Why Can’t I Get My Horse Fat?

Do you know of a hard keeper that has gained or maintained weight consistently on a feeding program until one day he just doesn’t? The needle hovers near a body condition of 5, lulling you into a sense of accomplishment, but then begins to shift left, ever so slowly. As time goes on, your hard work melts away, and the metabolic middle ground known as moderate body condition seems more distant than ever: the ribs peek out from his barrel, the vertebral chain juts above his topline musculature, and the neck no longer carries even a single globule of fat.

You panic and rush to buy a weight-gain supplement. Before hitting up your favorite supplement retailer, consider your horse’s diet, health, and lifestyle.  According to Chelsea Kaelin, a nutrition advisor who has been with Kentucky Equine Research for over a decade, horse owners should review these five important areas before implementing a new weight-gain plan.

Realistically assess forage quality and quantity. If you’ve been around horses long enough, you know what a high-quality stand of pasture looks like: an abundance of nutritious plants with few weeds, usually the product of a sound maintenance program that includes mowing, fertilization, reseeding, and weed control. Depending on locale, pasture may be available year-round. For many horse owners, though, pasture is a seasonal benefit, and they must rely on hay to provide forage at different times of the year.

Appropriate hay for horses comes in many packages: it might be grass, legume, or mixed; it could be soft and pillowy or stemmy and scratchy; it might be bright green or dull yellow; it could be free of weeds or full of unidentifiable plants. A reliable source of nutritional information for all forages—pasture and hay—is laboratory testing, which is inexpensive and readily available through several mail-in services.

The amount of forage depends on other ration components, but a general guideline for an underweight horse may include free-access to pasture during the growing season (assuming the horse has no metabolic conditions) or free-choice access to hay when pasture is unavailable. When pasture is not available and free-choice hay is not possible, start with 1.5 to 2 percent of body weight of hay or hay products (pellets, cubes, chopped). If he cleans up this, you may consider offering more.

“When feeding to achieve weight gain, be sure to offer hay your horse will eat willingly,” Kaelin recommended. “Although you may provide free-choice round-baled hay during turnout, it is important to know if your horse is actually eating it so you can make the necessary adjustments to make sure his forage requirements are met.”

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Consider all aspects of the chosen concentrate. When faced with a hard keeper, choosing a high-energy concentrate is often appropriate. How that energy is delivered depends on the product, though. In traditional formulas, starch provides the most energy because these feeds typically contain significant quantities of cereal grains, such as oats, corn, and barley. Grains usually contain about 50 percent more energy than good-quality hay, which makes them ideal feedstuffs for horses with elevated energy requirements.

More modern formulas may contain some starch as well as alternative energy sources, namely fat and fiber. Fat is usually included in the form of vegetable oil or stabilized rice bran, whereas fiber is typically incorporated through the use of beet pulp, soy hulls and alfalfa meal. Be sure you are feeding the appropriate concentrate for your hard keeper.

“In deciding how much of a concentrate to feed, consult the manufacturer’s recommendation, which will be included on the feed bag or on an attached tag,” Kaelin explained. In order for horses to receive the fortification guaranteed on the label, they must consume at least the minimum recommended by the manufacturer, usually about 6 pounds for most feeds. When considering what is necessary for a hard keeper, the owner is likely going to feed at the top range of the recommendation.

In general, concentrate meal size should not exceed 5 pounds at each feeding, Kaelin said, so multiple meals each day may be necessary. Horses fed over 10 pounds of concentrate daily would likely benefit from three or four small meals a day.

Targeted supplementation to support the digestive tract.  When careful attention is given to meal size, horses usually have no trouble digesting concentrates. Large concentrate meals that meet or exceed the 5-pound limit may predispose horses to gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis. Pairing this increased risk with the stress of training or travel can create a perfect scenario for digestive disturbances. In these instances, targeted supplementation can prevent disturbances which, in turn, allows the digestive tract to work optimally.

While free-choice access to forage can significantly reduce the likelihood of ulceration in many horses, it is not the case for all horses. When faced with a hard keeper, consider an endoscopic examination to determine definitively if the horse has gastric ulcers.

“Identifying where the ulcers are located (glandular or squamous portion) will help your vet determine the most effective treatment plan,” Kaelin explained. “A course of omeprazole can clear the ulcers, but digestive support does not end when omeprazole treatment ends. Continue preventive care with a research-proven digestive supplement designed to deter the recurrence of gastric ulcers.”

Once the foregut has been addressed, consider the hindgut. When the small intestine becomes overwhelmed, it funnels incompletely digested feed into the hindgut, which can upset the pH of the hindgut and interfere with the work of the resident microbes. To keep pH steady, a hindgut buffer, such as EquiShure, should be fed.

Evaluate other management and environmental factors. Outside influences may hinder weight gain. One common problem involves group feeding. In a herd situation, horses usually construct a well-defined social hierarchy that dictates which horses consume the choicest meals. When a hard keeper is placed in a group of horses and does not tease out as dominant in the pecking order, he may be chased away from feeders by multiple horses, adding to any stress he is already enduring. Giving a hard keeper a safe place to eat will allow him to relax.

Adverse weather can also be problematic for hard keepers. In the summer, flying insects may annoy to the point of running; in the winter, cold temperatures and precipitation can divert calories from weight gain to body heat. A watchful eye on behavior during weather extremes can help hard keepers. Relieve horses from the torment of flies by stalling and using other effective pest-control strategies, and keep them warm by blanketing and providing plenty of good-quality forage.

Gather a team of healthcare professionals. Modern horses benefit from an unprecedented font of knowledge available to their owners. Advances in feeds and nutritional supplements, preventive dentistry, lameness detection and resolution, alternative therapies, and core vaccinations provide multilayered healthcare options to owners.

When it comes to a hard keeper, three core professionals include a veterinarian, dental specialist, and nutritionist. As mentioned previously, a vet will likely investigate digestive issues but may also look for pain elsewhere, as even low-level chronic pain can keep some horses from gaining weight. A dentist will correct any dental problems and then maintain teeth on a semiannual or annual schedule. A nutritionist will carefully review the ration and devise a weight-gain strategy as well as lay out a realistic timeline for increases in body condition. (Bummer alert: it doesn’t happen as quickly as most people wish!)

“In most instances, hard keepers will come around if owners pay careful attention to their nutrition and health needs,” Kaelin concluded.

For more information about weight management, check out the Body Condition Resources Center.

Reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research. Visit ker.com for the latest in equine nutrition and management, and subscribe to Equinews to receive these articles directly.

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