What your Horse’s Weight says about their Performance

Research into optimum horse weight and its influence on performance have been conducted since the early 1980’s. It was established that horses perform at their best when they are at their individual optimum bodyweight. (Carroll et al, 1988) Optimum horse weight is determined by body condition and measurement/weighing with scales.

Horse weight and body condition should be evaluated taking into consideration variables such as breed, build, maturity, size and discipline (Milner et al, 1969). The Henneke System is a consistent method of objective evaluation of a horse’s body condition based on visual and palpable fat cover over a set of points on a horse.

Table 1: Equine Body Condition Score – Henneke System

Condition Score Area’s of Emphasis
1 – Poor Horse is extremely emaciated. The backbone, ribs, hipbones and tailhead project prominently. Bone structure of the withers, shoulders and neck easily noticeable. No fatty tissue can be felt.
2 – Very Thin Horse is emaciated. Slight fat covering over vertebrae. Backbone, ribs, tailhead and hipbones are prominent. Withers, shoulders and neck structures are discernible
3 – Thin Fat build up about halfway on vertebrae. A slight fat layer can be felt over ribs, but ribs easily discernible. The tailhead is evident, but individual vertebrae cannot be seen. The hip bones cannot be seen, but withers and neck are emphasized.
4 – Moderately Thin Negative crease along back. Faint outline of ribs can bee seen. Fat can be felt along tailhead. Hip bones cannot be seen. Wither, neck and shoulders not obviously thin.
5 – Moderate Back is level. Ribs can be felt, but not easily seen. Fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy. Wither rounded and shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body.
6 – Moderately Fleshy May have a slight crease down the back. Fat on the tailhead feels soft. Fat over the ribs feels spongy. Fat beginning to be deposited along the side of the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck.
7 – Fleshy A crease is seen down the back. Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat. Fat around tailhead is soft. Noticeable fat deposited along the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck.
8 – Fat Crease down back is prominent. Ribs difficult to feed due to fat in between. Fat around tailhead very soft. Area along withers filled with fat. Area behind shoulders filled in flush with the barrel of the body. Noticeable thickening of neck. Fat deposited along the inner buttocks.
9- Extremely Fat Obvious crease down back. Fat is in patches over rib area, with bulging fat over tailhead, withers, neck and behind shoulders. Fat along inner buttocks may rub together. Flank is filled in flush with the barrel of the body.

Research has compared the performance of horses with various body condition scores (Topliff et al, 1989). Results indicate that a body condition score of 5 appeared to be the most desirable for contributing to maximum performance. Horses at a condition score of 5 are able to store and effectively use dietary energy, have a slower onset of fatigue and improved thermal regulation. Thinner horses are more prone to early fatigue because they have to rely almost entirely on that energy that is derived from their daily diet. Fatter horses require more energy to dissipate heat and cool themselves, and therefore less fuel is available for performance activity.

Monitoring a performance horses weight on a regular basis is an essential factor in ensuring the optimum weight is reached. If scales or a weighbridge are not available, horse weight can be estimated using the following measurements and simple equation developed by NSW DPI (2009). Although less accurate than a set of scales, this estimate will often be within 12 kg of the actual weight and will help determine feed intake.

The recommended daily intake of dry matter for horses is 2.5-3% of the horse’s body weight. Horses undergoing intense work will often require feed and therefore energy at the upper end of this scale to maintain optimal weight and a body condition score of 5. The energy density and quality of the feed provided and the daily level of activity all influence the nutritional requirement (Topliff et al, 1989).

Proteins, along with carbohydrates are the two primary energy sources horses will utilize. Physical strength and performance are determined primarily by the integrity of muscles, and to build muscles a high-quality protein intake is required. Diets deficient in protein result in poor performance and reduced stamina in the performance horse. Alternatively, carbohydrates provide the energy stored in muscles, known as muscle glycogen (Barnes et al, 1995). Quality sources of non-structural carbohydrates for horses are oats, corn and barley as well as structural carbohydrates like hay and pasture.  Decreased performance and muscle fatigue are brought on by the accumulation of lactic acid and ammonia that occurs in the muscle when glycogen is used for energy. It is therefore essential that adequate carbohydrates be provided in the diet to replenish the glycogen stored in the muscle. Ranvet Nutritionists can review your horse’s diet to ensure the correct requirement of protein and carbohydrates are provided to maintain optimal horse weight and body condition score. Click here to complete our FREE Diet Evaluation Form.

Ranvet’s Power Formula supplements feeds that may be low in amino acids, vitamins and minerals to give horses full value from other nutrients in the feed resulting in peak condition and performance. Recovery is an essential part of a horses training program. Power Formula is specifically designed for racing Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

Ranvet’s Topline FX is a low starch, concentrated protein source that is specifically tailored to the needs of performance horses. Topline FX is ideal for maintaining your horses weight and maintaining muscle condition.

Written By Ranvet Nutritionist: Eliza Barton BAn Vet Bio Sc (Hons)


Barnes, T.B., Brewster, L.M., Lawrence, L.K., Warren, P.D., Sicilliano, A.C., Thompson, K. (1995) The effect of feeding after exercise on glucose and glycogen responses in the horse. Equine Nutrition. 29, 149-156.

Carroll, C.L., Huntington, P.J. (1988) Body condition scoring and weight estimation of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. 20, 41-45.

Milner, J., Hewitt, D. (1969) Weights of horses: Improved estimates based on girth and length. Canadian Veterinary Journal. 10, 314-315.

Topliff, D.R., Collier, M.A. (1989) Conditioning for athletic potential. Equine Nutrition. 17, 37-43.


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