Hard Keeper Help?

Q: We have a 5-year-old Thoroughbred stallion we cannot get to fill out, i.e., put weight on. He is very well-bred, and we have another offspring by the same sire, so we know how he should be, "genetically speaking." He only attempted two races as a 2-year-old before being retired to pasture, and we traced him to a farm and bought him eight months ago as a competition sire.

He is 17.2 and has comparatively long legs with very good bone. He arrived very thin, but not emaciated or unhealthy. He started work after he put on enough weight to be comfortable with a rider. We wanted him to gain condition, so he's had a very easy work schedule and has just started competing in eventing at the lowest level. He has a superb temperament, a very good work ethic, and is very calm and relaxed; this is why he's still a stal-lion. I don't know if this is relevant to our problem or not.

He's had complete physicals, tests, high-tech dentistry, dewormers and appetite stimulants, and various other meds a good vet would use in such a case. We have consulted all the leading nutritionists from South African feed companies and some consultants from companies of imported feeds. We have tried some "home remedies" guaranteed to fatten him up, like boiled barley and linseed. Nothing has been satisfactory thus far.

Any feed changes and additions have been planned and gradual. Our other horses, including his brother, look fabulous. He gets a very good commercial grain 14% (crude protein) stud mix, the amount carefully calculated for his work and size. He gets probiotics and feed booster and full-fat soya, and we've tried oil. He is stabled at night and out grazing seven hours every day; he gets lunch in his paddock, and he eats breakfast, dinner, and late snack (Lucerne pellets) in his stable. We have also tried keeping him in the stable after lunch for a sleep, but it made no difference. He has access to baled teff (Eragrostis tef, or "teff," also known as summer lovegrass, a warm-season annual grass native to Ethiopia) in a net, as well as ample graz-ing.

He is not exposed to extreme climate or any other stress. Even though he shows only mild, well-mannered reaction to the mares, we are careful not to tempt him. He has his own pasture, but he plays with the geldings over the fence occasionally (he is not isolated).

It seems as though we have covered all the bases, but we must be missing something because we cannot get him nicely covered. His ribs are just covered and his coat is shiny and healthy, but the rest is all muscle and no condition, and you can see the bones up from his tailbone to the highest point of his bum clearly. He looks as though he is not getting enough food. I have also been told to be more patient and that he is gaining weight, but I disagree. I am beginning to get desperate.

I am really hoping that you might have a suggestion or a new direction of investigation for us. This horse is the sweetest kindest horse I have ever ridden and has a heart as big as he is. He deserves to be round as well.

Wendy Kruger, Gauteng, South Africa

A: I appreciate the detail in your inquiry, as you addressed many of my initial thoughts and questions. This is also an excellent inquiry, as many owners struggle with the issue of putting weight on their horses. In general, weight gain or loss can usually be placed into two main categories, nutrition and medical.

The medical category contains conditions such as parasite infection, illness, and dental problems. It sounds as though you have addressed this category thoroughly, as you mention the stallion has had a dental exam, has been dewormed, and has undergone complete medical physicals. One additional question that should be addressed is ulcers. Gastric ulcers can cause weight loss, and if the horse was not endoscopically examined by your veterinarian, I would encourage this to be done.

The nutrition category deals with the feedstuffs being offered--is the correct amount and type of feed being offered, and is it being consumed by the horse? Based on the information you provided, it sounds as though you have been carefully monitoring this aspect. Although you didn't provide his exact weight, I'm assuming that your stallion is close to 600 kg (roughly 1,300 pounds). If so, the National Research Council (NRC) recommends a minimum of 32 Mcal of digestible energy and 1,034 grams of crude protein be fed per day for a horse performing heavy exercise. Although you stated the stallion has a very easy work schedule, the NRC classifies low to medium eventing as heavy work. I would encourage you to have all of your feed (grain and forage) tested for nutritional content. This allows you to accurately determine what he is consuming. Lack of dietary energy is one of the most common causes of insufficient weight gain; however, lack of protein must also be considered. A horse will not gain weight if crude protein is low, even if the energy level provided by the diet is adequate.

Another aspect to mention as part of the nutrition category is genetics. As with humans, some horses are simply "harder keepers" than others. Although you state you also have a half-brother to this stallion, do not assume that both horses will respond to feed the same way. The stallion in question might simply have a higher metabolic rate (common in many racing Thoroughbreds) and could require more feed than the average horse.

Finally, I encourage you to be patient. Your description of the horse as training well, with a shiny and healthy hair coat, leads me to believe that the medical category is not an issue. If your feed analysis shows you are meeting the nutrient requirements for a horse in heavy work, it might simply be that this stallion has a high metabolic rate and will require a bit more feed than you realize. Most of all, putting weight on a horse, especially a working horse, takes time. Plan to wait a minimum of one month before making additional adjustments or decisions on a diet, and realize it can take three to four months before you visually start to see signs of weight gain.

About the Author

Carrie Hammer, DVM, PhD

Carrie Hammer, DVM, PhD, is the Director of Equine Studies, Department of Animal Science, at North Dakota State University.

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