Putting Weight on

Your Horses Just Got Easy

While in our human world one of the greatest challenges we face today is obesity and its many associated and deadly diseases, underweight horses are common. It seems that one of the biggest challenges some horse owners face is putting weight on and keeping weight on their horses. The answer to putting weight on horses is relatively simple. After you have had your horses teeth seen to by a qualified equine dentist, placed him on a regular worming routine and had your vet give him a clean bill of health, the ONLY way to achieve weight gain is to put more energy into the horse via his feed.

What is energy? 

A horse needs energy to live. Energy is 'burnt' to stay warm, grow, move around, breath, digest food, keep the organs working and reproduce. In fact, horses need energy to do EVERYTHING. So, where does all this energy come from? Energy comes from food and horses get energy from nearly everything they eat.

If the amount of energy a horse is eating in its feed is LESS than the amount it uses in its daily activities to keep warm, move around, digest food, exercise, breath and so on the result will be weight LOSS. If the amount of energy a horse is eating in its feed is MORE than the amount it uses in its daily activities, the result will be weight GAIN.

Imagine you horse is a balloon

Just imagine for a moment that your horse is a balloon with a small hole in the bottom. Imagine also that the air inside the balloon, the air being blown in and the air coming out of the balloon is your horses feed (or energy) and that the size of the balloon is equivalent to your horse's weight. If you blew less air into your balloon (i.e. fed your horse less) than the amount of air escaping through the hole, you would eventually end up with a flat balloon and a skinny horse. If you blew air into the balloon faster than the air was leaking out the hole, you would have a balloon that kept getting bigger, or in other words a horse that is gaining weight! So the key to weight gain is to feed your horse more energy than it is burning on a daily basis. OK, so that sounds pretty easy … but which feeds are best to encourage weight gain?

Which feeds are best?

For a horse to gain weight it needs energy (as discussed above), good quality protein to build muscles and a balanced profile of vitamins and minerals (as vitamin and mineral deficiencies can prevent a horse from gaining weight no matter how much you are feeding it). Effective weight gain diets provide:

  1. 24 hour access to good quality grass hay or pasture - We all have a tendency to get focused on feeding grains and high fat feeds to our horses when they need to gain weight and overlook the contribution that good quality grass forage can make. Free access to grass hay or pasture always underpins effective weight gain programs for horses.
  2. Lucerne hay - Lucerne will provide your horse with good quality protein which will facilitate muscle development. This is particularly important if your horse suffered muscle wastage at the time that weight loss occurred. Lucerne is also a high energy forage and makes a valuable contribution to raising a horse's energy intake above their daily requirement to encourage weight gain. It is difficult to make a recommendation as to exactly how much lucerne should be fed as each horses requirement will vary depending on the degree of weight gain required, their temperament (as occasionally lucerne hay will cause behavioural changes in some horses) and the quality of grass hay being fed. Between 0.5 kg and 1 kg per 100 kg body weight per day is a good place to start.
  3. High energy feeds when they are needed - If weigh gain is not achieved after implementing the first two steps above, your horse still requires additional energy over and above that provided by the pasture and/or hay. You now have three high energy feed options to consider adding to your horse's diet.

These are:

  1. High energy fibrous feeds such as soybean hulls, copra meal and sugarbeet pulp - These feeds are similar to pasture and hay, however the fibre they contain is more readily digested by the bacteria in the hindgut meaning they contain a similar amount of energy as cereal grains. These feeds will encourage weight gain and are suitable for all horses. They are particularly well suited to horses who become excitable and hyperactive when fed cereal grains.
  2. Cereal grains and grain based feeds - Cereal grains are well known as being high energy feeds and are useful in the diet of horses that need to gain weight. However some grains and grain based feeds are more suitable than others from a weight gain perspective. When selecting grains to feed to encourage weight gain it is critical that the starch within the grain (which is the high energy component) is digested in the small intestine. Grains that are digested in the small intestine will provide your horse with more energy (and therefore more weight gain). They will also ensure your horse avoids problems with hindgut acidosis which can cause laminitis and will also reduce the amount of energy a horse can extract from pasture and hay.
  3. Grains that have been micronised have superior small intestinal digestibility and should be used in preference to unprocessed grains in diets designed to encourage weight gain. Cereal grains should not be used in the diets of horses with Cushing's disease or those susceptible to laminitis.
  4. High fat feeds or oils - High fat feeds and oils are the highest energy feedstuffs you can feed a horse. Fats and oils hold two major advantages over high energy fibrous feeds and cereal grains. The first is they are energy dense - for example 1 cup of vegetable oil contains as much energy as 1.2 kg of oaten chaff. This has obvious advantages for finicky or small horses that won't eat large meals. The second advantage of high fat feeds and oils is they don't tend to make a horse as hyperactive as the same quantity of energy supplied in the form of cereal grains. In addition they do not carry the risks of digestive upsets that accompany cereal grains. Any oil may be used to encourage weight gain as long as it is fresh and palatable for your horse. High fat feeds include rice bran and rice bran based feeds, copra meal, and any of the full fat oilseeds such as soybean and sunflower.
  5. A balanced protein, vitamin and mineral profile - If your horse's diet is unbalanced from a protein, vitamin and mineral perspective it is likely that this will prevent your horse from gaining weight, regardless of how much you are feeding it. Feeding your horse the recommended amount of a well formulated commercial product or feeding a good quality supplement will ensure your horse's diet is well balanced. It may also be necessary to include a high quality protein source such as soybean in the diet.

The problem with weight gain diets

Now, unfortunately when we start feeding our horses a well balanced diet with energy in excess of their daily maintenance requirements, they tend to decide that they need to find gainful employment for this excess energy and increase their expressiveness and playfulness (which is then interpreted as loving owner talk for unruly, undisciplined and at times dangerous behaviour) when we ride them. So how do you feed your horse for weight gain without having them trying to kill you when you ride them? The answer to this million dollar questions is … you can't UNLESS your horse is well disciplined to begin with. If you own a horse that you can only just control when it is not being fed for weight gain, then you should not expect that you will be able to feed it gross amounts of feed to encourage weight gain AND still ride it safely, because it is just not going to happen. The golden rule is education first, feeding for weight gain second. The exception to this rule is when you have an emaciated horse that needs to be fed to gain weight before you begin riding it.

How can James & Son help you with your horse?