Feeding the Hard Keeper

The following post is written by Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Juliet Getty.  You can find more articles and information on her website: Getty Equine Nutrition


You might be relieved to have a horse who doesn’t have an obesity problem. Carrying less weight certainly has its advantages: less strain on joints, faster metabolism, and lower risk of a laminitis.

But if your horse is underweight, where the ribs show prominently, and the spine and hip bones are not covered with enough tissue, there could be a problem. If you’ve tried to put weight on your horse without success, there is reason for concern. But the solution may be easier than you think.




First, rule out three things:

1) Dental problems — The most common reason for weight loss is poor teeth. Watch your horse while eating – does he drop a lot of food; does he spit out clumps of partially chewed grass or hay? His teeth or gums may need attention. If your horse is getting up in years, tooth loss may be issue. (For more on aging horses, see the Spotlight on Equine Nutrition Series.

2) Worms – Test your horse’s manure at least once every three months and work with your veterinarian for the best treatment. Worm infestation can reduce nutrient absorption, contributing to the inability to gain weight.

3) Disease – have your horse’s blood checked for liver or kidney disease, anemia, or Cushing’s (especially if your horse is older than 15).


Next, pay attention to two key factors:

Hind gut microbial population – The fiber portion of forages (pasture and hay) is digested by the bacteria living in your horse’s hindgut (cecum and large colon). You can feed the best hay available, but if these microbes are not in good numbers, the fiber will be poorly digested. Fiber digestion results in calories for your horse. A good prebiotic (fermentation products) as well as yeast, will feed existing bacteria. The older horse can benefit further by adding digestive enzymes.

Calories – The most concentrated source of calories is fat, with more than twice the caloric value of carbohydrates or proteins. Therefore, you can feed less of it in order to avoid making your horse’s meals too large (remember the stomach is small – never feed more than 4 lbs (1.8 kg) at a time to a full-sized horse).

Not all fat is the same, however. Choose sources high in omega 3s such as ground flaxseed; do not feed flaxseeds whole and never soak them (soaking can promote hydrogen cyanide formation). Chia seeds are also a good source of omega 3s and they do not require grinding. Feed ground flax or chia at a rate of ½ cup per 400 lbs (120 ml per 180 kg) of desired body weight.

Oil can also be mixed in with meals. If your horse is not used to oil, start slowly with 1 tablespoon (15 ml) per meal, building up to as much as 1 cup (240 ml) per day (for the maintenance horse) and as high as two cups (480 ml) per day for the intensely exercised horse. Take a month to allow your horse to get used to these higher levels since it takes a while for the liver to adapt to large amounts of fat. Avoid corn, soybean, and wheat germ oils (unless you are also adding flax or chia to provide omega 3s) – these oils are high in omega 6s which are pro-inflammatory. Rice bran or rice bran oil are relatively benign – the fat content does contain approximately 30% omega 6s but the majority is in the form of omega 9s. For more information on different fats, please read, “Fat is Fat, Right? No – Check Your Omegas” found in the library at www.gettyequinenutrition.com.

Don’t forget the B vitamins

B vitamins are involved in many functions that promote a healthy body:
Energy (caloric) derivation from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
Gastrointestinal health, promoting digestion and absorption
Protein synthesis to build body tissues
Healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to tissues (to metabolize nutrients)
Appetite improvement

Allow 24/7 grazing

Horses are meant to graze all the time, all day, and all night. Never let your horse run out of forage (pasture and/or hay). He needs to chew to produce saliva; this neutralizes the steady secretion of acid in the horse’s stomach. Forage free-choice also keeps the digestive tract musculature in good tone. Furthermore, the cecum requires forage for it to void its contents (see the Tip of the Month). By having pasture/hay available 24/7, your horse will self-regulate intake, the stress hormones will subside, and behavior becomes more natural and receptive.

Protein quality

A variety of grasses will boost protein quality, but also offer alfalfa (a legume) to provide additional amino acids that promote muscle development as well as add calories. Never feed more than 50% alfalfa; too much can lead to intestinal stones. Other whole foods such as split peas and hemp seeds can be added to provide more variety. For ideas, see the book on Whole Foods in the Spotlight on Equine Nutrition Series.


Underweight is not a normal state for any horse. Rule out health problems, and then feed a nutritious diet while paying attention to the hindgut microbial health, providing non-inflammatory fats, and offering quality forage (free-choice).


Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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2 Responses

  1. Sheila says:

    Isn’t 1/2 cup per 400 pounds of body weight an extremely large amount of chia seeds?? I’ve always heard/read that you feed a much smaller quantity of chia vs. flax.

    • Casie says:

      I asked Dr. Getty and her is her response:

      Recently, I weighed the chia seeds that I have and found them to be heavier than I once thought. So, my current recommendations are:

      Ground Flax: 1/2 cup per 400 lbs of body weight. So, a 1200 lb horse would get 1 1/2 cups of ground flax per day. If the horse is overweight, this can be reduced. But 1/2 cup for a full sized horse is just not enough, unless the horse is getting plenty of fresh pasture (which provides omega 3s).

      Chia: 1/4 cup per 400 lbs of body weight.

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