Is My Horse Healthy? How to read your horse’s vital signs

What is the Henneke horse body condition scoring system?

Devised by Dr. Henneke from Texas A&M University back in the early 1980s, the scoring system is the now used the world over to measure a horse’s condition. It measures certain areas along the horse’s body to get an overall score that gives the horse’s condition. The official characteristics of the scoring from Dr. Henneke’s paper are:

1 – Poor

  • Neck – Bone structure easily noticeable, animal extremely emaciated, no fatty tissue can be felt.
  • Withers – Bone structure easily noticeable.
  • Loin – Spinous processes project prominently.
  • Tailhead – Spinous processes project prominently.
  • Ribs – Tailhead (pinbone) and hook bones project prominently.
  • Shoulder – Bone structure easily noticeable.

2 – Very Thin

  • Neck – Faintly discernible, animal emaciated.
  • Withers – Faintly discernible.
  • Loin – Slight fat covering over base of spinous processes. Transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded. Spinous processes are prominent.
  • Tailhead – Tailhead prominent.
  • Ribs – Slight fat cover over ribs. Ribs easily discernible.
  • Shoulder – Shoulder accentuated.

3 – Thin

  • Neck – Neck accentuated.
  • Withers – Withers accentuated.
  • Loin – Fat buildup halfway on spinous processes but easily discernable. Transverse processes cannot be felt.
  • Tailhead – Tailhead prominent but individual vertebrae cannot be visually identified. Hook bones appear rounded but are still easily discernable. Pin bones not distinguishable.
  • Ribs – Slight fat cover over ribs. Ribs easily discernible.
  • Shoulder – Shoulder accentuated.

4 – Moderately Thin

  • Neck – Neck not obviously thin.
  • Withers – Withers not obviously thin.
  • Loin – Negative crease along the back.
  • Tailhead – Prominence depends on conformation; fat can be felt. Hook bones not discernable.
  • Ribs – Faint outline discernable.
  • Shoulder – Shoulder not obviously thin.

5 – Moderate

  • Neck – Neck blends smoothly into the body.
  • Withers – Withers rounded over spinous processes.
  • Loin – Back level.
  • Tailhead – Fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy.
  • Ribs – Ribs cannot be visually distinguished but can be easily felt.
  • Shoulder – Shoulder blends smoothly into the body.

6 – Moderate Fleshy

  • Neck – Fat beginning to be deposited.
  • Withers – Fat beginning to be deposited.
  • Loin – May have a slight positive crease down back.
  • Tailhead – Fat around tailhead feels soft.
  • Ribs – Fat around tailhead feels soft.
  • Shoulder – Fat beginning to be deposited.

7 – Fleshy

  • Neck – Fat deposited along the neck.
  • Withers – Fat deposited along the neck.
  • Loin – May have a positive crease down back.
  • Tailhead – Fat around tailhead is soft.
  • Ribs – Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat.
  • Shoulder – Fat deposited behind the shoulder.

8 – Fat

  • Neck – Noticeable thickening of the neck, fat deposited along inner buttocks.
  • Withers – Area along withers filled with fat.
  • Loin – Positive crease down back.
  • Tailhead – Tailhead fat very soft.
  • Ribs – Difficult to feel ribs.
  • Shoulder – Area behind shoulder filled in flush with the body.

9 – Extremely Fat

  • Neck – Bulging fat. Fat along inner buttocks may rub together. Flank filled in flush.
  • Withers – Bulging fat.
  • Loin – Obvious positive crease down back.
  • Tailhead – Building fat around tailhead.
  • Ribs – Patchy fat appearing over ribs.
  • Shoulder – Bulging fat.

From Henneke et al. Equine Vet J. (1983) 15 (4), 371-2.

Common mistakes

There are a few common mistakes that people make when checking a horse’s vital signs but luckily they’re all pretty easy to avoid.

  • Make sure you follow the guidelines for how long to leave the thermometer in for, if you don’t you’ll end up with a false reading. 
  • If the horse is nervous you’ll get higher than normal TPR readings, instead wait until he’s more relaxed.
  • If you don’t check your horse’s vital signs regularly you won’t know what’s normal for him. You don’t need to check them every day, once a month is fine.
  • Make sure you count your horse’s heartbeat properly. The heart will make a ‘lub-dub’ sound, this is one beat so make sure you don’t count it was two.
  • If you don’t have a watch make sure you count the seconds properly, it’s easy to count a few seconds for everyone. Try adding a bumblebee to every second, for example, one bumblebee, two bumblebees, three bumblebees, etc. It might sound silly but it helps you to count the seconds properly.

Page 1 – Your horse’s vital signs

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