Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
It is not difficult to feed a horse for weight loss. It’s not difficult to know what you should do. You may not notice any changes in your horse’s body that could indicate weight loss. One morning, it hits you: As he turns toward you in the paddock you notice a faint outline of each rib and that his haunches look a little less round. Your horse is clearly losing weight. Then suddenly, all your thoughts are racing through your head: What’s the problem? Is he ill? Do I not feed him properly?Some horses seem naturally more prone to weight loss; a “hard keeper” may have a metabolism that requires more than the usual amount of calories for maintenance.
Keep your chin up. Many thin horses are not suffering from “agroceroisis”–a lack in groceries, says Sarah Ralston, VMD and PhD, DACVN, Rutgers University in New Jersey. A horse losing weight is simply due to his caloric requirements not being met. He may be consuming more energy than he needs or not using the feed he does consume efficiently.
Next, ask yourself why? There are many factors that can lead to weight loss in horses. To help them regain their weight, it is important to first understand what is going on. Only then can you create a plan to get him back to his normal weight.
Why horses lose weight
Many factors can lead to a horse losing weight. In fact, he may have multiple health problems. Some horses are more susceptible to weight loss than others. A “hard keeper” horse may have a metabolic rate that is higher than normal or may lose his appetite and drop pounds due to slight changes in weather, management, or other factors. A horse that is under stress from travel, intensive training, herd squabbles, or other disturbances might eat less and/or lose more weight. If your horse suddenly begins to lose weight, even though it is otherwise healthy, consult your veterinarian. These are just a few possibilities.
* Illness. Weight loss can be caused by a variety of illnesses. Many will have other symptoms, such as colic, fever, diarrhea or lethargy. However, in some cases, signs of illness may be subtle or absent. Ralston says, “If your horse begins to lose weight and his diet hasn’t changed, it is important that you get an immediate veterinarian visit.” “Check your horse’s liver and kidney function, and check for chronic infections.”
Your veterinarian may recommend a fecal count and discuss deworming plans during the exam. Horses with a high parasite load will not only be starved of calories, but may also have a reduced ability to absorb nutrients from their food.
Your veterinarian can also look into possible causes of chronic pain that could cause a horse to stop eating his feed. Weight loss, tooth grinding, poor performance, and a grumpy attitude are all signs of gastric ulcers. It is possible to gain weight by treating any underlying conditions or injuries.
A horse with arthritis pain can also have difficulty getting to the hay feeders. Horses with arthritis pain will be able to access feed stations more easily in larger pastures. They can also graze comfortably from a net or rack at shoulder level.
Dental problems. Uneven wear of teeth can lead to hooks, waves, and other malformations that can inhibit chewing. Cracked, broken, or infected teeth can also cause pain enough to stop a horse chewing properly. A horse may also experience weight loss. Signs of dental problems include a horse’s inability to chew his food properly, poor breath, and fussiness.
Routine dental examinations–every six months for most adults horses or annually for seniors and those with past problems–can detect and treat any problems before they impact a horse’s overall health or body weight. A horse’s teeth can become severely damaged by the time he is in his 30s or 40s. To maintain his weight, he will need to eat soft foods such as senior feed, soaked hay pellets, or beet pulp.
Social problems. Horses living in stable herds have distinct social hierarchies. Those at the bottom of the pecking list–often the very young or the elderly–may be excluded from the hay feeder or other food sources. The best solution is to allow the lowest-ranking horse to be fed in a small stall or paddock. Horses in turnout have another option: distribute hay to multiple feeders or use one that horses can access from all sides, without being entrapped against a fence.
Remember that horses’ social status can change over time and can be affected by the addition or subtraction of other members. You should keep an eye on the conditions in the field so that no horses are being taken from their food or water.
Personality. They are the busybodies that run back and forth from window to door, soliciting attention from everyone and anything they can. These social butterflies might have trouble focusing on their meals. You might consider moving them to a more tranquil area or offering them larger meals at night, when the barn is quieter, to help them relax and focus on eating.
There’s also the picky eater who picks out the best bits of hay, pushes his pellets about or picks up the best bits. This horse may require you to be creative and experiment with different forage types or change its form. Horses that pick through hay may be more comfortable eating pellets or cubes. Sometimes, a horse that walks away from a full manger will eat the same amount if it is divided into six smaller meals each day. Slow feeders are hay nets and other devices that have small openings, which allow horses to take out small amounts of hay at one time. This keeps them interested in “grazing” for longer periods of time.
* Environment. Horses need more calories to keep warm in colder weather. However, extreme heat can cause horses to lose interest in food.
If a horse is having difficulty maintaining weight in winter, you can help him by bringing blankets to the barn and bringing him inside when the temperature drops. Shelter should be available to pasture horses so they are protected from the wind. Horses will be able to generate heat all day if they have access to hay at their disposal. Slow feeders can help keep the hay clean and extend the life of the ration.
Horses can be helped to cope with heat by being kept in a cool barn that has fans. Horses can run away from insects like horseflies by stomping and shaking their feet. Protecting your horse from biting flies in your area can help him focus on grazing. Fly sheets, traps, sprays, and traps are some of the options.
Water is vital all year. Dehydration can cause loss of appetite. It is important to install heaters and take other measures to stop water buckets freezing in winter. In summer, moving some outside water sources into the shade can make it more appealing. Sometimes, horses will eat more if they are fed more. However, he should not eat more than he can handle before the feed freezes or becomes rancid in summer heat.
After you have identified and dealt with the likely causes of your horse’s weight loss it is time to devise a plan to get the weight back on. Call a veterinary aid immediately if you have a horse that is extremely thin, or whose vertebrae and ribs are visible. Too much food can lead to serious digestive problems that could prove fatal for horses. If your horse is not very thin, you may be able to manage his weight gain by yourself. Just make sure to contact your veterinarian if you have any questions.
It’s a smart idea to create a system for accurately and objectively measuring the horse’s weight. There are many options. Regardless of which method you choose to use, keep track and record the measurements in a journal. You can add photographs to your records if you take them in good light and while your horse is on level ground. Don’t depend on your memory and eyes alone. You may have trouble recalling details later if you need to tell your veterinarian.
You should also establish a baseline weight in pounds of the current diet of your horse. You can purchase a food scale to weigh your horse’s current ration. Even flakes of hay can have a different weight. If you measure feed by volume, such as in a coffee can or other containers, you may find that your horse is receiving a lot less than the recommended amount. This is often determined by weight. It is important to determine how much feed your horse takes in order to increase his intake.
Consider implementing moderate exercise programs for horses who have been inactive. Although it may seem counterintuitive for a horse to lose calories in order to gain weight, the exercise will build his muscles and increase his appetite.
When you are creating your plan, remember to take it slow. Changes to horses’ diets should be done slowly. You can’t make your horse lose weight overnight. Changes in the horse’s diet suddenly can cause colic, laminitis, and other health problems.
The forage is the first.
You should first increase the horse’s feed gradually before you start shopping for new products. Forage is the cornerstone of a healthy horse diet. The average pleasure horse can keep a healthy weight by eating forage.
A horse must eat a daily diet of at least 2 to 3 percent of its body weight. At least 1.5 to 2 per cent of this needs to come from forage. This means that horses should consume two pounds of total feed per 100 pounds. For maintenance, a horse weighing in at 1,000 pounds will need 20 pounds. Weight gain may require more.Choose the highest quality hay you can find for your thin horse.
Ralston recommends increasing your horse’s intake of high-quality hay to help him gain weight. Ralston assumes that your horse is currently receiving a limited amount of high-quality hay. If your horse is currently 1,000 pounds and you want him to gain 1,100 pounds, your goal would be 2.5 percent of 1,100 or 27.5 pounds of hay.
It is also important to consider the quality of your forage. Poor quality hay or pasture can lead to horses getting too much fiber, not enough calories or nutrients. A professional extension agent can help assess the nutritional content of your pasture or hay. We must ensure that our horses receive hay at least partially of the year, as few areas in the country permit high-quality grazing.
For your horse’s thin legs, you want the best hay possible. This means hay that is green and has a minimum amount of mature seed heads and brown stalks. A quick way to test the quality of hay, is to squeeze some. If you are looking for a high-calorie feed, don’t choose stiff stalks that can hurt your palm. To get a more scientific analysis of your Hay, send it to a laboratory. They will assess the nutritional value.
A good way to increase the nutritional value of your forage is to mix a few flakes of high-quality alfalfa with a ration hay. Alfalfa has a higher protein and calories than grass hays. This makes it a great choice for horses who are trying to gain weight. Alfalfa hay pellets or cubes may be more appealing to horses who are prone to wasting their hay.
Beet pulp is another fiber supplement. It has about the same digestible energy level as good quality hay. Horses seem to love beet pulp. It can also be used as a matrix to add other supplements, such as oils and rice bran. It should be slowly introduced, one pound (dry) per feeding, and up to 0.5 percent your horse’s total body weight. Beet pulp is good for calories but not enough to replace regular horse food.
Fats are for calories
Although forage is the foundation of horse nutrition, it’s not a high-calorie food. Horses can only eat so much in a given day. If your horse is still not losing weight after several weeks of eating all the forage that he likes, it may be time to increase the calories in the ration.
The best way to increase horse’s energy is to increase its fat content. Fats are a lot more calories than carbohydrates and proteins, which offer about four calories per grams. Horses can be adapted to higher fat intakes if they are introduced slowly. This can help reduce concerns about high starch intakes like high-grain concentrates that cause wide fluctuations in blood glucose levels and insulin levels.
There are many supplements and feeds available that can safely help horses gain weight. Many contain high levels of fat, as well as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients that aid horses in building and maintaining muscle. These products can be expensive, but they are worth it if your hardworking hard-keeper wants to maintain his weight.
Vegetable oil can be purchased at the grocery store and used to increase your horse’s fat intake. It is easy to mix with his concentrate diet. Most horses find corn oil palatable, but canola or peanut oil are also good options. There will be much debate over the optimal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid in these products. However, if you want to gain weight on your horse, all fats can be used. As with all dietary changes, oil should be slowly introduced. Start with one quarter cup of oil per day and increase to two cups every other day for a horse that is average in size. Small horses and ponies will need less. Your horse may develop diarrhea or steatorrhea (fatty stool) if you give it too much. His manure will be oily from the oils he has not digested. Oils can also go rancid so make sure you store it in a cool area and give it a good sniff before giving it to your horse.
Rice bran, another fat source that horses love, is also rich in vitamin E and fiber. Rice bran has a high level of phosphorus which can cause a decrease in calcium levels in horses. You might consider feeding your horse a supplement of calcium or another food rich in calcium, such as alfalfa, if you are using natural rice bran. You can be sure to buy a horse-friendly rice bran product that has added calcium.
Rice bran should be slowly added to your diet, beginning with a small amount at a time and gradually increasing to one to two pounds each day. For commercial products, follow the label’s feeding instructions for exact serving sizes.
Concentrates are the final item.
Sweet feeds, starch- and/or sugar-based concentrates, and grains have long been the preferred high-calorie food choice for horses with thin legs, particularly those who are involved in hard work. These feeds are easy to use but can present health risks if they are fed in large quantities. Horses that eat more starch than they can digest in their stomachs and small intestines can develop colic or acute laminitis. Ralston says that although some horses are more sensitive than others to starches, you can inflict laminitis on any horse who is exposed to sudden grains/starch overloads.
Although commercial concentrates can provide a great source of calories for thin horses, they should be used with caution. Select a product that suits your horse’s age and activity level. Follow the label’s instructions to slowly introduce the feed to your horse’s diet.
Ralston says that horses should not be fed more than 0.5% of their body weight in concentrates in one meal. Five pounds is enough to feed a horse 1,000 pounds. You can give your horse more weight if he is a hard-keeper or an athlete. If he needs more, you can break it up into smaller meals that are spread out over the day.
Whatever type of concentrates or added fats your horse eats, ensure that he gets at least 1.5 to 2 percent of his daily forage intake. It is essential for his digestive health.
It is very simple to fatten a horse. The devil is in details. You may need to experiment with different combinations of fats, concentrates and forages to ensure your horse is healthy and strong. Consult an equine nutritionist if you are having trouble getting your horse to his ideal weight. It can be difficult to keep a horse from becoming obese, but it will pay off when you see him walking around the pasture looking strong, healthy, and happy.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!