Managing the "Hard Keeper"

An older gray hard-keeper
An older gray hard-keeper

Does your horse have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight? Do his ribs protrude despite your best efforts to keep him well-fed? Here are some tips for managing the "hard keeper."

An underweight horse with little appetite doesn't just look unhealthy. He has no energy reserves to draw on, so he'll be easily fatigued as well as vulnerable to injury and disease.

But some horses just seem determined to keep the weight off. What's an owner to do?

Why is he losing weight?

Many possiblities should be considered, including:

  • Poor dental health
  • Previous or ongoing injury or illness
  • Parasitic infection
  • Emotional stress, such as that caused by an environmental or lifestyle change
  • Burning more calories than are taken in
  • Poor-quality feed that provides inadequate nutrients
  • Gastric ulcers, which compromise the appetite as well as the absorption of nutrients from feed
  • Competition for feed from herdmates
  • The physical demands of nursing a foal or (for stallions) breeding
  • Lameness, which may compromise a horse's mobility and make it difficult for him to consume enough feed
  • In horses 20 years and older, a decreased ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients across the gut wall
  • A poor balance of fiber-digesting microflora (helpful bacteria) in the cecum, often the result of illness and/or antibiotic treatment
Older horses may become hard keepers

Older horses may become hard keepers

For a number of reasons, older horses may have a difficult time in maintaining a healthy weight. Most often, problems are associated with dental problems and changes in the herd social order.

Certain breeds, such as Thoroughbreds, are predisposed to being hard keepers because their metabolisms are designed for maximum speed rather than maximum efficiency. But it is possible to help even a "genetically" skinny horse maintain a healthy weight -- and a few simple nutritional strategies, in addition to comprehensive veterinary care, can help restore some flesh to a horse who has lost too much.

What's a healthy weight?

The old horseman's rule that you should be able to feel a horse's ribs with a firm press of the hands on the barrel, but not see them protruding through the coat, is a good surface assessment, but it doesn't tell the entire story. Look, too, at your horse's neck, the top of his rump, and his spine. All should have enough padding that no bones protrude.

The accepted method to deterimine if a horse's weight is appropriate is through body scoring. The body score places a number on the condition of your horse using a systematic observation of fat deposits (or lack of fat) in various areas of the horse. Body scoring is easy to do and should be learned by all horse people.

For further information about how to tell if your horse has a healthy body weight, please click on the following link that will take you to an article on our site that fully explains body scoring your horse:

Eight strategies for weight gain

In order for your horse to gain weight, he must take in more calories than he burns – but you must be careful not to deliver a diet so energy-dense that his system overloads and triggers colic or founder.

Here are some dietary strategies for putting weight on:

  1. The equine digestive system is designed for grazing. Increasing your horse's forage intake is the most natural way of putting on weight. Good pasture is the ideal, but very few of us can count on that year-round. The next best thing is good-quality, relatively soft hay. When the aim is to help your horse gain weight, try to have hay in front of him 24/7 if your pasture isn't plentiful.
  2. Supplement his fiber intake in other ways as well. Try hay cubes or soaked beet pulp, which is low in sugars and highly digestible. This is especially important for older horses whose teeth may be worn down so that they can no longer grind long-stemmed hay.
  3. Grain is calorie-dense, but horses can't easily digest large grain meals. They may end up with cecal acidosis, where large quantities of grain starches are fermented in the cecum of the large intestine instead of being absorbed in the small intestine, which can lead to colic and/or laminitis. If you want to increase your horse's grain intake, choose processed grains that are more digestible, such as crimped oats or a pelleted or extruded complete feed, and feed them in small quantities several times a day.
  4. Fat is a readily digested feed additive which delivers almost two and a half times as much energy and calories as the same quantity of grain. You can add fat to the diet by top-dressing vegetable oil or soy oil (gradually working up to 1 ½ cups per day), or providing a high-fat supplement, such as rice bran or even sunflower seeds, which most horses relish. There are also many commercial feeds with high fat levels; if your horse is a fussy eater, these are the best choice as the fat is camouflaged within the mix.
  5. Consider adding a digestive-enhancing supplement, such as brewer's yeast, which is a natural source of B-complex vitamins and encourages the proliferation and activity of beneficial microflora in the digestive tract. The result is improved utilization of the nutrients the horse's diet provides. There are also acidophilus supplements which promote friendly micro-organisms in the gut.
  6. If your horse has gastric ulcers, as the vast majority of performance horses do, then his system is less able to extract nutrients from his feed. Consult your veterinarian about diagnosing and treating gastric ulcers; some horses may need to go on medication, while others can be treated simply with management changes.
  7. Your horse's surroundings, or his care, might be increasing his stress level and making it impossible for him to relax and put on weight. For example, is he stabled next to an aggressive horse who makes him nervous? A change in management -- moving him to another stall, altering the time of day you work him, or arranging for more turn-out or some non-confrontational company – could be helpful.
  8. If you feed your horses outside, remember that if your skinny horse is not one of the "alpha" personalities, his more dominant herdmates may be stealing his dinner.  Try separating him from the herd at mealtimes, either in a stall or in a separate paddock.

Tempting the picky eater

If your horse fails to gain weight because he is a picky eater, nibbling half-heartedly at his meals and leaving much of it untouched, here are some things to try:

  • Experiment to discover what suits his fussy palate by trying different feed formats, from sweet feed to pellets to extruded 'kibble', and top dressings, such as molasses, honey, or applesauce, to see what tempts his appetite.
  • Try moistening his grain with warm water to see if that suits him better.
  • Feed small quantities, often. Some horses seem overwhelmed by large meals, and smaller quantities are also digested more thoroughly.
  • With a fussy eater, freshness is imperative. Remove any feed that isn't consumed within an hour or so. Scrub out the feed tub on a daily basis.
  • Try offering his hay in a haynet rather than on the floor of his stall.
  • Make sure that he has a constant supply of fresh, clean water available. Even a horse with a good appetite will decrease his feed intake if his access to fresh water is restricted.

Keep in mind that visible change may be slow in coming. As a sage horseman once observed, "You've got to fill up the inside first, before you see a difference on the outside." But perseverance, coupled with lifestyle changes to minimize stress, will eventually yield results and turn your underweight horse into a healthy, more energetic athlete.

Dig deeperTM

Want to know how much your horse weighs? Check out EquiMeds cool Horse Weight Calculator.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is an award-winning freelance journalist, photographer, editor, and media relations professional who has authored six books and written over 5000 articles for horse magazines in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australasia.  Based near Toronto, Ontario, she is an Equine Canada certified coach, has a background in equine nutrition, and dabbles in three-day eventing. 

She shares her life with three off-the-track Thoroughbreds and a Hackney/Shetland cross pony, has advanced degrees in stall-mucking and hoof-picking, and also likes to write about science, health, agriculture, and travel. 

You can visit her blog, Writing From the Right Side of the Stall, at