Feeding the Underweight Horse

Horses, like us, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are prone to being able to put on weight rather easily (easy keepers). Whereas, others can be quite difficult to not only add weight on, but maintain it (hard keepers).

There are many factors that can contribute to a horse being underweight. Regardless of cause, it should be every owner’s desire to safely get their horse to a healthy weight.

The industry standard on determining if your horse is underweight is the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. This system rates a horse’s body condition score (BCS) from a 9 (extremely fat) to a 1 (extremely emaciated). Horses are generally considered healthy if they are maintained in a range of 4 to 6. If your horse is under a BCS of 4, they are considered underweight.

We have to recognize that there is more to this than a body condition score, which only evaluates the fat covering of the horse. So, we have developed the Tribute® Wellness System, which gives a more holistic picture of the horse’s nutritional status. Using this system, we assess BCS, topline muscling and crest scoring, which can indicate potential metabolic conditions.

As mentioned, many factors can contribute to a horse being underweight. Harder keepers generally have faster metabolisms and need more feed. Other causes may include:

  • Illness. If a horse was in a healthy body condition and then suddenly starts losing weight, it may indicate illness. It would then be advisable to speak to your veterinarian.
  • Parasitic infection. A good deworming plan is critical, as intestinal parasites often lead to weight loss.
  • Poor dental health. Sharp points on the horse’s teeth or other issues can cause horses to not eat. Thus, like parasites, a good dental health plan is critical.
  • Stress. For horses, stress can come in many forms, including weather, social stress, exercise stress, and even stress due to seasonal flies and other insects.
  • Age. As horses get older, their digestive systems do not function as well.
  • Poor diet. Feeding poor-quality hay or feeds can lead to weight loss.

If your horse is underweight, here are some feeding suggestions:

First, owners need to identify why their horse is underweight and alleviate any non-nutritional causes. Then, their attention can be turned to adjusting what they are feeding to add weight. It is important to note that horses that are under a BCS score of 3 need additional, special care. We ask that you contact us for expert advice in these circumstances. Emaciated horses need to be carefully nurtured back to a proper weight.

When adjusting the underweight horse’s diet, owners need to first look at the forage part of the diet. The owner should ask if their horse is receiving high-quality forage. A forage analysis is a good start to determine a forage’s quality. When adjusting the diet, a horse should receive at least 2% of their body weight in forage per day. For a 1000 pound horse, this would equal to 20 pounds of forage daily. In many cases, it is advisable to increase to 2.5 or 3% (25 – 30 lb) per day.

If horses are kept on pasture, allowing them 24 hour access will also help. It is important to ensure the pastures are properly maintained and productive, though. When a pasture is not productive, it is always advisable to feed the horse a high-quality hay. For senior horses or horses that have difficulty eating forage/pasture, supplementation with a high fiber concentrate is always a good option.

The second consideration for underweight horses is the energy portion of the diet. This equates to calories and is easily increased with a good quality concentrate. Today, it is advisable to increase the energy portion of a horse’s diet with quality fat, rather than simply adding more sugars and starch. However, simply adding fat to the diet usually will not address all the needs of an underweight horse. Underweight horses will need a quality concentrate that includes critical nutrients, including proper amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Thus, horse owners need to be selective in the feeds they choose.

For some final tips, it is always important to remember to slowly change your horse’s diet. In some cases, especially in aged horses, feeding them more often may help them optimize digestion. Once your horse reaches their desired BCS and other targets via the Tribute® Wellness System, you can then consider decreasing their feed for maintenance of their target goals.

If you are concerned about your underweight horse and would like guidance on a Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition feeding plan, please contact us today!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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