Do you have one of those horses that is hard to keep weight on? One who seems to eat twice as much (or more!) than anyone else’s horse, but still shows too much rib and loses weight in winter, at competitions or when upset?
Nutritionists refer to horses like this as hard keepers. Most of the time, these horses have a ‘fast metabolism’ compared to average but there are some common health problems to look out for as well.
An underweight horse with a poor appetite doesn’t just look unhealthy, he or she will underperform due a lack of energy to work, will fatigue more easily and be vulnerable to injury and disease.
If you have trouble keeping weight on your horse, it’s important to understand why, and then tweak the diet to ensure you provide everything your horse needs. Begin by ruling out any medical issues then assess your horse’s comfort in his or her social situation and living environment.
Are there any health, environmental or social issues affecting your horse’s well being?
- First of all, work with a professional to make sure your horse’s teeth, mouth and gums are healthy and able to efficiently chew feed and forage.
- Ensure your horse is not carrying an internal parasite burden: ask your vet for the best worming protocol suited to your horse and area.
- Are there any underlying health or lameness issues? Pain or difficulty moving can interfere with a horse’s desire and ability to access food.
- Does the horse have gastric ulcers which cause pain and reduced appetite?
- Have medications, stress or trauma disrupted the gut microbiome, thereby reducing the horse’s ability to efficiently digest and obtain all the nutrients available from forage?
- Is your horse burning too many calories keeping warm? Providing shelter or rugs during cold weather conserves energy that can be used for weight gain.
- Feed your horse in a time and place where he or she can relax and eat without distraction. If another member of the herd has a tendency to ‘steal’ food, ensure your hard keeper is separated at mealtimes.
What makes Hard Keepers different?
Hard keepers need more calories to fuel their bodies than an average or ‘easy keeper’ horse. It’s an individual trait, but more frequently seen in horses with thoroughbred breeding. Some older horses become hard keepers as their digestive efficiency declines with age.
Hard keepers may also be more active than average – they move around more at rest in their yard or paddock. During work they may be more forward moving or even ‘hot’ in temperament thus burning more calories when in work or play. This means that they need to consume a more calorie-rich diet than a less active horse.
Some hard keepers tend to be more sensitive to ‘stressors’ in the environment, carrying the physiological effects of mild chronic stress and potentially leading to a decline in health. Mild stressors may include:
- confinement to a stable or small yard
- isolation from other horses
- conflict in the social structure of the herd
- inability to graze
- a heavy workload.
Major stressors usually create a sudden behavioural change or physical injury. Major stressors include trauma, extended transport, severe fright or anxiety and can cause an acute stress response.
Although horses with chronic stress often appear outwardly calm, their internal organs react automatically, causing gut muscles to cramp or spasm, causing bloat, diarrhea, and a slower rate of passage of food through the digestive tract. Stress reduces the efficiency of digestion, weakens the cells in the intestinal mucosa (leaky gut) and impacts on the gut microbial population. This further reduces digestive efficiency, gut acidity, vitamin availability, and immune function often leading to further weight loss.
Stress or hard work can leave the body short of the antioxidants needed to prevent free radicals from causing tissue damage in muscles, airways and gut linings. Feeding additional antioxidants including organic selenium and vitamins C and E before and after stressful events reduces the impact of oxidative stress and aids recovery.
Scientific trials clearly show that supplementation with a specific strain of live yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) reduces the impact of stress on gut microbial populations and reduces the levels of stress hormones measured in the blood. It does this by helping to maintain the natural diversity of the microbiome which stabilizes hindgut pH, removing a common cause of gut pain and vitamin B deficiency.
Keeping weight on a hard keeper requires a combination of managing the horse’s environment to reduce stressors where possible, providing the right nutrition, and using nutraceuticals to support gut health.
Tips for Feeding the Hard Keeper
- Provide free choice access to quality forage all day, every day! In some cases, this is the only change needed for weight gain. The equine digestive system is designed for grazing. All horses, including hard keepers, require AT LEAST 1% of their bodyweight (and preferably closer to 2%) in roughage every day for good gut health.
- When grass is not plentiful provide a good-quality, relatively soft grass hay.
- Lucerne hay is a terrific addition to lift the protein quality of the diet, but should be limited to 30% of the horse’s forage intake (i.e. 1 or 2 biscuits of lucerne a day, depending on horse size).
- If your hard keeper is older or has worn/missing teeth making grazing difficult, provide as much chaffed/cubed grass as your horse will eat. A blend of equal parts grass, lucerne and oaten or wheaten chaff is ideal.
- Hard keepers need to be fed a calorie-dense concentrate feed made from any of these ingredients:
- Cereal grains are calorie-dense and relatively cheap but are not suited to horses prone to gastric ulcers.
- Digestible fibre by-products such as beet pulp, copra or legume hulls, also known as ‘super fibres.’
- Legume grains (including lupins, chickpeas, soybean) are an alternative for these horses, but be careful not to overfeed protein. They are best fed in conjunction with super fibres.
You can use plain ingredients and add supplements, or buy pre-mixed hard feeds made from a combination of ingredients. We recommend the Equine Vit&Min range of supplements to top up and balance your horse’s diet.
Introduce new feeds slowly over a period of 10 to 14 days by gradually phasing out the old feed as you increase the amount of the new feed.
- Feed more small meals per day. Limit meal size to avoid overloading the hind gut with starch, causing hindgut acidosis, colic and/or laminitis. Keep meals less than 2.5 kg per hard feed; less for a pony. Large concentrate feeds should be split and fed in two to three meals over the day. For a 500 kg horse, a concentrate meal should weigh less than 2 to 3 kg.
- If feeding cereal grains, choose processed grains. Digestibility of uncooked cereals in the foregut is typically less than 20 percent. Cooking grains increases starch digestion in the small intestine to around 80 percent. All forms of cooking are beneficial, although extrusion improves digestibility slightly more than boiling, steam-flaking or micronizing. When boiling grains at home, ensure you cook them in plenty of water until they are very soft.
- Add oil to increase the calorie concentration of a hard feed. This is especially useful when feeding multiple meals of maximum recommended size but more calories are needed. Oil contains almost two and a half times as many calories as the same weight of grain. You can feed up to 1 ml oil per kg of horse bodyweight (introduced gradually) but must ensure you also add Farmalogic Omega Balancer to balance the total omega-6 intake. This important to modulate the immune system. Copra, rice-bran and oilseed meals such as full fat soybean meal are palatable high-fat feeds suited to fussy eaters.
- Make sure the diet provides all the vitamins and minerals your horse needs. This allows the body to function optimally and often results in improved ‘fuel efficiency.’ Vitamins and minerals can be supplemented by providing the full recommended amount of a quality pre-mixed feed, or by adding the appropriate Equine Vit&Min powder or pellet.
- If feeding a reduced rate of pre-mixed pellets or muesli, use an Equine Vit&Min balancer powder to top up and balance your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements. Remember that it is possible for a horse to be deficient in one mineral even if the recommended daily intake is given unless all minerals are provided in correct mineral ratios.
- Consider adding a daily serve of Farmalogic Rejuvenate live yeast probiotics and prebiotic fibre to nourish the beneficial microbes in the horse’s digestive tract. Live yeast is proven to support a healthy gut microbiome and to improve feed use efficiency, so your horse gets more nutrition from every mouthful.
- If your horse is working hard or competing and being transported it can be worthwhile adding Farmalogic Melox, a concentrated source of antioxidants during the recovery phase.
Ulcers, Nutraceuticals and Loss of Appetite
Horses under stress often suffer gut dysbiosis leaving them with a sudden reduction in the beneficial microbes they rely on to ferment fibre and produce many of the B-group vitamins required in the diet.
Even a small deficiency in B group vitamins can cause appetite suppression and lead to nervous system disfunction than can result in behavioural changes.
This can be the beginning of a downward spiral which includes picky eating and can lead to gastric ulcers (due to lack of gut fill) which further exacerbates lack of appetite.
Studies show that equine gastric ulcers can form in an empty stomach during a period as short as four hours or in only a few hours of transport where stress is an exacerbating factor.
Owners often feed high starch sweet feeds and grains to encourage their fussy horses to eat, but the starch in these feeds can exacerbate the problem. Although the horse wants to eat the tasty feed, he or she learns that gut pain follows eating a high starch meal.
If you suspect your horse has gastric ulcers, consult with your veterinarian for a full diagnosis and medication as required. Nutraceutical support with Farmalogic ReLEAF can assist in management of horses with ulcers.
Nutritional support before, during and after stress with vitamin B complex, antioxidants, prebiotics and probiotics can help to maintain and restore appetite.
Tips to Tempt a Fussy Eater
- Feed smaller meals more often. Remove old feed within a few hours and give the next feed in a clean feed bin.
- Experiment with different moisture content of feeds. A slightly moist hard feed is ideal, but some fussy horses will only eat dry or wetter feeds.
- See whether your horse prefers pellets, muesli or mash style textures.
- Add vitamin B complex to boost appetite.
- Add live yeast probiotics to help stabilise gut acidity and the microbiome.
- Horses with gastric ulcers should avoid sweet feeds, sugar/molasses and high starch meals which, although tasty, may cause gut pain after ingestion.
- Ensure a constant supply of fresh, clean water.
Performance horse owners are often pleasantly surprised how much difference a few changes in the horse’s environment, improving the mineral balance of the diet and adding good probiotics can make to the health and well-being of their hard keeper horse!
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