Nutrition Problems in Horses: Hard Keepers

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Despite plentiful food, some horses have difficulty in holding their weight and condition. Sometimes this is simply a matter of that horse’s unique metabolism, but it can also be due to a medical issue. A thorough veterinary exam helps to identify problems.

Have your veterinarian check your horse’s teeth to determine the condition of his teeth for chewing. A horse with missing teeth or chewing discomfort due to impacted food material, a tooth infection or periodontitis might be unwilling to grind feed effectively–this limits the efficiency of extracting nutrients from the digestive tract. Mouth pain also discourages a horse from eating what he needs. Pelleted feed and/or beet pulp soaked in water makes an easy-to-consume gruel for a horse with a painful mouth.

Another easily addressed medical concern is internal parasite control. Fecal egg counts evaluate the burden of intestinal parasites in each individual horse and allow formulation of a strategic deworming schedule. Parasite control minimizes nutrient loss or interference with efficient gut function.

Winter weather also saps energy and calories from a hard keeper. To help a horse hold his weight in inclement weather, provide shelter and blanket as necessary. During cold snaps, offer free-choice grass hay to be digested in the internal combustion chamber of the large intestines, where it generates internal body heat. Offering grain at these times does little to generate heat, whereas the fiber component (hay) of his diet will.

Consult with your veterinarian about specifics of your horse’s diet. A hard keeper fares best with access to free-choice hay. For horses having dental difficulty chewing hay or pasture, offer high fiber supplements like hay cubes (soaked or un-soaked) and/or complete feed pellets and/or soaked beet pulp. High-fat feeds, such as vegetable oil or rice bran, add safe calories to the diet, and pound for pound provide more calories than grain. Most horses tolerate 1 – 1½ cups of oil or rice bran added to the food twice a day. If that amount of dietary fat causes the horse to back off his feed or to develop loose stools, then half the amount of fat.

Beet pulp also is an excellent supplement to a weight-gaining diet as it is high in calories and fiber yet low in carbohydrates and starch. The pelleted form should be soaked for about 6-8 hours before feeding; the extruded form can be fed as is. Most horses happily consume 1-2 cups of dry beet pulp pellets (then soaked to volume) once or twice a day.

Each horse differs in the quantity of pelleted feed that should be offered. Discuss this with your veterinarian to tailor a diet specific for each individual. Many commercial products are available, all with good nutritive value, although remember that a horse can only eat about 2% of its body weight per day; for horses with limited appetites, a higher fat (i.e., higher calorie) pelleted supplement goes a long ways toward putting weight on his frame.

Make sure the hard keeper doesn’t have to compete with other herd members to obtain his daily ratio of groceries. Separate a hard keeper from the others for the night so the horse has time to eat his fill at his leisure.

In summary, to help the nutritional needs of a hard keeper, provide the following:

  • Regular dental care
  • Routine fecal egg count testing and strategic deworming schedules
  • Shelter and/or blankets in inclement seasons
  • Pain control
  • Energy-dense feed, especially high fat components
  • Excellent quality forageFeed supplements as necessary, using fat, complete feed pellets, and beet pulp as preferable substitutes for grain
  • Mashes and gruels for horses with poor dentition
  • Separation at feeding time to avoid competition amongst the herd

If diet and management do not improve the hard keeper’s weight, it may be helpful to pursue glucose absorption tests to evaluate digestive efficiency.


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