Nutrition in the horse

If you haven recently noticed your horse has lost weight or he is a perpetually “hard keeper” there are a few things to consider before we just simply start adding calories.

There are a number of reasons why your horse may have lost weight so before you start throwing more food at them there are a few things to consider.

  1. Illness: a number of disease process will cause weight loss but typically there signs accompany this as well such as lethargy, off feed, diarrhea, and fever. Sometimes though the signs are so subtle that weight loss is the first thing you notice. We can check fecal egg counts, run laboratory tests such as a complete blood count and chemistry panel and a urinalysis to determine if there is an underlying cause to the weight loss. Pain due to stomach ulcers or chronic arthritis can also make your horse cranky and not want to eat.
  2. Dental problems: You may or may not recognize a problem with how your horse chews but one thing to look out for is dropping of feed or a bad odor from your horses mouth. Routine dental exams performed annually can catch or address and developing problems before they become an issue with weight loss.
  3. Herd heirachy: horses that live in the pasture with other horses have to adhere to a pecking order. Often the very young, very old or submissive horse will have to wait to get their ration of hay if at all. One solution is to distribute hay in multiple feeders throughout the pasture. Another alternative is to bring the low ranking horse inside during feeding times.
  4. Environment: Extreme weather conditions can alter a horses weight by making them lose interest in food. An extreme amount of energy is spent trying to keep warm. Allowing free choice hay to keep the internal temperatures up will help.

Once we’ve decided adding more calories is necessary a plan needs to be carried out. First a weight of your horse needs to be established. A weight tape is the easiest way to do this. Although not 100% accurate it will at least allow us to follow a trend of weight loss or weight gain.

Second: weigh out and write down exactly what our horse gets in feed in a 24 hour period.

Forage, fats and concentrates are what we will concentrate on.

To sustain a healthy weight a horse needs to consume a daily ration of 2-3% of his body weight each day and of that 1.5-2 % needs to be in forage. For example 20 lbs of hay for every 1000lbs of horse just for maintenance-more will be needed for weight gain. Increasing the forage to 2.5% body weight of good quality forage is a safe and effective way to increase calories. However there is so much forage a horse will eat in a given day and since it isn’t the most calorie dense of nutirents there are other ways to increase calories in your horse.

The safest way to increase the energy in the ration is to increase the fat content. If you gradually increase fat intake the horse tolerates it very well. One of the simplest and least expensive ways is to add vegetable oil poured over a concentrate. Corn oil, peanut, canola, are all palatable. Add ¼ cup up to a maximum of 2 cups per day for an average size horse. Rice bran is another good source of fat and it also comes fortifies with vitamin E and fiber.

Last but not least are concentrates. Grains, sweet feeds and other starch/sugar based concentrates are convenient but a diet high in these can pose health problems. Never feed more than .5% of your horses weight in a single meal.

So bottom line in getting weight on a thin horse is to feed more calories, by increasing the amount of hay, adding fat and some concentrates to the diet. Having accurate measurements prior to starting a feed increase is also key so you can add appropriate levels for weight gain. Keeping weight on a thin horse can be tricky but your efforts will be rewarded by seeing a happy healthy horse.

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