Managing the Hard Keeper

Horses lose weight for a variety of reasons--some medical, some man-made. Learn why your horse might be underweight and what you can do about it.

Have your veterinarian perform a complete physical examination to rule-out medical diseases or conditions. There are some common health reasons for horses to lose weight, like parasites, and there are some uncommon reasons, like cancer. The more uncommon ones will need additional testing for a diagnosis.

Then, step back and examine the quantity and quality of the forage and grain your horse eats. Is the hay from two years ago and does it look more like straw? Is he getting 1.5 - 2.0% of his body weight daily in food (for a 1200 pound horse that's 24 pounds of hay and grain, hopefully divided into two or more feedings).

Next, consider the stress in your horse's environment. Does he have to fight for his share of hay and grain? Does he travel and compete frequently? Does he suffer from heat and bugs in the summer and wind and cold in the winter?

As horses age, their bodies begin to function less efficiently. However, this doesn't mean older horses are supposed to be or have to be thin. It just means they need more veterinary care and improved management to maintain weight. Use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring chart to keep your horse at a 5 out of 9.

Finally, take into account your horse's workload. A horse used for weekend trail rides will need less calories than a school horse ridden for an hour six days a week. Horses on heavy training and competition schedules, especially racehorses, will need the most calories.

Sometimes hay and grain can't do the job alone, and that's where supplements come in. Work with your veterinarian to determine if added fat, amino acids, appetite stimulants or a product to support overall gastrointestinal health might be helpful to your horse.


This is a summary of Dr. Gray's presentation on managing the hard keeper, discussed at Equine Affaire Ohio. Dr. Gray's GetSmart discussions at the SmartPak Store in Natick, Mass., will continue next fall. For more information see www.smartpakequine.com/store.aspx.  

About the Author

Lydia Gray, DVM, MA

Lydia Gray, DVM, is Medical Director and Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. She was previously the executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, IL, and an Owner Education Director for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

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