AN OBJECTIVE MEASURE: THE BODY CONDITION SCORE (BCS) SYSTEM
Developed decades ago by Don Henneke, PhD, as part of his doctoral research, the BCS scale ranges from 1 (poor) to 9 (obese) and offers an objective method of estimating a horse’s body-fat levels. Horses are scored based on visual and hands-on appraisal of six body areas where fat tends to accumulate in a predictable pattern. Here are the physical attributes of each score, described using the language in Henneke’s original research.
Score: 1 (Poor)
• Extreme emaciation.
• Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, and hooks and pins are prominent.
• Bone structure of withers, shoulder and neck is easily noticeable.
• No fatty tissue can be felt.
Score: 2 (Very thin)
• Thin layer of fat over base of spinous processes.
• Transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded.
• Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, and hooks and pins are prominent.
• Withers, shoulders and neck structures are faintly discernable.
Score: 3 (Thin)
• Fat about halfway up spinous processes; transverse processes cannot be felt.
• Thin fat layer over ribs.
• Spinous processes and ribs are easily discernable.
• Tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be visually identified.
• Hook bones appear rounded but not easily discernable.
• Pin bones not distinguishable.
• Withers, shoulders and neck are accentuated.
Score: 4 (Moderately thin)
• Ridge along back.
• Faint outline of ribs discernable.
• Tailhead prominence depends on conformation; fat can be felt around it.
• Hook bones not discernable.
• Withers, shoulders and neck are not obviously thin.
Score: 5 (Moderate)
• Back is level.
• Ribs cannot be visually distinguished but can be easily felt.
• Fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy.
• Withers appear rounded over spinous processes.
• Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.
Score: 6 (Moderate to fleshy)
• May have slight crease down back.
• Fat over ribs feels soft and spongy.
• Soft fat around tailhead.
• Small fat deposits along sides of the withers, behind the shoulders and along the sides of the neck.
Score: 7 (Fleshy)
• May have crease down back.
• Individual ribs can be felt, with noticeable filling between ribs with fat.
• Fat around tailhead is soft.
• Fat along withers, behind shoulders and along neck.
Score: 8 (Fat)
• Crease down back.
• Difficult to feel ribs.
• Fat around tailhead very soft.
• Area along withers filled with fat.
• Area behind shoulder filled in flush.
• Thickening of neck.
• Fat along inner buttocks.
Score: 9 (Extremely fat)
• Obvious crease down back.
• Patchy fat over ribs.
• Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck.
• Fat along inner buttocks may rub together.
• Flank filled in flush.
Key terms include:
• crease: a “gutter” over the spine created by fat buildup on either side.
• hooks: the pelvic (hip) bones that jut out to the side of a horse’s rump.
• pins: pelvic bones near the tail that poke out the back of a horse’s rump.
ingests too many carbohydrates too quickly, his insulin levels will spike, which can disrupt his electrolyte levels. In addition, the ingestion of too much food too fast can result in thiamine deficiency, hypomagnesemia (low magnesium), hypokalemia (low potassium) and hypophosphatemia (low phosphorus).
A horse with refeeding syndrome may deteriorate rapidly, developing muscle weakness and neurologic deficits. In addition, some horses with this syndrome exhibit aggressive behavior. Electrolyte imbalances
Some horses have been food-deprived so long, and their metabolism so disrupted, that their vital organs are too damaged to recover. Euthanasia is the only option.
can be diagnosed with a blood test. If, however, the horse continues to eat too much feed without adequate hydration and electrolyte balancing, he is at risk for fatal damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys. It has been reported that roughly 20 percent of starved horses succumb to refeeding syndrome.
4. Re-establishing a normal diet for a starved horse can take a long time.
The speed at which a starved horse’s diet can be normalized depends greatly on the severity of his digestive and metabolic disturbances. Months of chronic neglect cannot be undone in just a few weeks. In fact, for some extreme cases of neglect and starvation it can take up to 10 months to safely reestablish a normal diet.
Refeeding must be done gradually to allow the gut flora (the population of microorganisms that live in the digestive system) to adapt to the influx of nutrients and resume normal function after an extended period of inactivity. If a horse ingests too many carbohydrates before his gut microbes have had a chance to adapt, he can develop diarrhea, colic or laminitis.
All of this means it can take a long time to safely move a previously starved horse onto what is considered a “normal” diet. Exactly how to do this---what to feed, in what amount and when---without endangering the horse’s health has been studied at length, and there are established protocols that veterinarians and rescue workers with experience with starved horses will likely follow (see “A Scientific Refeeding Plan,” page 46).
Similarly, it may take several months for the effects of that diet to be noticeable. Consider that it takes 9 megacalories (the equivalent of 9,000,000 calories) of digestible energy (DE) above the horse’s maintenance level for him to gain one pound of body weight, and that it takes approximately 35 to 44 pounds of weight gain for the horse to increase by one point on the Henneke Body Condition Score scale (see “And Objective Measure,” page 45). Although some improvement may be noticeable within the first month, it can easily take three to five months, sometimes more in extreme cases, to bring an emaciated horse back to a healthy condition.
5. Dental problems and internal parasites can complicate a starved horse’s recovery.
If a starved horse is a rescue, chances are putting weight back on him won’t be the only challenge for his caretaker. Neglected horses rarely receive adequate dental care or deworming treatments. Dental problems can contribute to weight loss and need to be addressed in order for a nutritional rehabilitation plan to be successful.
Having a veterinarian check and float a horse’s teeth can ensure that he is able to chew comfortably, unhindered by malocclusion, broken and/or infected teeth or sharp, painful hooks.
A veterinarian may also want to collect a fecal sample from the horse to conduct a parasite egg count and establish an appropriate deworming protocol for his particular situation. Severe infestations of internal parasites can lead to secondary health issues, including colic.
Clearly, refeeding a starved horse is not easy. And sadly, even the best nutritional rehabilitation plan and most careful management cannot save every animal. Some horses have been food-deprived for so long, and their metabolism has been so disrupted, that their vital organs are too damaged to recover, making euthanasia the only option. But there are many heartwarming success stories out there---the horses who receive the right kind of help and go from shockingly thin to a splendid health with no long-lasting consequences.
Even if you never go through the process of saving such a horse yourself, knowing how it can be done is reassuring.
To learn more about the challenges of rehabilitating neglected or abused horses see “Rescue Horse Confidential” (EQUUS 495). Also available on Equusmagazine.com