Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
In the last few weeks, my 22-year-old mare has lost some weight. His ribs are visible and his spine is more prominent. I haven’t made any changes to his routine or diet. He is currently doing light work, and he lives in a stall. He needs to gain weight in winter, and I am concerned. But I don’t know how to do it. He currently receives good-quality grass hay, and a ration balancedr.
A.You’re right to be concerned about the unexplained weight loss in senior horses, no matter what time of year. It’s more concerning in winter because horses often have to regain weight when they are colder or wetter.
Eliminate all health-related causes
It is a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your horse. You might find that your horse is not chewing as well as he should. It is worth checking again, even if he has had a recent dental checkup in the last six-months. It is important to rule out any internal parasites. You may also be experiencing pituitary intermedia dysfunction (PPID). All horses experience an increase in levels of adrenocorticotropic hormonal (ACTH) during this time of the year. However, horses with PPID may experience significant elevations that can lead to weight loss and other health problems. Uncontrolled PPID can increase the risk of insulin resistance and laminitis in horses. Your veterinarian should be aware of this.
Weight loss can also be caused by pain, particularly in older horses with mild osteoarthritis. Horses may find it more difficult to get around due to this. Horses may lose motivation to go to the feeding areas and can also experience weight loss due to stress-related pain. Your veterinarian may recommend medication to ease your horse’s pain.
Your horse was boarded. Talk to your barn manager if your veterinarian is unable to find a cause.
Check for Hay Changes
Is the barn feeding a new hay load? Is it possible that the flakes have become lighter? It is possible that he is being fed the same amount of flakes, but the total weight of the hay is lower. This would lead to a lower calorie intake, and weight loss.
New hay may also have a lower calorie per pound. This means that even though the total weight of the animal is the same, the daily calorie intake could be lower. It might also not be as digestible if the new Hay is older and has more stem content.
Maybe the barn’s staff has changed and isn’t giving the horse the same amount of food as they used to. You might also want to check if your horse is leaving behind hay that was not removed when it gets mucked.
Increase Calorie Consumption
No matter what the answers are from barn management to these questions, it is important to increase your calorie intake. A sign that your calorie intake and calorie use are lower is weight loss. If your horse seems to be eating the hay provided, and there is good quality (plenty leaf and not too many stem), you might consider increasing his hay intake. My preference is to increase the forage intake before increasing grain intake. You might consider reducing your hay intake if the hay seems to have been cut at an older stage (with more stem), or you could look into one of these options:
- Alfalfa can be found in most barns, so if your horse is able to eat it safely, you might consider changing 25% of your horse’s hay intake to alfalfa. Alfalfa has more calories per pound than grass hay and higher levels of essential amino acids, so it may help with weight gain or muscle development.
- You might consider feeding your horse some pellets of hay ration. These are easier to digest, and can be beneficial for senior horses with good teeth.
If there is not improvement in body condition score within a few weeks of making these changes, it’s time to consider more aggressive steps.
Consider adding unfortified calories to your fortified ration-balancer’s diet, such as unmolassed rice bran and unmolassed beet pulp.
Beet pulp has a lot more calories than hay and is a great source for readily fermentable fiber. It is often used to increase weight. Horses can be fed up to half of their daily forage intake with beet pulp. Don’t be afraid, however, to increase the amount.
Rice bran is rich in fat and has moderate amounts of starch. Fats are an excellent way to consume more calories. Each gram of fat contains 2.25 times as many calories than a comparable weight of carbohydrate, protein or carbohydrate. Horses can often gain weight by consuming a few pounds of rice bran and beet pulp.
Do not go too heavy on fat, especially if you are feeding oil. Excessive fat intake can cause loose manure. Many fat sources, including rice bran, contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acid (which are associated with inflammation). When using oil for your fat source, gradually increase the amount of oil you consume over the course of several weeks. Keep total oil intake below two cups per day. You should choose oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids (which have been shown to reduce inflammation). A flax or camelina oil that contains more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 would be even better.
Use commercially-formulated feeds
You might be able to feed your senior animals commercially fortified senior feed if you have reached a point in which you are currently feeding several pounds of rice bran and beet pulp to your ration balancer. There are many good options. Most of them provide fermentable fiber and some have high levels of fat. Your horse won’t need a ration-balancing device as long as you follow the instructions.
You want to help your horse regain his lost condition before the winter weather becomes too severe and his need for calories to stay warm decreases his ability to gain weight. If you aren’t able to gain the desired weight, blanket your horse. The calories required to maintain body temperature can be reduced by blanketing, which will make it easier to maintain weight.