Help for Horses that Lose Weight in the Winter


Question #1: I have a paint horse that is 30 years old and he has lost weight and is looking bad despite being on feeding supplements. Is there any one particular supplement that will help him gain weight? I know he is an old horse but I have had him for about 15 years and gotten attached to him and don’t want to do anything to hurt him in any way. I know he hasn’t much time left but I don’t want him suffering.

Question #2: What is the best supplement to put weight on a horse? We have had her on Fat Cat and she still is not putting any weight on. She is 5 yr old mare that is used in college rodeo. She gets equine senior feed, plus a big amount of grass/alfalfa mix. She is ridden at least 5 times a week. Any help would be appreciated.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been inundated with questions about how to put and keep weight on horses. It’s especially critical now as we head into winter and possibly a hay shortage, depending on what part of the country you live in. I’ve included two questions in this entry because they represent two common but different reasons for horses to be thin: old age and athletic activity.

The first thing I recommend to both these owners is to have their veterinarians perform complete physical examinations on these horses to rule out any medical reasons for them to be thin. Medical reasons for weight loss or failure to gain weight include parasites, dental disease, ulcers, metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s Disease, chronic pain or infection, and many others.

Once any medical conditions are ruled out or treated, these owners should look at their specific situations. Let’s start with the older horse. As horses age, they become less efficient in chewing, digesting and absorbing food, so we need to make this process easier for them, provide them with a higher quality and quantity of food, and perhaps provide them with additional nutrients.

Older horses that may have difficulty chewing may need to be transitioned from long-stem hay to chopped hay, hay cubes, hay pellets or a complete feed that contains both forage and concentrate. Hay cubes are usually soaked before feeding; some horses may need pellets soaked as well to make chewing easier. Concentrates may need to be in pelleted form, since whole corn, oats and other grains may be difficult for the older horse to chew.

Because older horses’ bodies are less efficient at digesting and absorbing food, they may need more and better food simply to maintain their weight. Try upping the amounts of both hay and concentrate by 10 to 15% and see if yours gains weight in two to three weeks. If your older horse is already eating all the hay and concentrate he can in two meals, add a third or even fourth meal. Supplementing with oil or fat is another excellent way to provide more calories to the older horse. Horses require more protein as they age (14 – 16% instead of 10 – 12%) but this protein must be of high quality or it will not be absorbed and used properly. Look for feed with a mixture of protein sources providing a wide range of the essential amino acids, especially the limiting amino acid lysine.

Older horses may need specific nutrients to help maintain weight and health. For example, horses naturally make Vitamin C and the B vitamins themselves. However, as their digestive systems age and become less efficient, they may make less of these nutrients, just when their bodies’ demands for them are increasing. Supplementing with prebiotics and probiotics is also a good choice, and yeast especially has been shown to enhance the digestibility of fiber and other nutrients. If they seem to have lost their appetite, stimulate it with bee pollen, fenugreek, or banana (recently shown to be the number one preferred flavor of horses!)

Now for the young athletic horse in the question above. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but since you mentioned some specific products, let’s review your current feeding program. You say you are feeding a “big amount” of grass/alfalfa mix. Since one person’s big amount may be different than another person’s, I recommend you weigh the hay you give your horse. You can easily do this by hanging it from a fish scale. Horses should get about 2% of their body weight in total feedstuffs per day. So if all a horse is getting is hay and he weighs 1000 pounds, he should be getting 20 pounds of hay per day, preferably divided into two or more feedings. But because most horses receive concentrate for additional calories, vitamins and minerals, another combination might be 15 pounds of hay and 5 pounds of concentrate. If you’re not feeding at least 2% of your horse’s body weight per day, then gradually work up to this amount. If you already are, then consider feeding 2.25% or even 2.5% of her body weight, if she’ll eat it. This may mean keeping hay in front of her all the time, or if that’s not possible, feeding three or four meals. Something to improve her appetite may also be necessary.

Now let’s talk about your choice of concentrate, an equine senior feed. You may have been advised to put her on this because it’s highly digestible. However, if this is a COMPLETE feed, it’s a forage-based product with concentrate (calories, vitamins and minerals) added. That means it’s a dilute concentrate. I suggest you go back to a true concentrate, one that isn’t made up primarily of forage, to “concentrate” calories for her. Otherwise, you’ll have to feed more of this product than she can possibly eat.

Finally, you said you give Fat Cat as a weight gain supplement. That’s a popular and successful choice for many people! But because horses are individuals, and what works for one may not always work for another, I suggest you try something else. Fat Cat is a 25% protein supplement that is designed to supply amino acids for muscle building. Perhaps your horse would gain weight better on a product that supplied fat instead. Fat is an excellent source of energy and calories and may work wonders on your horse! Another choice is prebiotics and probiotics and yeast. Some horses, no matter their age, simply need a little help in extracting all the nutrition possible out of the hay and concentrate they’re fed and live microorganisms like yeast and bacteria are designed to do this.

I encourage both owners to read my article on our website “Managing the Hard Keeper,” which has additional suggestions for thin horses, including sources of stress in their lives and the value of pasture!