Understanding Your Horse's BC Score

Understanding Your Horse's BC Score

by Dr. Arthur B. King DVM

WINNING THE BEST CONDITION (BC) AWARD - or high vet score award, if one is available - is an important goal for many endurance competitors. However, the BC score, especially the equine score section of the BC evaluation form, is poorly understood by many riders and therefore they do not appreciate what they could or should do to improve their score.

The control judges at an AERC endurance ride are responsible for judging the horses that are eligible for the AERC BC award. Sections 9 and L9 of the AERC rule book contain the rules for the AERC BC award. The AERC control judge handbook (Guidelines for Judging AERC Endurance Competitions) contains additional information for BC judging. The AERC best condition evaluation form and instructions for its completion can be found on the AERC website.

The AERC rules state that a BC award will be available for an AERC endurance ride and may be available for an AERC limited distance ride. Any horse that completes in the top ten is eligible for the BC award. The award does not have to be presented if the control judges do not believe that any of the eligible horses deserve the award.

Although AERC does have a BC judging system, control judges do not have to use that system to judge the BC award. However, AERC will only award points towards the year-end regional and national BC awards for horses that have been judged using the AERC best condition system.

The control judge's role
Control judges have some leeway in interpreting and applying the AERC BC system and guidelines. For example the AERC guidelines recommend that the cardiac recovery index (CRI) assessment be used within 10 minutes to 15 minutes after completing the ride. However in some circumstances, this time may be extended, especially if the finish line is a considerable distance from a suitable location to complete the pulse and CRI assessment. The guidelines also recommend that the BC judging be performed one hour after completion. While this is the case for most events, BC judging after a 100-mile event is often completed the morning after the ride.

This is an advantage in that the judging can be done in daylight as opposed to after sunset. Another advantage is that the control judges can form a panel to judge the horses, as opposed to only one judge, usually the head judge, doing the judging.

When the control judges act as a panel each judge assigns a score from 1 to 10 for the soundness and quality of movement categories for each horse. These scores are then averaged to get the final score for those categories for each horse. The other three categories can be assigned to individual judges, with one judge assessing the same category on all horses. This should improve the consistency among the scores. Having one judge assess the same category on all horses also avoids the situation where a horse with a painful back or score girth gall is subjected to repeated palpation to assess pain by each of the judges.

The AERC definition of best condition is "the horse, at the time of the best condition examination, that is the best condition and deemed most fit to continue..." The BC evaluation form consists of the equine score sheet section and the ride management score sheet section. The ride management score sheet section consists of the time factor and weight factor.

Equine score sheet
The control judges, usually the head control judge, completes the equine score sheet section. This section, to a maximum of 500 points, is based upon the control judge's assessment of the horse's physical condition, usually based upon cardiac recover index and heart rate taken 10 minutes after the finish of the ride, and a complete evaluation, usually one hour after the finish of the ride. The horse's physical condition at the end of a ride will vary depending upon its fitness and the effects of the stress of the ride.

The time factor is based upon the horse's ride time (excluding hold times). A horse that travels at a faster speed is more stressed compared to a horse that travels at a slower speed. Since horses that travel faster have a shorter ride time. They are scored higher in the time factor category.

The weight factor is based upon the weight of the rider with tack. A horse that carries a heavier weight is subjected to more stress compared to a horse carrying a lighter weight and is accordingly scored higher in the weight factor. Therefore, the final best condition score reflects the horse's physical condition or equine score adjusted to compensate for the time and the weights factors.

Time and weight factors are readily understood since they are based upon the actual numerical measurements of time and weight. The equine score is less readily understood by riders. Although the score is based on some objective measurements (heart rate, skin pinch time, etc. ) it is largely subjective, based on the control judge's observations and interpretations of such factors as gut sounds, pain, impulsion and soundness.

The control judge is subjectively comparing, on a scale of 1 to 10, the horse being judged, to the judge's own perception of the "perfectly conditioned horse." A lack of consistency among control judges may lead to further misunderstanding of BC scoring among riders, especially if similar horses receive widely varying scores when judged at different rides by different control judges.

Standing and movement
The equine score has five categories divided into the standing and movement evaluation. The categories, worth 1 to 10 points each, are:

  • recovery
  • hydration factors
  • lesions producing pain and discomfort
  • soundness "
  • quality of movement.

A horse that is the epitome of fitness and condition in all five categories at the time of the BC evaluation would score a maximum of 50 points. A horse that scores the minimum of one point in all categories is not a horse that is dead or nearly dead, but rather a horse that is barely fit to continue in all categories.

A horse that is unfit to continue is ineligible to be judged for BC. Therefore a horse that is deemed to be unfit to continue when presented for the one hour or next day BC examination is to be excused from judging and is not scored.

Several years ago I developed a system to assist me in improving my consistency when assessing horses for BC, and to ensure that I use the full range of points in each category when assessing the horse (see chart).

Best condition recovery score
10 minute
1 hour


Recovery score.
The recovery score is based upon the heart rate and the CRI, usually at 10 to 15 minutes after finishing, and the heart rate at the BC examination. When I score this category I assign:

  • four of the 10 points (40%) based upon the heart rate at 10 minutes
  • three of the 10 points (30%) based upon the CRI
  • three of the 10 points (30%) based upon the heart rate at the BC examination.

If a horse is just at or above the heart rate parameter, i.e., 64 bpm at 10 minutes, it would be scored as 0 for the 10 minute heart rate. If the heart rate was 48 bpm or less at 10 minutes it would be scored 4 points. Heart rates of 60 bpm, 56 bpm and 52 bpm are scored 3, 2 or 1 points, respectively.

If the second pulse reading of the CRI is high compared to the first pulse reading, the CRI would be scored from 0 to 2 points depending upon the increase in the second pulse reading. If the second pulse reading of the CRI was the same or lower than the first, the CRI would be scored as 3 points.

One would expect the heart rate to be lower at the one hour on next day BC examination than at 10 minutes after the ride. If the heart rate at the BC examination is at or above 60 bpm the horse would be scored as 0 out of three points. If the heart rate was 48 bpm or less at one hour it would be scored as 3. Heart rates of 56 bpm and 52 bpm at one hour are scored as 2 and 1, respectively.

The hydration factors are scored as A, B, or C for horses that are fit to continue during the ride. At the BC examination I assign a numeric value to these scores. Any horse with any parameter scored as a D is not fit to continue and therefore ineligible for BC scoring.

There are five parameters in the hydration category:

  • mucous membranes
  • capillary refill time
  • skin tent
  • jugular refill
  • gut sounds

A score of A is 2 points, B is 1 point and C is 0 points. The maximum score would be A in each of the five categories, i.e., 2 points times five for a total of 10. Half points could be used where a score was + or -. For example if gut sounds were B+ the score could be 1.5 for the gut sounds parameter. A horse with a C rating in all categories would be scored as five times 0), adjusted to 1, since a score of 0 is not permitted in a category.

The category for lesions causing pain and discomfort at the BC examination is 10 points. I assign five points for tack related problems such as sore backs, girth galls, and other tack related rubs and scalds. The remaining five points are for non-tack related lesions causing pain such as wounds, interference marks, pain or heat in joints or legs, etc. The lesions are graded on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 means that if the wounds or pain were any worse the horse would be eliminated and 10 means that there were no painful lesions detected.

Soundness or gait is scored during the ride as A, B or C for sound, grade I or grade II respectively. For the BC examination, these are scored as 10 or 6.6 for A or Sound, 6.6 to 3.3 for B or Grade I, and 3.3 to 1 or C or grade II. Remember that any horse that is scored as grade III is unfit to continue and therefore ineligible for BC.

Quality of movement
The movement evaluation is performed at the BC examination, preferably at a location that:

  • provides firm and even footing
  • has few distractions for the horse, if possible
  • is well-lit if the judging is being done after sunset
  • has sufficient space to trot the horse in a straight line for at least 40 to 50 feet and in a circle at least 20 feet in diameter.

The horse is trotted in hand in a straight line away from and toward the judge(s) and either trotted in hand or longed in a full circle in both a clockwise and counter clockwise direction.

Quality of movement or impulsion at the BC examination is scored using the range from 10 to 1 point. If a horse is scored as 1 for impulsion it does not mean that the horse had no impulsion, i.e., would not move, but rather that the horse moved slowly, reluctantly or unwillingly, not animated and is presumed to be quite tired, and therefore barely fit to continue.

Ideally the horse should move freely and willingly, in stride with the handler and on a loose lead. Horses that move less willingly by the handler, or moving slowly on a tight lead, would receive a low score.

The final equine score is the sum of the scores in each of the five categories multiplied by 10. Some rides present an award to recognize the horse with the highest equine score or high vet score. The best condition award is won by the horse with the highest sum of the equine score plus the ride management score, i.e., weight and time.

For more information, view the AERC rule book, control judges handbook and best condition evaluation form. All are available online at www.aerc.org or by mail from the AERC office.

Reprinted with permission from Endurance News magazine, published monthly by the American Endurance Ride Conference, www.aerc.org, 866-271-2372.

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