I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked how to put extra weight on a thin horse, which some people refer to as a “hard keeper.” The topic seems to be posted almost everyday on some of the Facebook horse groups I am a member of. It is also becoming more and more common for horse owners to post pictures of their horses and ask “do they look like they have enough weight on them to you?” I find it commendable that they are becoming more aware of their horse’s condition. The discussions often have very helpful suggestions like “feed more hay” to the weird “feed this herb, that my grandfather use to use”, but the poster often doesn’t tell all the facts ……..until 20+ replies are made. This brings up the fact that food or supplements alone do not rule when it comes to weight gain or loss.
There are other factors that come into play with body condition and weight. Just look at yourself. You are the product of your parents. If they were tall, short or medium build you will more than likely take on that DNA and have the same body type, the same thing with horses. In horses there are also breed specifics that dictate general body type and shape. If you are trying to put more weight and bulk in the form of muscle on a horse that comes from a long line of lean built horses you will be fighting an up hill battle. It can be done but you should be looking at overall health of the horse and not bulk weight as the only indication of health.
Another factor is activity. A horse kept for most of the day in a stall with a small paddock to walk around in will use up far less calories than a horse out at pasture all day. Add to that equation a horse that likes to play all day with the other horses in a large pasture by running and you will have a horse that will need higher amounts of food just to keep up with their activity level. None of that takes into account if the horse is in training or being ridden daily.
Then there is another factor that people seem to miss entirely, other horses. This reminds me of a young woman who had just acquired her first horse and was so proud of herself for getting the horse into a really nice condition. Then the horse started losing weight over the course of a matter of weeks. She posted a picture of her horse and asked for suggestions. The answers were the same as usual – worm the horse, have a vet check done, float the teeth, treat for sand colic, add grain to diet, feed more hay and the assorted supplements suggested. Almost all of the suggestions were assuming that she had kept the horse in a stall most of the time. After about 15 or so replies to her question, she mentioned that the horse could not be fed the extra hay or grains since the horse was kept in a field and most of the time he was being pushed away from the food by another horse. It only took one more reply by someone that said “well there is your answer – your horse is not eating enough and the other horse is probably fat” and the replies ended.
When looking for the reason why your horse is losing weight or you are having a hard time with keeping weight on him/her, look at their daily activity first. Are they at pasture? Are they laying hard? What are they doing all day? If active, feed more hay. 15 to 17 pounds of hay daily is only a suggestion for the average horse, some need 20+ pounds of hay, I know, because I have one that eats that much each day. He is very active in pasture, a thin build, tall (15.3 hands) and fast.
Next, are they being fed enough? Is the hay a low grade or top quality hay? Horses will only eat low quality hay as a last resort if they are starving. Most of the time low quality hay is peed on or used as bedding if they don’t eat it. A horse will let you know if the hay is substandard. Just pay the extra dollar or two per bale for the higher quality hay.
Now of course none of this takes into account the fact that you might not have full control of your horse’s diet. You might be boarding your horse. If you are, take a look at that boarding agreement you signed. The boarding stable often has the legal responsibility to keep weight on the horse irregardless to how much feed they state they will feed. They cannot refused to feed enough feed to your horse otherwise they could be found guilty of animal abuse. Know your rights as a boarder.
While what I have said is not a step by step instructions on how to put weight on your horse, it is, I hope, enough to make you think.