Body “Scoring” and the Wild Horse

Wild horse in the Snowstorm HMA

Wild horse in the Snowstorm HMA

Body “Score” and the wild horse

We often get questions regarding body scoring of wild horses. During capture operations the Bureau of Land Management will often reference a “score of” and then give a number like 4 or 5 on the scale. Many people that write us make an assumption that because the number is not higher, the horses are in “bad shape.”

The accepted system for “scoring” a horses weight was developed by Dr Don Henneke in 1983. This system ranks horses from 1-9; 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. However the system relies not only on visual observation but an ability to palpate (touch) areas of fatty deposits on a horse. The system was developed for domestic horses.

In the case of wild horses we have some factors that need to be taken into account when using a “body score” as a justification, or dismissal, for the need to remove them from the range. The most obvious of which is that with wild horses any system would be “observation only” ranking (less accurate).

When using an observational body scoring method on wild horses one of the first variables that needs to be taken into account is a normal seasonal fluctuation that would not simply be used as a “health” standard. As an example a wild horse might be in a “4” at the beginning of summer, move into the “5/6” category as autumn arrives and then by the end of Winter fall into the “3+” category and then naturally repeat the cycle again.

Wild horses also experience natural physiological and psychological variables usual not present in a domestic population. The cycle of a reproductive wild population creates a seasonal tense dynamic as studs compete for mares. This often results in weight loss in healthy males on a healthy range. Mares that have recently given birth (and are nursing, most often just as new forage begins to grow on the range) also can experience a decline in “score” that does not indicate an unhealthy individual.

Domestic horses have the benefit of additional feed in colder months and supplements during times of physiological stressors. To assume that a wild horse would look like a domestic at all times of the year as an indicator of stress is illogical.

Factors such as breeds associated with each individual Herd Management Area (HMA) must also be a factor in observational scoring. Our wild herds are influenced by many breeds specific to “the land where they now stand,” and this makes them truly a living monument to regional histories. As an example an area influenced by thoroughbreds would have a more prominent withers than one heavily influenced by the Quarter horse.

A handful of older horses in a “score” of 2/+ in a herd of 100 horses is not an indicator of overall herd health, particularly coming out of winter (note in winter heavier coats make observational scoring more difficult, but not impossible).

However the opposite holds true as well. When more than half of the horses observed are in a score of 4 and winter is just beginning, rangeland health must be seriously evaluated. Rangeland health involves multiple factors that most often have at the root cause an historic overuse by domestic livestock, drought, fence lines and other surface disturbance that inhibit distribution of wild horses throughout their Herd Management Areas (HMAs). Very rarely have we ever seen an HMA that is considered “over populated” utilize more of the forage allocated for their use (Appropriate Management Levels, or AML, has not historically been based on any real sound mathematical equation).

So when you are out observing wild horses, or watching reports from roundups come in, please keep in mind that a “body scoring” must be filtered through the world of the wild horse before you use that as a baseline for assumption.

Below is the scale developed by Henneke.

HennekeScalechart used from River Road Veterinary clinic http://riverroadveterinary.com/the-henneke-body-condition-scoring-chart/ and is provided as reference for the above discussion.

We are working on a photographic seasonal reference chart.