Helping Hearts Equine Rescue, Inc

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Neglect, Abuse, Starvation . . . . .this is the "other" big problem facing horseman and horse rescues--along with the horse slaughter issue.   Sometimes neglect and starvation is blatant and purposeful, sometimes people are "just" ignorant of their new animals' needs, or in this economy, are in over their heads.  The result is the same.  Horses don't get adequate nutrition, they get thin, they suffer.  They tend to languish in their fields, stables and backyards-- sometimes their owners finally take them to auction or offer them for sale and giveaway, when their condition is degraded and their value is  worthless, or nearly so, in the open market.    At that point, the horses' main and often only option, is the kill pen.....IF the meat dealer will take a horse that's a bag of bones (a "skinner").  These horses aren't worth anything to the meat-dealers either - - who wants to slaughter a horse for meat when there isn't any?  No-One.  Often those horses are refused at auction too. Where do they wind up?

Over the years, body condition scoring scales have been devised to evaluate a horse's condition.  These scales are useful in the case of a starved/neglected horse situation, in helping law enforcement determine if abuse is occuring and if laws are being broken. 

I am listing here two scales that are used.  The first,The Henneke Scale, as you will see, was devised in Texas and is pretty much used universally by most states and organizations in determining a horses body condition.  The second, is referred to as the Carroll & Huntington Body Condition Scoring System.  This is the system that is utilized by our home State of New Jersey, per NJ State Statute, to determine body condition.  This system was developed abroad, I have been advised by Dr. Nancy Halpern of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture that this standard was  "specifically adopted because of the accompanying schematics that allow for ACO's and SPCA agents not knowledgable about equine health to make a determination of body score." I am in the process of procuring the exact schematics so that everyone can be on the same page, so to speak.  So that when neglect is suspected, we are all discussing the same number scale. When I receive the 'schematic standards', I shall list them here as well.

The Henneke Scale: Determining the condition of a horse

Don R. Henneke, Ph.D., of Tarleton State Texas University, developed the Henneke Body Scoring Condition Chart in 1983. The original purpose of the system was to determine the fertility of thin mares. It 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 horse cruelty cases. The chart is accepted in a court of law.

The chart covers six major parts of the horse; neck; withers, (where the neck ends and the back begins) the shoulder area; ribs, loins, and the tailhead area. 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 nine is extremely fat or obese. A horse that is rated a 1 on the Henneke Chart is often described as a walking skeleton and is in real danger of dying. Courts in the United States have upheld the seizure of such horses by law enforcement citing exigent circumstances, meaning there was a very strong possibility the horse would die unless immediate action was taken. Horse veterinarians consider a body score of between 4 and 7 as acceptable. A 5 is considered ideal.

Observers are trained to visually inspect the horse and also to palpate each part of the horse with their hands to feel for body fat. The observer then assigns 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 the person scoring the horse use their 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.

People working in this field will refer to the horse as being a "1 on the Henneke" or a "3 on the Henneke". 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.

Defense attorneys cross examining veterinarians and horse experts argue that the chart is not scientific. As one full time equine vet stated, "No it is not scientific, but it is as close as we are going to get."

Description of the Condition Score System

Score Description

1 - Poor:

Emaciated. Prominent spinous processes, ribs, tailhead and hooks and pins. Noticeable bone structure on withers, shoulders and neck. No fatty tissues can be palpated.

2 - Very Thin:

Emaciated. Slight fat covering over base of spinous processes. Transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded. Prominent spinous processes, ribs, tailhead and hooks and pins. Withers, shoulders and neck structures faintly discernible.

3 - Thin:

Fat built up about halfway on spinous processes, transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat cover over ribs. Spinous processes and ribs easily discernible. Tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be visually identified. Hook bones appear rounded, but easily discernible. Pin bones not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.

4 -Moderately Thin:

Negative crease along back. Faint outline of ribs discernible. Tailhead prominence depends on conformation, fat can be felt around it. Hook bones not discernible. Withers, shoulders and neck not obviously thin.

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.

6 - Moderate to Fleshy:

May have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs feels spongy. Fat around tailhead feels soft. Fat beginning to be deposited along the sides of the withers, behind the shoulders and along the sides of the neck.

7 - Fleshy:

May have crease down back. Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat. Fat around tailhead is soft. Fat deposits along withers, behind shoulders and along the neck.

8 - Fat:

Crease down back. Difficult to palpate ribs. Fat around tailhead very soft. Area along withers filled with fat. Area behind shoulder filled in flush. Noticeable thickening of neck. Fat deposited along inner buttocks.

9- Extremely Fat:

Obvious crease down back. Patchy fat appearing over ribs. Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck. Fat along inner buttocks may rub together. Flank filled in flush.

Carroll & Huntington Body Condition Scoring System
The Scale that New Jersey Follows per State Statute
 Body Condition Scoring

The body condition score system described here is mainly based on the system described by Carroll and Huntington (1988)(1). Palpation and visual inspection of the ribs, tailhead area, neck and withers, and behind the shoulders, facilitates the comparison of horses with differing amounts of stored body fat, independent of body size or breed of horse.

Figure 2 shows the profile lines for the various body condition scores. The profile of BCS 0 and 1 follow the anatomical skeleton and describe stages of emaciation and extremely thin respectively. A score of 3 has a smooth appearance to the skeletal structure and represents a horse in optimum body condition for maintenance and is neither gaining nor losing weight. Horses scoring 3+ to 4 have a rounded appearance to their skeletal structure. They are in above average flesh but this should not impair their reproductive ability, especially if they are being maintained in outdoor housing during the winter.

A long hair coat can be misleading. Some conformational differences make it difficult to apply certain criteria to a specific animal. For example, animals with prominent withers, or flat across the back and mares heavy in foal (weight of the foal pulls skin taut over the ribs) may cause body condition scores to be lower than they actually are. However, when properly applied, the scoring system is independent of size or conformation of the horse.

Figure 2. Lumbar Vertebra-Anterior View Indicating Profile Lines for Each Body Condition Score


 A chart showing the body conditions of horses from Score 0 (poor) to Score 5 (fat)
Figure 3. Body Condition Scoring (adapted from Carroll C.L. and Huntington P.J., Body Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses)
When evaluating animals, there will be an animal-to-animal variation; thus the use of the terms "easy-keeper" and "hard-keeper". Easy-keepers include any of the individuals of the draft breeds, ponies and quarter horses. They also include the dominant animals in a herd situation. Hard-keepers include many of the individuals of the following breeds: Arabian, thoroughbred and gaited horses. Hard-keepers will also include the shy individuals who are lower on the pecking order in a herd situation. Table 1 summarizes the various body condition scores, while Figure 3 depicts the changes in body appearance.

Table 1. Descriptions of Anatomical Differences Between Body Condition Scores








Back & Loin 




 Hind Quarters

 0 Very thin

bone structure easily felt- no muscle shelf where neck meets shoulder

bone structure easily felt

3 points of vertebrae easily felt (see Figure 2)

each rib can be easily felt

tailhead and hip bones projecting

 1 Thin

can feel bone structure- slight shelf where neck meets shoulder

can feel bone structure

spinous process can be easily felt
- transverse processes have slight fat covering

slight fat covering, but can still be felt

can feel hip bones

 2 Fair

fat covering over bone structure

fat deposits over withers - dependent on conformation

fat over spinous processes

can't see ribs, but ribs can still be felt

hip bones covered with fat

 3 Good

neck flows smoothly into shoulder

neck rounds out withers

back is level

layer of fat over ribs

can't feel hip bones

 4 Fat

fat deposited along neck

fat padded around withers

positive crease along back

 fat spongy over and between ribs

can't feel hip bones

 5 Very fat

bulging fat

bulging fat

deep positive crease

pockets of fat

pockets of fat

As a guide to learning the scoring system and interpreting the results, examples of "typical" condition scores are listed below. There will be a range of condition within each score so it is sometimes convenient to assign +'s and -'s or half point scores as in 2.5 or 3.5.

Score 0
  • with sunken rump and deep cavity under tail, skin tight over ribs; e.g., severely debilitated older horses with abnormal teeth occlusion, starvation.
 Score 1.0
  • very thin with prominent pelvis and croup, ribs visible
 Score 2.0
  • thin with flat rump, croup well defined, some fat; e.g., mare that has been severely dragged down by milking while on poor pasture.
 Score 2.5
  • e.g., racing condition or endurance horse.
 Score 3.0
  • ribs and pelvis covered with fat and rounded; e.g., a halter horse in prime show condition.
 Score 3.5
  • e.g., mature mare in mid-gestation.
 Score 4.0
  • fat covering ribs and pelvis requiring firm pressure to feel; e.g., an easy-keeping, mature horse on pasture with little or no work.
 Score 5.0
 Very Fat
  • severe over condition with ribs and pelvis that cannot be felt, deep gutter in back; e.g., a fat pony prone to founder (laminitis).


A consistent method of body condition scoring is a useful management tool. It will improve communication between stable employees, owners and veterinarians by providing a descriptive method, which is affected by changes in nutrition, physiological level of activity, or environmental conditions. It promotes a better awareness of feed utilization and allows for changes to feeding regimes based on individual and/or herd responses.

 --This information is taken from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs Fact Sheet.

 New Jersey has comprehensive anti-cruelty statutes. NJ classifies horses as livestock and under this classification, they are protected under laws that do not include dogs and cats.  The laws are under NJAC 2:8.  Chapter 8 - Humane Treatment of Domestic Livestock.  Subchapter 3: Standards for Horses.  2:8-3.1 through 2:8-3.7.   Subchapter 2:8-3.2  Feeding, New Jersey states:
4.  Each horse must have a BCS of at least a level 2.0 using the BCS-horse provided, however, a score lower than a 2.0 may be permitted for a reasonable period of time if state or level of production, physiologic condition, or other factors result in such an appearance, during which time the horse's management is being altered to improve the condition.
 i.  For purposes of (a)2ii above, a 'reasonable period of time' refers to the amount of time it would be expected to take to restore an animal to an acceptable body condition, using diligent efforts to do so.
ii.  A score of 1.0 is permitted at market.
 5.  If pasture alone does not provide sufficient nutrients to adequately maintain the BCS-horse, supplemental feeds must be provided in sufficient amounts to maintain the minimum acceptable BCS
6.   Horses unable to maintain a BCS-horse which meets the minimum standard set forth . . . above due to group feeding practices, must be fed in such a manner that allows the horse to maintain acceptable BCS.
(I have the full regulations as a pdf. file- - if anyone would like to read the full sub-chapter regarding horses, I can email it to you)
 NOW, if you look at the charts, a 2.0 on the BCS-Horse Scale is not quite up to general equine industry standards--and a horse in that condition would be cause for concern for the majority of us.  But, we are lucky in NJ, that we at least have a state-wide, state-regulated minimum standard.  No-one says that horses should be maintained at that weight, but it is a minimum standard for New Jersey, below that action can be taken against the owners.  That is why we can be very, very upset at a horse in a ribby, unthrifty condition, while the authorities are unable to do anything unless and until the condition of the horse-in-question deteriorates further.   The state wants to educate owners, not prosecute.  If the owners are tough and stubborn about it, unfortunately, there's not a lot that can be done.
In that sort of situation, all we can do is hope to educate the owner in proper horse management, perhaps they are unaware of the condition, it snuck up on them, so to speak.  Also, to point out that, if nothing else, that minimum standard, while legal, isn't condusive to the horse maintaining it's value in the equine market-place--at a certain point, once it's a "1.0", they'll have difficulty even selling the horse for slaughter.  That argument may hit home better than an emotional your-starving-your-horse routine that will cause them to get defensive. 
Actual photos from Helping Hearts' Caseload:
 Oliver & McCaine were both "0" on the BCS-Scale.  Oliver recovered after a week of incredible group-effort to keep him alive.  Sadly McCain succumbed to his condition 6 days after arriving.   
 Logan arrived a "1.0" on the BCS-Scale, by the time he arrived here, his fetlocks were hitting the ground from his tendons collapsing due to starvation.  Logan fully recovered & now carries more weight than in this 'after' photo.
Bentley, on the left, would probably be considered a " low-2.0", which is the minimum standard per state statute. By "industry standards", he needs to gain 300+ lb s, as he's a Clydesdale.  
Simon  on the right, would be considered a "2.0"
Now, he's probably a "4.0"



 Hoof Neglect ---

Tabitha was humanely euthanized on October 19 due to complications and after-effects of her neglected and damaged feet. 

  June 21, 2010~, I received a phone call about two ponies in Ocean Cty that needed placement. I went out to see them on 6/23.  On 6/26 I received word ~ #1 that they were out of hay; and #2 that they had to be OUT by this Weds.--the electric in the barn had been shut off by the landowner.  

Dr. Perris met us here in the afternoon to examine the ponies.  Blood was pulled for Coggins', xrays were taken of the little mare's feet and we cut;took xrays again; and cut again.  At this point, we've put together a treatment protocol for her, so it looks like she's staying a while. We've taken off a TON off hoof; We need to start bringing down the heels next week; she's sore-footed and has foundered, started her on Bute to get her more comfortable.

 Footnote-- Tabitha succumbed to the damaging effects of this long-term neglect on Oct. 10, 2010.  Rest in Peace sweet girl.