7 Potential Factors Contributing to Hard Keepers

Nothing is more frustrating than pouring feed into a horse who just won’t put on weight! The term we’ve dubbed for these guys, ‘hard keepers’, is conveniently generic, packaging hardworking horses, idle patrons, and everything in between 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 group to look at, it can be a challenge to determine the source of the problem. Fortunately, focusing on the common denominator via digestive tract, we can create a check list to run through in order to understand why a horse won’t gain weight. Here are my top 7 possible causes to run through when trying to put weight on a Hard Keeper!

7~ Sand Build Up 


A horse’s intestinal tract is a maze of up, down, side to side, wide, and narrow. As the horse eats, the nutrients break down via enzymatic & microbial digestion throughout the tract. However, horses also consume quite a bit of non-feed material as well. Sand, soil, gravel dust, manure, and loose footing can end up in the tract as well. 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 is this a colic risk,  it prevents the enzymes present in the covered area from actively digesting feed stuff. Ergo- inefficient digestion.


Sand Clear!!! Psyllium Crumbles help 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 area with loose dirt/sand, giving Sand Clear or a like supplement for a week out of every month will help to maintain a clear digestive tract.

6~ Dental Problems


Horses chew in a circular motion, and are designed to eat and wear their teeth with their heads on the ground. When they stray from this balance, their teeth begin to wear in odd places, unbalancing 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 come to float my horses, as the process is delicate!

5~ Intestinal Parasites


All horses have some parasite population in their guts; 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, however, 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 worming a horse in trialing weight deficiency.

4~ Too much Starchy Energy


When we feed concentrate, we literally feed condensed 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, because it is quite starchy. A horse’s small intestine can only break down so much starch at one time. The rest is not only wasted, it actually damages the microbial environment in the hind gut, creating digestive problems. The problem lies in that a lot of feed formulas are comprised of corn, oats, and barley- cereal grains (aka Starch energy).


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 like 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 won’t be as detrimental, and it will break down more efficiently.

3~ Insufficient Quality Forage


We often forget when feeding horses that about 75% of their daily nutrition comes from forage. 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, and this translates to less protein and digestibility. 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, 18 lbs hay and 6 lbs concentrate is pretty reasonable, so make the forage count!

2~ Size and Metabolism


I always get a kick out of feed labels that give suggested amounts for the “1,000 Lb Horse”. From concentrates and supplements to hay providers, the standard recommendations always assume that the horse will be 1,000 lbs. This is often a misconception. My 15.3 paint mare is not fat, but she is every bit of 1300 lbs, and probably more. The standard 16 hand thoroughbred can easily hit 1250 lb with out being hefty, not to mention the 17 hand warmbloods tipping the scale at 1500- 1700 lbs. We also have to consider that if the horse is fit and working, he will have a significantly higher metabolism.


Feed enough by lb. At 1,000 lbs, a horse will get by with 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.

1~ GI Discomfort


Due to management practice, stress levels, and genetic predisposure, I believe that most working horses have some degree of GI Discomfort. We commonly hear about horses having gastric ulcers, where lesions form on in the stomach lining due to excessive exposure to stomach 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). The list of risk factors is a long one- stress, insufficient long stem forage, starch overload, malnutrition, microbial deficiency, diuretic use, sedentary life style, poor quality concentrate… etc.


Ideally, we find the reason for GI discomfort. A vet could be quite helpful in pinpointing risk factors for a specific case. Concerning efforts in treating GI discomfort, there are options!

GastroGard is a tried and true method for treating gastric ulcers. Plain and simple. If a horse is not suspected to have this specific problem though, I like to work with lubricants. GI Lubricants are oral treatments used at a maintenance level that 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 good supplements to add to a horse’s diet to treat and maintain broad spectrum GI discomfort.



About Madison Maavere

Hello, I am a young professional in the equine industry with a passion for improving horses' physical health and emotional wellness. I grew up riding horses in north Georgia and by the time I was 10, I decided I wanted to ride professionally. This dream grew into the mountain that I climbed every day, striving to reach the top. Until I was 16, I did not have my own horses, so I began diving whole-heartedly into any barn that would allow me to work off rides, training, and showing. While this path may not have gotten me the most blues in the show ring, it opened my eyes and my heart to the vastness of the horse world and how perception based it can be. When I was 16, my family moved out on 6 acres so I could have my horses at home (IE, so my family could see me on a daily basis), and for this, I am truly grateful. Running my own farm, albeit small, was liberating and humbling, and it revealed to me that my passion was not so much for riding sport, but for the love of the horse. Fast forward 6 years, and I am well into my final year as an undergraduate Equine Science/Management major at the University of Kentucky. I have been so fortunate in the opportunities I've received here and the relationships I've been able to build. The cutting edge research, quality horsemanship, and innovative businesses located around Lexington, KY have given me a strong sense of reality, and inspired me to really look at where I can make an impact in today's horse world. What I've realized is that while I like equestrian sports, I love the horse. Moreover, I love to help the horse. I want it to be happy and relaxed, to be sound and comfortable, to eat well and be healthy. I want the horse to have every defense against pathalogical disease, and I want it to have skill sets that people value so it can live a long, loved life. In this love, I feel called to advocate for the horse. I want to learn everything I can about how to improve horses' sustainable wellness, and I want to share what I learn so that horsemen of all experience, backgrounds, and goals can feel inspired and enabled to improve their horses' lives. It is my true desire to initiate and spread a dynamic in which horses are not for the industry, but the industry is for the horses.

1 Response

  1. Jen Munday

    Good luck with this wish and I personally have wanted to make a difference in the industry like this for decades! Like you, I had to work for everything I ever did, do much of my own training, all my own grooming, shipping, care, ride any horse that I was asked to because I love horses and believe the more types of horses you ride, the more you learn about their individual attitudes and how best to bring along young horses in a healthy/happy way so that they trust the rider, not through force and harsh tactics. Unfortunately, in my sport, there are not as many “horsemen” as Archie Cox would put it, but just “riders who’s knowledge of horses begins and ends at the mounting block” where their horses are passed off to a groom and their ends the “relationship” with the horse. Every horse I ride, whether it’s owned by someone else or myself is treated as a unique individual…I like to talk to them, pet them, look them in the eye, just to begin building a calm partnership before even approaching the mounting block. I agree with everything you are saying, I just don’t see it happening as much, while horses just get traded around/sold simply because they aren’t winning that particular time instead of the owner trying to figure out why the horse isn’t going as well as before, like they can afford to simply write the check for the currently winning Horse, so why not just dump the other one, so you don’t miss a single Horseshow of being Champion. It’s heartbreaking to see that become the predominant attitude because, to me, these are my children. They eat before I eat, they are clean and tucked in a cozy stall with plenty of shavings (even if I must buy extra myself because many boarding facilities don’t keep enough in the stalls for my geldings to even want to lay down🤭)or turned out in a safe wooden fenced pasture (only if it’s not going to rain to prevent scratches). I read articles on the latest supplements, feed, Hay, Vet care current teqniques instead of Cosmo when I’m sitting in my Dr Office waiting room. I wish more people were interested in Equine husbandry as was your statement, instead of just immediately having to win. The industry would be much better off, since the horses would be much healthier & happier!


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