Nothing is more frustrating than pouring feed into a horse who just won’t gain weight. The term we’ve dubbed for these horses, ‘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 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, the digestive tract, we can run through a checklist to narrow down why a horse won’t gain weight. Here are 7 common causes to run through when struggling to put weight on a 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 from effectively 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 treatment each month may 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 an unbalanced mouth, a horse’s cheeks and tongue can become raw from rubbing his 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 vets are most ambulatory vets offer dental work, I recommend choosing someone who specializes in equine dentistry to make the most accurate adjustments to the horse’s dentition.
All horses have parasitic population in their GI tracts; it’s a normal occurrence for animals eating grass and living outside. However, when the parasite 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 protocol for the horse.
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 will come from carbohydrates or fat. Within the realm of carbs, we have either starch or fiber.
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 a grain or concentrate ration that has an excessive starch content. When this is the case, we often end up pumping an unhealthy and unsustainable amount of starch into the horse.
For hard keepers who need to eat considerable amounts 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, supplementing more of this will not disrupt the GI tract as would supplemental starch content.
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 absolute best 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 less digestible 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 mixes. 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. A 16 hand brood mare is every bit of 1300 lbs, and a 17 hand warmblood will easily tip the scale at 1300-1400 lbs. We also have to consider that the horse’s workload will increase his dietary needs as his metabolism increases.
Feed enough for the weight. 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 of similar metabolism may need to eat about 24 lbs hay and 6 lbs concentrate. For the hard workers, feed more condensed energy with higher fat/protein concentration and richer hay. Where it’s common to feed a few flakes of hay and a scoop (3qts) of grain a couple 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 predisposition, 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, rawness, and stagnation 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, pH imbalance, 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 and inefficiency. A vet will be 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 allowing local ulcerations to heal.
However, if a horse is not suspected to have acute gastric ulcers, it may be helpful to use a different method of management. More and more, products designed to coat and strength stomach and intestinal lining are helping maintain the horse at risk for gut problems. Products like Alimend, Resolvet’s Relyne, Visceral, and SmartGut Ultra are a few that could be worth trying when a gastroscopy is unremarkable.
Moreover, 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 or an acidic microbial environment reek havoc on digestive capacity. 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. Products such as Vitalize Digest More +, Resolvet Revyve, and Succeed are effective options for microbial support.