Is your horse showing a bit more rib than you like to see? Is he or she losing the fat layer along the spine that is often referred to as topline? Have you tried everything, but your horse never seems to gain weight? In this article, nutritionist Larissa Bilston explains the first four steps to improving your horse’s condition in a safe and sustainable way.

It’s about the calories

If you’re looking for something to top up a diet to put weight on your horse, you don’t necessarily need a product that says ‘weight gain’ on the bag – you just need to add more calories.

This is often easiest achieved by feeding more of what you already feed. However, make sure you feed enough fibre before increasing hard feeds.

From a nutritional perspective it’s easy to feed for weight gain – this article outlines a simple four step process for designing a good weight gain diet.

Keep in mind that weight gain requires a holistic approach. It is essential that your horse has a thorough dental check, is on an evidence based worming program and all other veterinary issues such as gastric ulcers have been discounted at the onset of a weight gain program.

If you are feeding a severely starved horse, or an aged horse that may have other health issues (like Cushings) some of these guidelines may not apply. You must seek veterinary advice.

Step 1 – Adequate roughage

Start by feeding at least two per cent of your horse’s bodyweight as roughage (grass/hay/chaff) preferably available free choice in a weight gain situation.

This means that a 500 kg horse needs to have access to at least 10 kg dry matter roughage which could be obtained from 10 to 12 kg of hay and chaff or up to 30 kg or more of fresh grass. (Fresh grass has a higher moisture content than hay; most of its weight is made up of water and that’s why horses need such large amounts to get enough fibre).

A reduction in pasture quality and availability is not always easy to notice but is the most common cause of weight loss in horses.

When assessing pasture availability, do not include the ‘rough’ areas in your paddock which contain weeds and longer, rank grasses around where your horse frequently deposits manure. Your horse considers the ‘rough’ areas to be the toilet, and will not eat this grass.

Young, leafy plants provide more calories than old, stalky plants so horses grazing dried off paddocks may lose weight in summer in a temperate climate.

To get the most out of your pastures, consider implementing a pasture rotation plan. (See the articles by Jane and Stuart Myers). This will assist your worming program as well.

Pasture will produce maximum levels of dry matter if you are able to vary the grazing intervals based on plant development, waiting until the majority of grass plants in the pasture have developed 3 – 6 leaves each.
At some times of the year this can mean it is necessary to allocate a sacrifice area upon which to feed free choice hay and keep pastures locked up to recover. During stages of very active growth, rotations can be as fast as a few weeks.

At times of the year when there’s not much grass available, you’ll need to provide a constant supply of grass hay.

You could supply this by increasing the amount of hay you feed until there is always a little left over at the next feed time and then cut it back slightly.

Alternatively, provide a large round bale for free choice hay. Don’t panic if your hungry horses initially demolish it very quickly – after a week or two they realise that the bale is always there and only eat what they need (this does not apply to insulin resistant horses).

Step 2 – Choice and amount of concentrate feed

The next step is to add energy if the roughage doesn’t provide enough to meet your horse’s needs. The energy component of the diet is called the hard feed or concentrates. Typical ingredients of hard feeds could include:

  • Cereal grains such as oats, corn, sorghum, wheat or barley;
  • Cereal by-products including bran, pollard or millrun;
  • Legume grains like lupins;
  • ‘Super fibres’ including beet pulp, soy hulls, lupin hulls and copra; or
  • Oils.

Concentrates can be fed as individual ingredients, or in a premix in muesli or pelleted style.

When choosing your energy source, consider how much time you are willing to put into preparation. Whole oats can be fed raw, but other cereal grains such as barley and corn need be fed in a cooked form to aid digestion. You can boil them or buy steam flaked or micronised.

You may wish to avoid the cooked grains with added molasses – just check the labelling on the bag.
Some super fibres require soaking (but it doesn’t take long) and whole or cracked lupins are also best soaked to soften them.

The amount of energy food required depends on horse size, level of activity or breeding status, amount of energy provided by the roughage available and the individual’s metabolism.

The level of concentrate fed should not exceed half the total daily intake, and in most cases should be less than thirty-five per cent unless the horse is lactating or in very hard work.

Large concentrate feeds should be split and fed in two to three meals over the day. For a 500 kg horse, a concentrate meal should weigh less than 3 kg.

The most reliable way to assess whether your horse is getting enough concentrate feed is to carefully observe changes in body condition PROVIDED free choice roughage is available. (Check out the Body Condition Guide on the next pages)

If you are feeding plenty of roughage and your horse starts to lose weight, increase the size of the hard feed.

If you are feeding a well balanced diet it is not necessary to change to a different feed for weight gain, just feed more when needed. Adding a third meal per day can be a quick and safe way to increase body condition. To feed more, gradually increase the amount fed over five to ten days until you reach the desired amount.

When the pasture quality changes in spring and autumn, be watching so that if your horse is gaining too much condition you act quickly to reduce the amount of concentrate fed.

Top Tip:

  • Control Starch: Nutritionists recommend limiting starch intake to less than 2 grams and, preferably, under 1 gram of starch per kg bodyweight per meal.
  • Oils: Horses can safely consume up to 1ml of oil per kg bodyweight, provided the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio is balanced and the vitamin E is increased by 1.5 IU/ml.

Step 3 – Protein

For mature horses the roughage and hard feed will usually provide more than enough protein to meet their daily needs.

At times of year when the pasture is not available or very stalky and mature, adding a biscuit or two of lucerne hay will be enough to top up the crude protein and limiting amino levels to meet the needs of mature horses.

Lactating mares and foals under two years of age often need a higher protein concentrate than mature horses.

Step 4 – Use supplements to achieve balance

Next, add the vitamins and minerals necessary to top the levels in the diet up to at least daily minimum requirements. Finally, balance mineral ratios and omega fatty acid ratios across the whole diet.

You’ll be surprised how much more efficiently a horse fed a diet correctly balanced for minerals can function. Often, the cost of buying a quality vitamin and mineral supplement is much less than the savings made in hard feed requirements.

Live yeast probiotics can also assist with weight gain as they may increase the utilisation of dietary fibre, allowing the horse to getter better value from the forage consumed.

This simple four step process should begin to yield noticeable results within a few weeks. And remember… true topline is well-developed muscle achieved through correct exercise and not just a good diet.

If you do not begin to see an increase in body condition, contact your veterinarian for a thorough health check.

Top Tip: Weight gain without fizz

You don’t have to feed a product with the words ‘weight gain’ or ‘cool’ in the name to provide a nutritious diet capable of helping your horse gain weight without losing his or her cool!

Some horses seem to be sensitive to the starch in cereal grains and will get ‘hot’ on them so look to super fibres, legumes and copra that contain more ‘cool’ energy for these horses. Always read the ingredients list on a pre-mixed feed and beware the ‘cool’ feeds that are based on barley or millrun.

What about during a drought?

Keeping horses through severe drought means that compromises are necessary once hay supplies run low. It can become necessary to rely on cereal hay or feed more lucerne hay than is desirable.

If you can no longer source much hay, dietary roughage can be increased by mixing clean straw through your available hay and selecting super fibres as the concentrate feed.

Low quality grass hay can be sprayed with watered down molasses to improve palatability, but avoid feeding visibly mouldy hay. If you are feeding low quality or dusty feeds, add a toxin binder to the diet to protect your horse from the damaging affects of mycotoxins.

Weight gain for ulcer prone horses

Horses with gastric ulcers need a low starch diet and constant access to long stem roughage (hay rather than short cut chaff). Select legume grains (e.g. lupins), super fibres (beet pulp, soy hull pellets and copra) and oils as the concentrate feed. Avoid cereal grains (e.g. barley, oats etc.) and cereal by-products (e.g. millrun, bran) as well as cereal hay and chaff including oaten, barley or wheaten for ulcer prone horses.

Consider feeding nutraceuticals based on lecithin, aloe vera or fermented soy flour alongside veterinary prescribed ulcer medications and for thirty days after treatment ends. These ingredients can also be fed at a reduced rate for ongoing maintenance. And of course, seek veterinary advice.