Body Score---When do I worry? 

Whether is it is an equine in a field you notice, or your own beloved horse, body score of equines can be quite a concern.
Each equine has a different body type, just like humans.   However, sometimes you wonder if your equine is in good body shape.  
There are also times you drive by a herd of horses and wonder if  you should take action.  Below is information about the  Henneke body score system.  The Henneke Scoring system is a scientific method of evaluating a horse's body condition regardless of breed, body type, sex or age.  It is now widely used by law enforcement agencies as an objective method of scoring a horse's body condition in cruelty cases.  The chart is accepted in a court of law.
DO NOT feed horses indiscriminately or you may be putting the equine’s life at risk or impeding law enforcement cases.
 Don Henneke, PhD, developed the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System during his graduate study at Texas A & M University . It is based on both visual appraisal and palpable fat cover of the six major points of the horse that are most responsive to changes in body fat. The Henneke Chart is a standardized scoring system, whereas the terms, “skinny”, “thin”, “emaciated” or “fat” are all subjective terms that have different meanings to different people.
Six parts of a horse are checked in this system—the neck, withers (where the neck ends and the back begins), shoulder, ribs, loin, and tailhead. When using the Henneke system, you should always make physical contact with these parts, and the kind of touch you use is important. Simply stroking the animal lightly won’t provide an accurate idea of the horse’s condition; you have to apply pressure to each part in turn.
The pressure you apply should be much like that of a massage; if you press a horse’s side with your hand, you’ll be able to feel the fat covering his ribs, and get an idea of how much fat is present. Likewise, when checking the withers, feel all around the area, as if you were squeezing firm clay. It is possible to be firm and gentle at the same time, and both traits are necessary to properly score a horse.

After pressing each part of the horse with your hands to feel for body fat. You then assign each area of the body the numerical score that corresponds with the horse’s condition. When a horse has a long haircoat it is imperative that you use your hands to feel the horse. The horse’s long haircoat will hide the protrusion of bones, all except in the most extreme cases. The scores from each area are then totaled and divided by 6. The resulting number is the horse’s rating on the Henneke Body Scoring Condition Chart.
Conformational differences between horses may make certain criteria within each score difficult to apply to every animal. In these instances, those areas influenced by conformation should be discounted, but not ignored when determining the condition score.
Conformation also changes in pregnant mares as they approach parturition (birth). Since the weight of the conceptus tends to pull the skin and musculature tighter over the back and ribs, emphasis is placed upon fat deposition behind the shoulder, around the tailhead and along the neck and withers in these cases.
The Chart rates the horses on a scale of 1 to 9. A score of 1 is considered poor or emaciated with no body fat. A 9 is extremely fat or obese. Horse veterinarians consider a body score of between 4 and 7 as acceptable. A 5 is considered ideal.
If you find a horse in a pasture that looks like a scale 1 or 2, please contact the local sheriff's department.
Courtesy of Habitat for Horses

Helping Hands Equine Assistance has partnered with Spay First organization to develop training materials for Oklahoma Law Enforcement.  A copy of this training material may be downloaded at the PDF.

Equine Abuse and Neglect Flip Chart for Training  >>>

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Hay is a critical part of any equine's diet.  In some cases, hay is not considered "horse quality" and will not provide the nutrients needed.  Equines generally require a higher protein content in hay than cattle due to their digestive system.

The figure below is provided as general guidance of acceptable hay for equines to thrive.

So what is the prognosis for recovery in a starved horse?

The article   ‘Saving Survivors’ by Marcia King states that ‘Generally, thin horses recover completely and easily, regaining their full potential.   The truly starved horse is another matter’ (King, 2003).  In the article, Dr. Carolyn Stull PhD , states ‘With severe starvation, the body doesn’t discriminate which muscles it’s going to use for energy when it is in a truly starved situation.  Some tissues can regenerate, but some tissues can’t.  These severely affected horses may have cardiac problems or other long-term consequences.’ (King, 2003)

Furthermore, Dr. Stull states in her article ‘Nutrition for Rehabilitating the Starved Horse’ that ‘when a horse loses more than 50% of its body weight, the prognosis for survival is extremely poor (Stull, 2003).     

Additionally, according to Jackie Vandenbrink ‘If there are no obvious clinical signs of deficiency most horses will recover well from temporary periods of nutrient deficiency.’  She continues by stating that   ‘The most obvious exception to this is the pregnant mare and growing foal.  Nutrient deficiencies
will cause developmental problems that can cause permanent irreversible damage’ (Vandenbrink, 2007).

In a healthy horse, fat and carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for normal functioning and energy.  Proper nutrition and feeding practices provide the essential nutrients necessary to ensure continued functioning and good health.  Under normal circumstances, the feed consumed by the
animal replenishes the nutrients which have been used up as the horse lives, works, plays, sleeps etc..

In contrast, when a horse suffers from food deprivation/starvation, the fats and carbohydrates are taken directly from the animal’s body to fuel its existence.  In the starving horse, these energy sources are not replenished by the intake of nutrients.  Eventually, the carbohydrate and fat energy
supplies, located in the body, are depleted -   forcing the horse to ‘tap into’ an alternative energy source.  The fuel that replaces the fats and carbohydrates is the protein found in the tissues of the body.

However, protein is not stored in reserve - as fats and carbohydrates are.  Therefore, the energy the horse needs for normal functioning is derived
from the breakdown of protein - which is a component of every tissue in the body.  In addition to utilizing the protein found in muscle tissues, a starving

horse will take protein from vital tissues as well - including the gastrointestinal tract and the heart.


In a manner similar to humans, the feeding of concentrated calories to a starving horse can lead to a condition called ‘Re-feeding Syndrome’.  This syndrome can cause kidney, heart and respiratory failure 3 to 5 days after the first feeding.

In ‘Saving Survivors,’ Dr. Stull explains that, ‘When you introduce calories you have an elevation in the insulin, when insulin increases; it starts an electrolyte shift that ultimately can cause a respiratory compromise.  Consequently, red blood cells collapse; with that, the patient doesn’t have
adequate oxygen transfer and the horse goes into this irreversible condition that can lead to death.” (King, 2003)

Electrolyte imbalances are at the root of the complications associated with ‘re-feeding syndrome’.  The more notable problems include hypomagnesaemia, hypokalemia and hypophosphatemia.  When carbohydrates,  or glucose, is fed to the starving animal these electrolytes are driven into the intracellular compartment causing a severe deficiency of serum electrolyte levels (UC Davis, Shelter).

When a starving horse is fed a high carbohydrate meal, insulin is released in response to the high starch levels.  Insulin is a hormone that stores carbohydrates in cells for use as an energy source.  At the same time, the released insulin pulls magnesium and phosphorous out of circulation and into the cell.  During starvation the horse’s electrolytes have been depleted and the starved horse doesn’t have additional stores available for normal functioning.  During the course of the next several days a cumulative effect occurs during each feeding of high carbohydrate feed.  The continued
depletion of these electrolytes can lead to death by respiratory, cardiac or kidney failure.  In such cases, death usually occurs within 3 to 5 days.


When re-feeding a starving horse some important points to remember include:

-   Re-feeding syndrome usually occurs within the first 3 to 7 days.
-   The recommended diet is high-fat and low carbohydrate.  Phosphate, magnesium    
and potassium levels must be adequate.
-   Alfalfa hay is recommended.  
-   The best approach is frequent small meals of high-quality alfalfa.  The frequency
should be decreased gradually and the amount fed increased gradually over a 10
day period.
-    After 10 days to 2 weeks the horse can be fed as much as it will eat.  Researchers
feel that this time period is critical for the successful transition of the gut from a  
starved state to a fed state.
-   The energy level of the horse will increase in about 2 weeks.  Animation of the ears, eyes and head will be the first noticeable movements.
-   Three to five months is the expected time frame to restore and rehabilitate the   horse back to its normal weight.

Careful monitoring of the horse is essential during the re-feeding process.  Serum electrolyte levels should be checked at least every 24 hours for the first 5 – 7 days.

Starved animals have impaired immune systems so they should be separated from other animals.

Physical symptoms to monitor for re-feeding complications include:  muscle weakness, neurological dysfunction {including weakness, seizures, coma, and cardiac dysfunction.  Hypomagnesaemia can produce irritability or aggression in the horse and hypophosphatemia can cause hemolytic anemia.  
Electrolyte imbalances may need to be corrected with fluid therapy if any of these symptoms are noted.

Because starvation impacts the renal and cardiac function, complications may also include excess fluid levels in the body.  This condition can be further complicated by the increased insulin levels which, in turn, cause a reduction in sodium and water excretion.

Another possible re-feeding obstacle concerns thiamine.  Thiamine is involved in carbohydrate metabolism so, the resulting deficiency caused by starvation may be aggravated by carbohydrate re-feeding.  If this occurs the horse may suffer from ‘Wernicke’s’ syndrome which may cause ocular
disturbance, ataxia or coma.  Thiamine supplementation should be provided.  Because oral absorption may be compromised, thiamine supplementation should be administered by injection.

Other than parenteral thiamine, no other supplementation is indicated during re-feeding.

According to Dr. Carolyn Stull, PhD the re-feeding recommendations are as follows (RioVista Products):

Days 1-3
Feed one pound (@ 1/6 of a flake) of leafy alfalfa every four hours for a total of six pounds per day divided into six feedings.  Contact a vet to evaluate the medical status of the horse.

Days 4-10
Slowly increase the amount of alfalfa and decrease the number of feedings so that by day six, you are feeding just over four pounds of hay every eight hours (total of 13 pounds per day in 3 feedings)

Days 10 – several months
Feed as much alfalfa as the horse will eat and decrease feeding to twice a day. Provide access to a salt block.  Do not feed grain or supplemental materials until the horse is well along in his recovery; early feeding of grain and supplemental material complicates the return of normal metabolic
function and can result in death.

*Provide clean, fresh water at all times.
*De-worming and correction of dental problems are very beneficial to the horse’s recovery.

Prevention is best defense for starvation:  

-  Always provide high quality forage equal to at least 1.5% of the horses
body weight.  Adjust the amount fed according to the horses BCS.  A BCS
between 5-7 is the ideal.
-  Analyze the forage fed and provide the appropriate nutrient supplementation for
the horse’s age, job and, activity level.
-  De-worm the horse based on fecal egg counts and veterinary recommendations.
-  Provide appropriate and regular dental and veterinary care.

In The Event of Starvation or Malnutrition:

-   Consult with a veterinarian and a nutritionist.
-   Re-feeding syndrome usually occurs within 3 – 5 days.
-  The best approach is frequent small meals of high quality alfalfa.  Gradually
increase the amount fed and decrease the frequency fed over a 10 day period.
-   Feed according to the guidelines set forth by Dr. Carolyn Stull PhD.
-   Closely monitor the horse for any complications that may develop during the recovery process.



Habitat for Horses

Stull, Carolyn, PhD, July 2003,  The Horse Report, UC Davis, Volume 21, Number 3,  pp456-457  ‘Nutrition for Rehabilitating the Starved Horse’, UC
Davis Medical Center.

Witham, Christine L.  DVM, MPVM,  Stull, Carolyn L.  MS, PhD, (1997)  Refeeding the Starved Horse: Metabolic Responses to Three Isoenergetic Diets, Authors’ address: Veterinary Medicine Extension,School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA 95616.AAEP.

Vandenbrink, Jackie, (March, 2007),    Nutrition Guest Speaker.
UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program
University of Minnesota, FAQ About Rescue Horses, College of Veterinary Medicine.
#5378 January 2005,  ‘AAEP 2004: How to Manage Starved Horses and Effectively Work with Humane and Law Enforcement Officials

King, Marcia, April 2003, ‘Saving Survivors, Article # 4283   Helpful Tips for Refeeding a Neglected Horse
By Carolyn Stull, the 2001 Hank Award Winner in the category of PHD/Veterinarian
Basic Guidelines for Operating an Equine Rescue or Retirement Facility

Henneke et al, 1983, Equine Vet Journal, pp 371 – 372, Body Condition Scoring
Dawson, Robert O., Professor of Law, University of Texas School of Law
(March, 2004), To Rescue a Starving Horse