When owners reference their horses as either an “easy” or “hard” keeper, they usually mean that their horse has an easier or harder time maintaining their weight (body condition). Easy keepers can be difficult to manage because owners need to be careful of their horse’s energy (caloric) intake, while ensuring they are still meeting their essential nutrient needs. On the flipside, hard keepers can be difficult to manage because owners are trying to safely feed their horses enough calories to encourage weight gain.

It is important to remember, not all horses should be classified as an easy or hard keeper. Most horses are just “normal” and weight gain or loss will fluctuate throughout their life stages. However, due to their innate metabolism and other factors, weight gain will be consistent with easy keepers and more difficult with hard keepers.

Hard keepers can usually be identified by evaluating their body condition using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. Briefly, the Body Condition Score (BCS) is a 1 to 9 scale that evaluates the horse’s covering of fat and muscle. The optimal BCS for most horses is a range of 5 to 6. Hard keepers tend to lose condition quickly when their caloric demands are not met.

There are certain horse types and breeds that tend to be classified as hard keepers. Generally, horses bred for racing, like Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, tend to be hard keepers. This is due to having a more active metabolism than other breeds. These horses often burn more calories each day compared to a similar sized horse, like an American Quarter Horse. Other factors that may cause a horse to be classified as a hard keeper are:

  • Temperament. Horses that are high strung or always active burn more calories each day.
  • Sex. Stallions tend to burn more calories each day compared to geldings, especially during the breeding season.
  • Pregnancy. Broodmares will require more calories in their diet during pregnancy and lactation.
  • Age. Senior horses do not utilize nutrients as well as younger horses.
  • Competition/training. Performance horses require more calories in their diets compared to less active horses.

There are situations or circumstances when a horse may lose weight, either suddenly or over a period of time. This does not necessarily mean the horse is a “hard keeper,” but owners would want to utilize similar feeding strategies to encourage weight gain. Such circumstances could include:

  • Poor dental health. Pain in the mouth will discourage eating and/or decrease feed efficiency.
  • Parasites. An infection of internal parasites or even external parasites (flies) can cause weight loss. You can learn more HERE and HERE.
  • Picky eaters. A horse may suddenly start rejecting its feed due to many factors. This article HERE offers advice and tips.
  • Herd dynamics. Less dominant horses may get run off their feed from more dominant horses.
  • Lameness. An injury can discourage eating.
  • Illness. Similarly, an illness can discourage eating.
  • Poor quality feed. Low quality hay and feed or low producing pastures can all contribute to weight loss.

When it comes to encouraging weight gain in any horse, it is important to identify why your horse is not gaining weight. If concerned with your horse’s health, it is always worthwhile to discuss this with your veterinarian and a vet check may be warranted.

When trying to encourage weight gain in hard keepers, it is important to remember to make any changes to their diet slowly. Also, simply feeding more may not be the best strategy. If feeding low quality or the wrong type of feed, just giving more may not help and may cause digestive upset.

The first step to encouraging weight gain in a horse is to evaluate the forage portion of the diet. Owners should select a high-quality forage and if feeding a grass hay, consider switching to a more energy dense legume hay, like alfalfa. Hard keepers should be fed, at minimum, 2% of their body weight per day in forage. For a 1000 pound horse, that would be 20 pounds of forage per day. This could then be increased to 2.5% to 3% per day (25 to 30 lb for 1000 lb horse) divided over many meals.

Second, all horses will need feed in their diets to ensure they are receiving the proper amounts of amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins. To encourage weight gain, owners are no longer encouraged to feed more carbohydrates (i.e., high NSC feeds), but rather increase fat intake. However, overfeeding fat can be problematic. With advancements in equine nutrition and feed formulation, owners are now encouraged to feed a high-fat feed, rather than top dressing their feed with fat (i.e., vegetable oils). For example, some ideal Tribute® feeds include:

  • Kalm Ultra®: a high fat (12%) feed intended for hard keeping and hard-working horses.
  • Senior Sport™: a high fat (10%), high fiber (18%) feed that is also low in NSC (16.5%) and ideal for hard keepers and active horses.

The take home message is that almost any horse can lose weight for a variety of reasons. The goal for any owner should be to safely feed their horse until they reach their ideal body condition. For more feeding tips on how to safely add weight to your horse, you can visit HERE. If you have any concerns about your own horse, please feel free to reach out to our experts for a free, personalized feeding plan!

Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.