Horse owners toss around the terms “easy” and “hard” keeper when it comes to feeding their horses. This generally means that the horse either has an easy or a difficult time maintaining their weight (body condition). Contrary to popular belief, easy keepers tend to be the trickier of the two to feed because while you are trying to meet their nutritional needs, you also are trying to limit or prevent weight gain.

The easiest way to determine if your horse is an easy keeper is to first evaluate 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 rib coverage. The optimal BCS for most horses is a range of 5 to 6. Overweight horses are recognized as those scoring 6 or above, whereas underweight horses are a BCS of 4 or lower.

There are many reasons horses can either be an easy or hard keeper. It generally boils down to that horse’s individual metabolism. However, being an easy keeper is a trend we see in many horse breeds and/or types of horses. For example, our draft type horses are generally considered easy keepers. This is because these horses were selected for many generations to be strong and powerful. They have different muscling compared to racing type horses, like the Thoroughbred. Due to this muscling difference and other factors, easy keepers require less calories (energy) per pound of body weight as compared to hard keepers. This trend is also seen in other breeds and types of horses, from our hardier horse breeds (i.e., Morgan or American Quarter Horse) to our ponies and even miniature horses.

Of course, any horse, regardless of breed or type, can be considered an easy keeper. The individual horse’s temperament or daily activity can also be a factor if they are an easy keeper or not. For example, stallions during the breeding season tend to be harder keepers due to their increased activity, when compared to a gelding during the same period. Calmer and less active horses are burning fewer calories each day and thus, can easily put on weight if the calories in their diet are too high.  

The goal of any proper feeding program for any horse is to obviously meet their daily nutritional needs. Where it gets tricky with easy keepers is to meet those nutritional needs, while monitoring energy (calories) levels of the diet. If your easy keeper is:

  • In a BCS of 6 of higher (most common), the goal should be to meet nutrient needs while reducing the calories in the diet to encourage weight loss.
  • In a BCS of 4 to 6, maintain current energy levels in the diet.
  • In a BCS of 4 or less (least common), the goal should be to increase the calories in the diet.

Most easy keepers can maintain their weight on a forage-only diet. However, forage alone is not sufficient on its own to meet a horse’s daily dietary needs. They will need supplemental amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins that are not provided in the forage in high enough quantities to support their health. Thus, easy keepers also need a ration balancer, at the very least. This type of feed is highly concentrated in nutrients, is lower in calories, and is fed at a low feeding rate. For example, a 1000 pound horse in minimal work would only be fed 1 pound of a ration balancer per day. When fed with at least 1-1.5% of the horse’s body weight in forage, this would meet the horse’s daily nutrient needs. Examples of ration balancers would include Essential K® or Wholesome Blends™ Balancer.

Where it becomes difficult for horse owners with easy keepers is encouraging weight loss and reducing the total calories in the diet. If already feeding a ration balancer and a horse still needs to reduce its BCS, then owners will need to reduce forage intake for said horse, but note that horses should never be fed less than 1% of their body weight in forage per day. For a 1000 pound horse, that is no less than 10-12 pounds of forage (depending on the forage dry matter content) per day. However, that is the bare minimum and most equine nutritionists would normally not recommend less than 1.5% per day (i.e., 15 lb of forage per day for a 1000 lb horse). Reducing a horse’s forage intake to 1.5% of their weight per day should help them lose excess weight and body condition. Once the horse reaches an ideal BCS, forage levels should be increased to a maintenance level. Other tips include:

  • If feeding alfalfa or an alfalfa mixed hay, switch to a grass hay. Alfalfa increases calorie content.
  • If feeding a very high-quality grass hay, consider switching to a clean, but lesser quality grass hay.
  • If on pasture, consider the use of a grazing muzzle to limit intake. Reducing time on pasture may not be ideal, as research is showing horses will graze heavier when they know their time on pasture is limited. 
  • The use of hay nets may be helpful in increasing the time a horse spends eating its forage.
  • Feed forage more often throughout the day (i.e., 3 to 4x per day).
  • Give a horse more turn out time or start an exercise program.

All in all, while easy keepers can be a blessing to an owner’s feed bill, they can prove challenging to feed. Identifying your horse as an easy keeper and then evaluating your feeding plan will go a long way in helping you to find the optimal diet for your animals. If you have any questions or need any advice, please contact us for a free, personalized feeding plan!

Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.