021 magazine – you can order a copy here.

    Take home message

    • Body condition scoring is an invaluable skill for horse owners. It allows them to effectively monitor their horse’s health.
    • Horses should carry the ‘right’ amount of fat. Those who are too fat or too thin can suffer from health problems.
    • Body Condition Scoring helps you notice if your horse needs to gain, maintain or lose weight.
    • While the rules of Body Condition Scoring are uniform and can be applied to any breed, it can be challenging to score correctly horses of different breeds, sizes and shapes.
    • Breed traits should always be considered when deciding on the score. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the Body Condition Scoring chart that best represents your horse’s breed or type.


    • Catalano, D.N. et al. (2016). Estimation of Actual and Ideal Bodyweight Using Morphometric Measurements and Owner Guessed Bodyweight of Adult Draft and Warmblood Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 38-43.
    • Morrison, P. K. et al. (2017). Perceptions of Obesity and Management Practices in a UK Population of Leisure-Horse Owners and Managers. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 19-29.
    • Morley S.A. & Murray J.A, (2014). Effects of Body Condition Score on the Reproductive Physiology of the Broodmare: A Review. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 842-853.
    • Potter, S.J. et al. (2016). Prevalence of Obesity and owners’ Perceptions of Body Condition in Pleasure Horses and Ponies in South-eastern Australia. Australian Veterinary Journal, 427-431.
    • Carroll, C.L.; Huntington, P.J. (1988). Body Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41-45.
    • Huntington, P.J. Myers, J. Owens E. Horse Sense: The Guide to Horse Care in Australia and New Zealand 2nd Edition. CSIRO Publishing.