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Feeding Horses for Weight GainBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 3, 2016

A full measure of patience comes in handy when looking for ways to best nourish skinny horses. Patience not a virtue of yours? Tick off this to-do list to make sure you’re doing everything you can from a nutritional perspective.

  • Get a grip on overall health. Certain health problems make weight gain challenging, even in the best of circumstances. A veterinarian or equine dental specialist should examine the horse’s mouth to ensure no dental anomalies are causing pain or malocclusion, which could make grinding feed difficult. A fecal egg count will determine if parasites have invaded the gastrointestinal tract, robbing valuable nutrients from the horse. Endoscopic examination of the stomach would reveal gastric ulceration, a common condition among horses with limited feed intake. If budgetary constraints preclude endoscopic examination, a veterinarian can treat for ulcers with a course of omeprazole, and stomach and hindgut health can be maintained with RiteTrac, available in the U.S. Check out these products available to Australian horse owners.
  • Value forage. Providing good-quality forage is the first step in designing a ration for a skinny horse. Full turnout on lush pasture remains a time-honored weight-gain strategy. Care must be taken to accustom a horse slowly to lush pasture if it was not in the field during the spring green-up. If good-quality pasture is unavailable, the next best bet is to choose an early-maturing legume hay, one that has soft, pliable stems and an abundance of leaves. Such a hay typically contains more calories per mouthful than a good-quality grass hay. Unsure about hay quality? Get hay analyzed for nutrient composition. Geography plays a part in hay selection, so choose high-quality hay that’s easily accessible. Give horses as much hay as they will eat, as a constant flow of forage through the gastrointestinal tract will keep it healthy.
  • Opt for a high-calorie concentrate. To achieve weight gain, it makes most sense to select a high-calorie concentrate, and preferably one that provides energy from a variety of sources such as starch, fat, and fermentable fiber. Many performance feeds contain this medley of energy sources—usually in the form of cereal grains, vegetable oil, beet pulp, and soybean hulls—as do some feeds marketed especially for senior horses. Choose a feed formulated by a dependable company. Be sure the feed contains a complete vitamin and mineral profile. If the horse is a young horse, go for a feed intended for growing horses, and feed in moderation. Underweight young horses fed an avalanche of energy are susceptible to growth problems, including contracted tendons and physitis. Manufacturers provide recommended intake rates on feed bags; underweight horses might have to be fed at the top end of these recommendations. Keep individual meals at less than 5 lb (2.2 kg). If necessary, divide the daily allowance into two or three meals.
  • Supplement savvy. High-calorie feedstuffs can be top-dressed to rations to increase energy density. The most common of these are vegetable oil and stabilized rice bran. Corn oil provides calories, but offers too many omega-6 fatty acids, especially when fed in combination with a high-grain diet. Soy and canola oil are two sensible alternatives. Aside from weight-gain supplements, a hindgut buffer will keep the cecum and colon healthy, particularly when large quantities of grain and lush pasture are consumed. For this purpose, EquiShure is recommended. The buffering action of EquiShure will ensure that the nutrients found in grain and pasture are digested appropriately.
  • Remember to be patient. The effects of a weight-gain diet will reveal themselves in time, but don’t expect immediate gratification. Think about weight gain this way: not only must enough energy be supplied to fuel day-to-day activities, but there must be ample surplus to build tissue.

Do you need more specific information about how to boost your horse’s condition? Consult with a Kentucky Equine Research (KER) nutrition advisor today.