The Underweight Horse
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
I’m going to preface this post by saying that I am by no means an equine nutrition specialist. I have however studied the dietary needs of horses quite a bit, focusing on a more natural forage based diet. Including studying rehabilitation diets (for starved horses), as well as how to feed horses with metabolic issues, like EMS, and medical conditions like Cushings, PSSM, and so on. I plan to do a second post on feeding easy keepers and horses with metabolic issues, but again, I’m not a specialist and I highly recommend consulting your veterinarian before making dietary changes for your horse.
With that being said though, I have been asked quiet often how I feed my horses, and in particular how I helped restore Cash from the poor state he was in to his very handsome thick glossy self now. So I decided to write a post answering all your questions and give a quick overview of what I fed him during his rehabilitation and what I currently feed. But PLEASE consult your veterinarian or a nutrition specialist before making any changes to your horse’s diet, and if you’re in the process of rescuing a severely emaciated horse be very cautious as there are many cases out there that require extreme medical care and careful diets due to organ failure etc. Thankfully Cash didn’t suffer organ damage, but I was still very careful with what I fed him and when.
First, Let's Rule Out Pain.. (don't skip this part! It's the most important)
When dealing with horses that struggle to maintain weight my first thought is always "what does their mouth look like?". Even if you can't get an equine dental specialist on the books right away to look at your horse's mouth it should be a top priority. You could feed your horse by the book and provide him with everything he needs, but if he's suffering from mouth pain he's not likely to gain any weight and you could be wasting a lot of money and effort.
Cash is a perfect example of this. When I first met cash (read his story here) I could tell he was genetically an easy keeper. That was probably one of the only reasons he was still alive, his body was well equipped to work off of very little food, but he did still need some food. While they were feeding him something that might resemble edible, from time to time, he was severely underweight and in obvious pain. I strongly felt there was much more going on than just a lack of food and being over worked, we needed to get his mouth looked at as quickly as possible. Sure enough, just a month or so later, when he was strong enough to handle sedation and dental work, we had the vet open up his mouth and find an absolute disaster inside there. The poor guy was in excruciating pain, and it took nearly a year and a half of gradual work every couple of months with multiple tooth extractions for the poor guy to feel comfortable again.
Another example would be my other senior mare, Candy, when we brought her home as a 19 year old healthy looking sound mare little did we realize what we would find when we got inside her poor mouth. She actually had maintained her weight surprisingly well all things considered, apparently the lush soft grass she had been kept on had been her saving grace, but when she arrived at our place where we have only a few months of grass and the rest of the year it's hay she started dropping weight fast! The poor thing just wasn't able to eat hay, and I should have known better than to just assume her teeth were in good shape because someone else's vet had done the work. There must have been a miscommunication because when we got inside her mouth it was very clear that she hadn't had dental work in a very long time, possibly not ever.
Another consideration is trauma to the head or needing cranial sacral work. Cash is another prime example of this, about a year after coming to live with us we were finally able to take him to an osteopathic specialist. He had been examined by our local one, but she immediately became concerned with the severity of his issues and recommended we take him to someone who could do full x-rays and who specialized in such extreme cases. Turns out the poor guy had a partially dislocated jaw, along with many other issues including fused joints and reconstructed fractures. It was very clear he had sustained a traumatic injury in his younger years, and explained why even after dental work he was still in a lot of pain.
Now, most horses dealing with head pain won't be dealing with such extreme injuries, but I highly recommend including having your horse looked at by an osteopath or a chiropractor that does cranial sacral work whether or not you suspect there is an issue. It honestly can't hurt to have them looked at, and again, you could save yourself a lot of effort and money and time in both training and general rehabiliation by ruling out pain causes for weight loss.
Now, about the food...
It's so hard to not just want to feed starving horses as much as they want, but it's absolutely critical that you do not. It's all about slowly acclimating their body to tasking nutrients from food again while also making sure they are getting enough to stop further weight loss and avoid possibly loosing the horse.
Also, like I mentioned before, I really focus all my horses’ diets around forage. Even in cases like Cash's I wanted to focus on a diet that resembled natural grazing as much as possible, and I would add anything extra later. So I started off with some great quality coastal hay in a slow feeder net (a 1 and 1.25" hole size), filled to the brim and available 24/7, and a handful of alfalfa (literally a handful, not an armful, maybe 1/10th of a flake at most) three times a day for the first week or so. The slow feeder net required him to eat slowly and not over consume, limiting large mouthfuls that could cause colic, while allowing his stomach to have some food in it at all times.
After the first week I started upping the amount of alfalfa I fed him, and dropped it to twice a day. Half a flake in the morning, half a flake in the evening for a week, slowly working our way up to two flakes a day total over the next couple weeks. I also started turning him out for short grazing times, being cautious how much rich green grass he was consuming. We started off with just an hour, working up to a couple hours within a couple weeks, and then finally up to 24/7 turnout by six weeks.
Around week three I started adding a multi vitamin and calorie booster to his diet. I wish I had started also offering free choice loose trace minerals at this time too, or soon after, but I wasn't feeding loose minerals at the time. I also began adding in flax seed and a joint supplement around week four, and then sometime in the second month I began him on a ration balancer and removed the multi vitamin and calorie booster and cut back on the alfalfa to one flake per day (since he was packing on weight so easily!)
Now, most of you wont be dealing with starvation cases but most likely hard keepers, senior horses, and horses that just seem to not be able to build up their toplines. Some of this is diet, some of it is due to outside factors (like the possible pain causes mentioned above and next I'll be talking about exercise). So perhaps discussing a rehabilitation diet isn't the most helpful for you, but rather a good diet program to switch to right away, a program that will target building a strong topline and good muscle mass. I'm going to walk you through the diet I personally feed my horses, but I highly recommend you talk to a nutrition specialist or consider using a program called FeedXL.com (a personal favorite of mine!) to balance your horse's dietary as needed.
The diet I start my average to hard keepers on is always going to be forage based. Meaning, first it's all about the hay and pasture quantity and quality. I recommend you start by having your hay and pasture tested for it's nutritional value, and base your feeding program around 24/7 access to hay and pasture. When you find out the results of your forage testing you'll know what you need to add to the diet from there, supplementing where your forage is lacking, or.. finding a new forage source if possible. Not all forage is created equal! For example, coastal hay is usually going to be of a much lower protein content than alfalfa.. so you might consider using coastal hay for the majority of the diet and supplement with alfalfa when your horse needs a higher calorie intake; such as during heavy training or during the winter. You may have to play a little with what your horse needs, but again, testing your forage is going to greatly reduce the guessing game. (here is an excellent article on forage types)
If the primary forage your horse is consuming is hay, I recommend a slow feeder hay net. Even for underweight or hard keeper horses a slow feeder net can actually improve weight gain or maintenance as the horse is consuming the hay at a closer to natural rate. This allows their body to properly digest the nutrients from the forage as well as offering a whole slew of other behavioral and physical benefits; such as reducing chances of ulcers and developing boredom behaviors. On a more personal note too, I've noticed that I can throw a handful of hay on the ground and place a hay net side by side, and my horses will often choose to eat from the net before eating the loose hay. My speculation is that they enjoy the "grazing" style of the eating from the net over large mouthfuls, but this is just a theory.
If your horse has trouble eating hay or pasture, it's going to be about the quality and quantity of an easier to consume forage... like a soaked alfalfa/hay pellet or molasses free beet pulp. Making this the bases of their diet will be important, and so will be making it available in frequent smaller meals throughout the day. If this is the only forage they are consuming then at least three to four meals per day, or if they are able to consume grass pasture too but no hay you may be able to do two meals of soaked forage pellets on top of their regular pasture access.
Next I recommend loose free choice trace minerals, this is a must for every equine diet. Giving horses access to loose trace minerals isn't as common (unfortunately) as is offering them mineral blocks, but often mineral blocks are hard for horses to consume their mineral requirement from and usually have unnecessary ingredients in them. All of my horses have 24/7 access to free choice loose trace minerals, no blocks, you do not add this to their daily feed.. it's just available to them as they feel they need. Horses are marvelous at knowing what their bodies need and don't need.
When I first started offering trace minerals they consumed them in large quantities, but gradually it tapered off to a gradual lick here and there as needed. If I ever there is a delay between the old and the new bag, and we run out for a time, they will often consume a little more than normal when I begin offering it again but gradually tapper off as they self regulate their needs.
Following forage and trace minerals is going to be a ration balancer with a high protein and fat content and a low NSC value (non structural carbohydrate). Personally I use ProAdvantage Grass or Alfalfa Formula (for my horses that don't have a soy intolerance) by Progressive Nutrition. I've seen absolutely amazing results from starting my two hard keeper/senior horses on this ration balancer. Beautiful coats, better toplines, and better muscle development. Also, this website has a list (scroll down a little) of low NSC ration balancers if you need help finding an alternative.
You may think it's crazy for me to suggest you feed your hard keeper a ration balancer, but I've had far better success cutting back on the large quantity "normal" feeds and switching every horse over to a ration balancer. When taking into consideration the way horses are designed to eat (small quantities over the majority of the day) ration balancers are arguably far healthier since the quantity to feed is so much less due to the concentration of the nutrients per pound. In combination with a forage based diet, they add the perfect amount of "extra" hard keepers need and balance out their nutritional needs.
Now for the supplements... when 24/7 forage access (remember, we are looking for high quality.. get it tested if you aren't sure, but don't just buy what's easy, but what's right!), trace minerals, and an excellent low NSC/high protein ration balancer aren't enough.. you might consider a weight gaining supplement. It might just be needed during the harder winter months, or during heavy work, but I have had great success with a supplement called Cool Calories 100. For the amount you give, it's so inexpensive really, and just a little bit packs a big punch. Also, FLAX SEED. I capitalize this one because I feed this no matter what, to every horse. It's amazing for their coats, joints, overall health, weight, manes, tails.. you name it! It helps with seasonal allergies as well. I feed my horses each one cup of whole flax seed every day, rain or shine. They eat it up no problem and love it, but I recommend starting with a smaller amount and building up to a cup. I know people that feed their horses two cups a day as well, talk to your veterinarian but one to two cups per day appears to be the normal amount of flax seed to feed.
Also, of course consider your usual joint and health supplements to add to your horse's diet as well, but keep in mind that "over supplementing" can be a really big problem and can do more harm than good. If your horse's diet is nutritionally balanced and you aren't dealing with extra medical problems then most supplements won't be necessary for your horse.
On to the exercise...
Now that we've discussed how to help a horse gain healthy weight and build up their topline through diet.. we need to talk about exercise. Just as important as food to building a great topline is going to be healthy and correct exercise. It's the same concept as trying to get that perfect six pack for swimsuit season. You have to eat right and you have to build the muscles. You can see sometimes remarkable improvement by doing just one of them, but you won't see a total transformation without both.
There's a lot that goes into making (or breaking) a good topline on a horse when it comes to exercise and training. Something as simple (though serious) as a poor fitting saddle can ruin all the hours of hard work being put into topline development. If your saddle is pinching your horse and creating painful pressure points it'll cause the horse to drop it's back and not activate it's topline properly. So all that hill work you're putting your horse through will be for not! Actually, it may do the exact opposite and make everything worse. (learn more about western saddle fit here or english saddle fit here)
Training your horse to carry themselves in a "false collection" or a "frame" can also cause damage to your horse's topline over time. It's important to learn how to encourage your horse to engage it's hind end and lift through it's back and into the contact rather than pull their noses in and make them drag their feet slower. Slower does not mean collected, but also running around with their head in the air certainly won't bring up their backs either and lengthen the top of their body. (learn more about topline development through exercise here.. and about how to start training here )
Another impacting factor will be underlying pain issues (that affect exercise), like kissing spine and arthritis or even imbalanced hooves. If your horse is in pain or physically limited it may never be able to develop a full topline until the pain is resolved. Sometimes due to age or injury it may not ever be "resolvable", but often times if you can alleviate a majority of the pain you'll be able to see some improvement as your horse feels more comfortable moving and training in a healthy way.
Similarly, there are some medical conditions (like cushings/PPID for example) that will impact muscle/topline development and there will only be so much you can do through exercise and diet. With medical conditions it's going to be extra important for you to talk to your veterinarian about healthy exercise and diet, BUT do not give up hope! I always encourage people to try their best and see if they can even make a small impact for the better.
Somewhat related to exercise is going to be the energy expended to preserve body heat during the winter. While I don’t blanket my horses usually, there are going to be some situations where a blanket will be necessary. One of these situations is going to be for a horse that struggles to maintain body weight or for a horse that is already underweight. Blanketing a horse like this will help them maintain their body heat and reduce calorie burning, making it easier to maintain or gain weight.
And that's it folks! That's my magic recipe for sleek magnificent hard keepers, senior horses, and rehab horses! Like I said, I'll do another article on feeding those easy keepers, but for now I hope this answers a lot of questions I've been getting! Now go fatten up some ponies! ;)