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Feeding the Hard Keeper


by Dr. Martin Adams, Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Most of us don't have to worry about being too skinny. So it might be hard to understand why a horse might have trouble putting on weight, especially if food is readily available. This type of horse is known as a "hard keeper". There could be several reasons for a horse being a hard keeper. Some horses have a more active metabolism and require more calories to maintain adequate body weight, others may burn more calories due to a nervous or stressed condition. Before starting a weight-gain program for an underweight horse, identify any of the following conditions that may be interfering with its digestive efficiency.

  • Chronic Digestive Problems: Ulcer, diarrhea, and gut obstruction from an abdominal tumor or surgery can reduce feed intake and utilization.
  • Poor Dental Condition: Missing or worn teeth can interfere with feed intake and proper chewing of feed, reducing the calories the horse can extract from its diet.
  • Old Age: Weight loss in older horses is often a result of dental problems but decreased digestive efficiency in older horses normally results in weight loss.
  • Parasite Infestation: A heavy internal parasite load can reduce nutrient absorption and prevent a horse from maintaining proper weight or gaining additional weight. A regular deworming program is essential in sustaining good health and body condition.

Use the following guidelines for a feeding program for your hard keeper. This will allow you to "fine tune" the feeding program and maintain optimum body condition to get the best performance from your horse. Depending on your horse's initial condition, it may take several months to get to his ideal body condition; a slow and steady weight gain is the best approach.

  • Feed high quality hay, hay replacer or add some alfalfa hay to the diet. Poor quality hay is more mature and contains more indigestible fiber and fewer calories than higher quality, less mature hay. High quality alfalfa hay can contain as much as 300 more calories per pound than more mature grass hay. If you don't have a high quality grass or mixed hay available, replace some of the grass hay in the diet with alfalfa hay. Adding 5 to 6 pounds of alfalfa or high quality grass hay to the horse's daily ration can add 1,500 to 1,800 extra kilocalories over a sole diet of lower quality grass hay. Also consider adding some Southern States Hay Stretcher to add or replace hay in the diet. Southern States Hay Stretcher is a high fiber/low starch pellet that has a digestible energy content of 1,100 calories per pound, which is greater than beet pulp and equal to the highest quality alfalfa hay.
  • Select a senior horse feed for older horses. For older horses (over 20 years of age) or younger horses with poor dental condition that are underweight, switch to a feed formulated specifically for them, such as Legends CarbCare. This feed contains higher levels of fiber to compensate for the reduced chewing ability of older horses with worn or missing teeth that cannot consume adequate amounts of hay or pasture. Legends has a 7% fat guarantee.
  • Feed horses individually. All groups of horses develop a social structure with some horses being more dominant. When horses are fed together, the more dominant horses will eat their feed and others as well. Simply providing more feed will not work, the horse that needs more feed must be fed individually.
  • Switch to a high-fat feed or add a high-fat supplement. Fat contains 2.25 times more calories than the same amount of carbohydrate or protein. Select a feed or a supplement with more fat for your hard keeper so you can feed less grain to minimize the risk of colic and maintain body condition. There are Legends horse feed formulas with 6%, 7%, 8% and 10% fat, and extruded supplements including Legends Fortified Pelleted Rice Bran with 18% fat and Legends Omega Plus with 25% fat.
  • Feed according to body weight and activity level. The larger the horse and the greater the workload, the more calories are needed to maintain body weight. Horses can only consume 2.5 to 3% of body weight daily of grain and hay. For a horse at maintenance to light activity (riding for an hour or less once or twice per week), start with feeding grain at .5 to .75% and hay at 1.5% of body weight. This would be 5 to 7.5 pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay for a 1.000-pound horse.  For a horse in moderate activity (riding 3 to 4 times per week for an hour or more), feed grain at .75 to 1% and hay at 1.5% of body weight. For intense activity (race training, riding several hours daily for 5 to 6 days per week, etc.), feed grain at 1 to 1.5% and hay at 1.25% of body weight. High-fat feeds like Legends will allow you to feed less grain and still meet the greater energy needs of a hard keeper.
  • Monitor changes in the horse's condition with a weight tape. Rely on a weight tape (or a scale, if available) instead of your eye to judge the changes in body condition. A weight tape may not be very accurate for estimating body weight for a particular horse, but it is consistently accurate at finding changes in your horse's weight. Take the measurement every 30 days, applying the tape at the same location around the heart girth and behind the withers, and maintain the same tension on the tape each time you use it. Use this information to adjust your horse's feeding program to maintain a constant body weight.
  • Make dietary changes gradually. Drastic changes in the type or amount of grain or hay could upset your horse's digestive system. Introducing new feedstuffs in small amounts allows the intestinal microbes to adapt without causing adverse effects. When introducing a new grain concentrate or hay, replace 25% of each meal with the new feedstuff for three days, then replace 50% for three days, then 75% for three days, so that in ten days you have switched over to the new feedstuff without causing a digestive upset.

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