The amount of weight your horse is carrying can affect much more than their athletic ability. As stated by the Blue Cross, “being overweight is one of the most serious diseases a horse can have”. Obesity in horses can cause serious problems such as laminitis. Just like human beings, horses will struggle with movement if they’re overweight and they will become exerted much quicker in comparison to a healthy weight horse.
Knowing your horse’s body weight is an important factor for choosing the right diet and nutritional balance for your horse. Often visual interpretations of weight are not reliable in determining weight issues. Just like human beings, horses may carry weight in different areas other than the obvious. A horse may look slim in the stomach but have a layer of fat on their neck. This is where the hands-on approach of fat-scoring comes into play.
What is Fat Scoring?
Fat scoring is a hands-on approach in determining whether your horse is underweight, overweight or the perfect weight. The test scores horses on their body fat across three sections before an average is taken to determine the final result. The first section taken into account is their neck and shoulders. The second section to be analysed is their middle. The middle starts from behind the shoulder blade and ends at their hips. The final section is concerned with the hindquarters.
The three sections are given a rating single between 0-5 (0 being very poor and 5 being very fat). It is important to remember that you can also give half points if required. After the three scores have been collected, an overall average score is noted by adding all three scores together then dividing by 3. Dodson and Horrell have stated that ideal body weight would score an average of between 2.5 and 3.
Fat or Muscle?
These two concepts can often be visually misinterpreted. When viewing the sectioned areas of your horse it may be hard to distinguish between solid muscle and fat. This is why the tactile component of fat-scoring is so important. The way to distinguish between fat and muscle is through the consistency – muscle is firm whereas fat is generally softer and can be lumpy in texture.
The Three Sections
The first section is concerned with the neck and shoulders. To start, you should locate the ligament to the back of the neck, also known as the nuchal ligament. Once this has been located, you should use your thumb and first finger to feel down the neck to the shoulder. If there is too much fat, your hand will run smoothly over the neck without the shoulder blade restricting your movement.
Very Poor (0) –Obvious narrow ewe neck
Poor (1) – Ewe neck
Moderate (2) – Slender but a firm neck
Good (3) – Firm over neck but the shoulder blade can be felt
Fat (4) – Wide but firm neck. There should be some fat over shoulder blades
Very Fat (5) – Very firm and wide with fat folds on the neck and shoulders
The second section is concerned with the rib cage and the spinal region. Start by running your fingers across their rib cage with a moderate pressure to feel around the bone. For the spinal area, you should place your hand over the spine and feel along the back. The ideal back would not be flat or guttered.
Very Poor (0) – Tight skin over the ribs and very prominent bones.
Poor (1) – Ribs visible and skin dropping over the spine
Moderate (2) – Ribs only just visible. A slight drop in the skin over the spine. When placing your hand over the spine your hand will form a ‘C’ shape
Good (3) – Ribs covered but can be felt beneath a good layer. There should be no gutter along the back. Your hand does not lie completely flat
Fat (4) – Ribs are well covered (hard to feel) and a slight gutter on the spine
Very Fat (5) – Ribs cannot be felt and the back becomes broad and flat with a large gutter along the spine
The final section focuses on the quarters. You should be feeling the top of the pelvis, the hip-bone, and the tail-bone.
Very Poor (0) – Angular pelvis structure with tight skin around the bone. Sunken and prominent rump
Poor (1) – Sunken rump but skin is more supple than a 0. Defined pelvis structure
Moderate (2) – Flat rump with a slight amount of fat over the pelvis
Good (3) – Pelvis structure can be felt but still has a healthy coating of fat
Fat (4) – Fat gutter at the tail bone with a soft covering over the pelvis. The pelvis will need firm pressure to be felt
Very Fat (5) – Deep gutter at the tail and pelvis covered to the point of not being tangible
It is a good idea to carry out a fat-score every two weeks – this will allow you to monitor any change in your horse that could be a sign of ill health. Keep the average score to track weight over a long period of time. It may be worth using a weigh tape in addition to the fat scoring as this can help you notice very subtle changes!