Preventing Weight Loss in Horses

As Featured on EquiNEWS Powered by Kentucky Equine Research and Nutrition Daily
Horses lose weight for various reasons: disease, increased exercise, winter weather, or heavy lactation, among other causes. Owners may need to adjust the feed types or amounts for these horses to prevent weight loss.

Some horses, for instance those in hard work or particularly poor doers, can’t maintain condition or work on hay alone and need the increased energy density of a grain. If you want the convenience and peace of mind of knowing that your horse is getting all the essential nutrients he requires in each scoop, it may be best to look at the complete feeds available on the market. It’s usually more economical to pick a grain/chaff mix rather than a grain mix or pellet, but you can add your own chaff separately. Don’t automatically use a low-energy feed, as you may have to feed too much to achieve the required result. Have a good look at the label and pick a feed that is fully balanced and has enough supplementary minerals and vitamins, so that you don’t have to add an extra supplement.

If you want to mix your own feed, remember that oats are the safest grain to feed and should be the starting point for any feed for mature horses. Whole oats are easily digested in their natural state and do not require processing before being fed. If your horse appears to have unwanted behavioral changes when fed oats, consider adding some barley. Unlike oats, barley should be steam-flaked, micronized or extruded to extract the full nutritive value.

Winter, with its cold temperatures and reduced grazing, demands some adjustment in equine feeding programs. Most owners know that they need to provide more calories but may not be sure of the best way to accomplish this.

If you need to increase the amount of a horse’s dietary intake, hay is the first priority. Horses digest hay relatively inefficiently, and digestion produces waste heat that helps the horse stay warm. A flake of hay or an extra scoop of chaff is much more useful than a warm bran mash, even though we might get a warm and fuzzy feeling making up the bran mash. Horses don’t need a “hot” feed at night, and internal warmth is far more important than a warm mouthful.

Buy quality hay; you get what you pay for! Clover hay is good, but is often hard to find. Alfalfa (lucerne) contains more energy than grass hay, although well-made grass/clover mixes can be terrific for horses in the wintertime. Look for plenty of leaf and little stem, as this shows that the hay was harvested when nutrient composition was at its peak and is better quality than crops that have been left to go to seed and consequently have reduced nutrient quality. Hay is a far more natural feed for horses than grain, and you’ll get better results with less risk of colic if you use it as the first choice to supplement equine diets in winter.

High-fat feeds can also be a real advantage in the cold weather and prevent a horse from losing weight. Fat contains two and a half to three times the energy of grain so you don’t have to feed much to get results. Good sources are vegetable oil, sunflower seeds (25-30% fat), and rice bran (15-20% fat). Many prepared feeds contain added fat and the higher the fat content, the higher the energy. Many products don’t list energy on the label, so looking for a feed with a high fat content can help guess the energy content. If your horse really struggles to maintain condition, pick a high-energy racehorse feed, as these feeds are generally fairly concentrated and will help to replace those lost calories in a smaller quantity of feed.