Helping Thin Horses Gain Weight
It seems this is the time of year when people begin to worry more about their thin horses. Colder weather is coming (here in the northern hemisphere, anyway), and we know our underweight horses may lose even more weight in the coming months. Now really is the time to take action to hopefully prevent this from occurring.
Horses can be thin for several different reasons, but identifying the main cause is important so you can develop a plan of action. Some issues are easier to deal with than others, of course and sometimes, it’s a combination of factors which are preventing your horse from gaining weight. In this case, you will need to take a multi-faceted approach.
Here are the most common reasons for horses to be underweight, as well as some tips to help them gain weight:
This is probably the easiest issue to tackle and is more common for horses who are kept in stalls or dry lots, on overgrazed pastures, and/or for horses whose owners are under-informed on equine nutrition. Horses need a mostly forage diet and should consume approximately 1.5 – 2% of their bodyweight in dry matter each day. This means a 1,000 pound horse needs to consume approximately 15-20 pounds of food per day (which should be mostly, if not all forage). Horses in work will need even more than that.
Also, when it comes to hay and pasture, quality is important. Don’t expect a horse to stay healthy and maintain his weight on overgrazed pastures or with a two-year-old round bale as his only source of forage.
Many people tend to increase the amount of grain fed when they want their horse to gain weight, but try increasing forage and adding a fat source such as rice bran, ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, chia seeds, etc. (I would avoid vegetable oils, personally). Horses in hard work may benefit from added grain, although it’s not always a necessity. (See this article I wrote a while back).
Horses teeth grow continuously until they reach a certain age. It’s true that they wear their teeth down by eating (natural grasses, especially), but due to the restricted diets of most domesticated horses, their teeth may not wear evenly. Uneven or sharp teeth can impede the chewing process and make it difficult for some horses to eat or thoroughly chew their food. Therefore, all horses need regular dental check-ups and teeth balancing. Old horses may have bad teeth which need to be pulled and though their teeth maybe worn down, they can still benefit from being balanced. This is always something to consider with any underweight horse.
This is probably the most common reason for horses to lose weight. As they get older, horses have more trouble utilizing the nutrients they consume. It’s an really absorption problem–your horse just isn’t absorbing nutrients like he once did. Chances, are your old horse can’t maintain his weight on the same thing you feed to your younger horses. There are some other options though. For added fiber, hay cubes or pellets, chopped hay, beet pulp, or chaffhaye can be added into the diet (***please soak your cubes or pellets well to avoid choke***) This is especially important if your old horse has difficulty eating hay. Senior feeds can make a big difference as well (my personal favorite is Triple Crown Senior because of its low NSC levels). Something else you may want to consider is feeding a pre or probiotic, which can help them better utilize their feed.
One last note on feeding old horses– sometimes, separating them from your younger horses at feeding time is necessary. This will ensure they’re getting to eat all of their feed. Younger horses will often push them around and eat their ration for them if they have the chance. (I know this from experience!)
This is another common reason for a horse to be underweight, and one which can be rather problematic. Not only do parasites compete for nutrients in the digestive system, they can also cause damage to the intestinal lining which may prevent your horse from absorbing nutrients.
When parasites are suspected, our usual plan of attack is to use a chemical dewormer. But rather than just blindly doing this, it’s best to have a fecal egg count (FEC) done by your vet (or use a kit from a company like Horsemen’s Laboratory) to see what kind of parasites you may be dealing with. A follow up FEC may be necessary several weeks after you’ve dewormed to make sure the treatment was effective. Your vet can also perform a blood test which can check for the presence of tapeworms. In the UK, there is a even a saliva test which can test for tapeworms.
Horses kept in crowded, overgrazed pastures are going to be more prone to heavy parasite loads, so keep this in mind. Practicing good pasture management (rotating pastures, picking up manure, etc.) can go a long way in reducing the number of parasites your horses will be exposed too.
Horses who’ve been ill or who have chronic conditions such as heaves or gastric ulcers may be underweight as well. This may also be the case for horses with kidney or liver disease. With any illness, you will need to first focus on treating the cause and once that’s under control, then focus on getting the horse to gain weight. If you just throw more hay or feed at an ill horse, it likely won’t have much effect.
Stress may be overlooked as a reason for being underweight, but it could very well be a factor. Horses can experience stress when they are kept in unnatural conditions (stabled, without herdmates, etc.) Competition horses who frequently travel or are overworked can easily experience the negative effects of stress as well. Try to identify what may be causing your horse stress and make changes to his management to see if this helps.
Chronic pain is also often overlooked in thin horses. This goes hand-in-hand with what I discussed above (related to illness/ disease), but many conditions may go unnoticed, especially those involving the hooves or joints. Subclinical laminitis, advanced thrush (which can also go unnoticed), improper/ neglected hoof care, and arthritis can result in chronic pain which keeps the horse in a constant state of catabolism (breakdown of energy stores).
In this case, the pain needs to be identified and addressed. Pain is often related to inflammation in the body, so natural anti-inflammatories (such as turmeric) may be helpful in certain situations. I would avoid the overuse of NSAID’s like bute though, as this will only create more problems. (See this recent post I wrote on bute alternatives.)
Sources and Further Reading