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 exampl e 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).
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.
To view the article on our website and to see an
example chart go to: http://wildhorseeducation.org/