Nothing is more frustrating than pouring feed into a horse who just won’t gain weight! The term we’ve dubbed for these guys, ‘hard keepers’, is conveniently generic. It packages everything from hardworking horses to idle patrons into one category—Those Who Won’t Put On Needed Pounds.
A healthy horse carries healthy weight, so I like to think that hard keepers remain deficient for a reason. However, with such a broad demographic making up thin horses , it can be a challenge to determine the source of the problem. Fortunately, focusing on the common denominator, IE the digestive tract, we can often run through a check list in order to understand why a horse won’t gain weight. Here are my top 7 plausible causes to run through when struggling to put weight on an otherwise healthy horse!
A horse’s intestinal tract is a maze of up, down, side to side, wide, and narrow. As the horse eats, nutrients break down via enzymatic & microbial digestion throughout the tract. However, horses consume quite a bit of non-feed material as well. Sand, soil, gravel dust, manure, and loose footing will end up in the tract as a result of the horse’s foraging nature. Most of this will pass through, but we often forget that gravity acts in the GI tract. In low areas, loose material can collect. Not only does this pose a colic risk, but it also prevents the enzymes present in sand covered areas from actively digesting feed stuff. Ergo, inefficient digestion.
Sand Clear!!! Psyllium crumbles in this product help to flush the tract of foreign material. A typical treatment lasts 5-7 days. If the horse lives in a compromised area, such as a dry lot or a region with loose dirt/sand, giving Sand Clear or a similar nutraceutical for a week out of each month will help to maintain a debris-free digestive tract.
Horses are designed to eat off the ground and chew in a circular motion to grind the forage they pick. When they stray from this balance, their teeth begin to wear in odd places. This wear unbalances the jaw, leaving points and ridges, and preventing the horse from an efficient chewing pattern. With this unbalanced mouth, a horse’s cheeks and tongue can become raw from rubbing their teeth. Moreover, due to the horse’s inefficient chewing pattern, he will sacrifice lbs of forage each day.
Have a dentist out to balance/float the horse’s mouth. Particularly with a horse who tends to wear quickly, he should be checked at least annually. While I love my vet, I like to have a professional who specializes in equine dentistry to float my horses’ teeth, as the process is delicate!
All horses have some parasite population in their GI tracts; it’s a normal occurrence for animals eating grass and living outside. However, when the worm population becomes too large and aggressive, it can cause ulcerations and digestive inefficiency.
De-worm the horse! A simple fix really, but due to the individual nature of parasite populations based on region/time of year, the horse’s biological environment, and the horse’s living situation, it is important to consult with a vet on de-worming a horse in trialing weight deficiency.
Horses are designed to forage— picking a small amounts of fibrous feedstuff all throughout the day. When we feed concentrate formulas to support a horse’s heightened nutritional needs, we literally feed concentrated energy to the horse. This energy can come from carbohydrates or fat. Within the realm of carbs, we have Starch, Fiber, & Sugar. So essentially, energy (weight management focused calories) comes from Starch, Fiber, Fat, or Sugar.
We run into problems feeding grain due to it’s high starch content. A horse’s small intestine can only break down so much starch at one time. The rest not only gets wasted, it actually damages the microbial environment in the hind gut, creating digestive inefficiency and discomfort. The problem lies in that cereal grains (corn/oats/barley) comprise many feed formulas, and with their high starch contents, we often end up pumping excessive starch into the horse.
For hard keepers who need to eat quite a bit of concentrate, look for formulas that have high quality fiber and fat sources as energy components. Feed ingredients such as beet pulp, soybean meal, alfalfa meal, rice bran, and flax are good fat & fiber sources that give a horse calories. Because fiber is broken down in the hind gut by microbial digestion, feeding 3-4 lbs at a time will not bother the GI tract, and it will break down to provide nutrient value more efficiently.
We often forget when feeding horses that about 75% of their daily nutrition comes from forage. This is SO significant, because even if we feed the highest fat, best quality concentrate available, but only offer mature timothy hay to the hard keeping thoroughbred, we will get nowhere!
Feed higher quality hay. The more mature the hay is, the more fibrous it will be. As the hay matures and fiber content increases, the protein content and overall forage digestibility decreases. If a horse needs to gain weight, feed the green, leafy flakes. Feed alfalfa! Offer the horse however much hay he wants. Horses will typically eat around 2%-2.5% of their weight in feedstuff each day. This means for a 1200 lb horse, 20+ lbs hay and 6 lbs concentrate is pretty reasonable. By increasing the forage digestibility via feeding quality forage, the horse will get more bang for the bulk!
I always get a kick out of feed labels that suggest feeding amounts for the “1,000 Lb Horse”. From concentrates to supplements to hay providers, the standard recommendations always assume the horse will be 1,000 lbs. This is often not the case. My 15.3 paint mare is every bit of 1300 lbs, and probably more. The standard 16 hand thoroughbred can easily hit 1250 lb without being hefty, not to mention the 17 hand warmbloods tipping the scale at 1500- 1700 lbs. We also have to consider that the horse’s workload will increase his dietary needs as he will have a higher metabolism.
Feed enough by the lb. At 1,000 lbs, a horse may get by eating 20 lbs per day, lets say 14 lbs forage and 6 lbs concentrate. However, at 1,500 lbs, the horse will need to eat about 24 lbs hay and 6 lbs concentrate. For the hard workers, feed more condensed energy- Higher fat/protein concentrate and richer hay. Where it is common to feed a few flakes of hay and a scoop(3qts) of grain a few times a day, for bigger horses or those with higher energy requirements, this may not be enough!
Due to management practices, stress levels, and genetic predisposure, most working horses have some degree of GI discomfort. We commonly hear about horses having gastric ulcers, where lesions form on the stomach lining due to excessive exposure to hydrochloric acid. Treating this ailment with Omeprazole (GastroGard) works well.
However, gastric ulcers are not the only form of GI discomfort. The risk for ulceration, inflammation, and rawness proceeds throughout the GI tract (stomach, small intestine, cecum, large colon, small colon). Risk factors for GI discomfort include stress, insufficient long stem forage, starch overload, malnutrition, microbial deficiency, diuretic use, sedentary life style, poor quality concentrate… etc. Particularly in sport horses, an uncomfortable, inefficient gut poses the most plausible explanation for a hard keeping horse.
Ideally, we find the reason for GI discomfort. A vet could be quite helpful in diagnosing a specific case. Concerning efforts in treating GI discomfort, there are options!
GastroGard offers a tried and true method for treating acute gastric ulcers. Plain and simple. This drug acts as a proton pump in the stomach, temporarily shutting down acid production and medicating local ulcerations.
However, if a horse is not suspected to have acute gastric ulcers, I like to work with nutraceuticals that coat/ lubricate the alimentary tract. GI Lubricants are oral treatments used at a maintenance level to help line the horse’s alimentary tract, coating ulcers, dry spots, and inflamed areas to alleviate pain and allow healing. Slippery Elm Bark Powder, Visceral, Marshmallow Root, and U-7 Gastric Aid are all effective nutraceuticals for treating and maintaining unspecified GI discomfort.
Feed through prebiotics & probiotics will help to repopulate the hindgut with a healthy microbial environment. When a horse’s GI tract is compromised for any reason, it disturbs the delicate microbial environment in the cecum and colon. Where these microbes break down most of the horse’s dietary energy, insufficient microbial populations reek havoc on digestive health. The kicker— the microbes do not quickly replenish after a stress period recedes. By offering a horse prebiotics & probiotics, we can help the horse to repopulate it’s major digestive function.
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An Empath’s Journey through the Horse Industry
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