Nutrition and a balanced diet are just as important for horses as they are for people. Horses are herbivores that are designed to graze for the majority of the day. Unfortunately, most barns and equine facilities do not enable us to allow our horses access to pasture for that amount of time. For many horses, a lack of unlimited pasture is a good thing, as the term “easy keeper” applies. These horses tend to maintain their body condition very easily and can be sustained on minimum grain and standard hay amounts. However, there are many horses out there, that struggle to gain or maintain a healthy weight, these horses are referred to as “hard keepers.” The challenge lies in how to feed these different types of horses?
Feeding the Hard Keeper: There are many horses that need extra attention to their diet in order to maintain the ideal body weight. Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being hard keepers, as well as performance horses that are in intense work. Any horse that was under fed or rates poorly on the body condition scale may need extra calories. The first thought many people have is to feed hard keepers more grain, however; this isn’t necessarily correct. Horses should always be fed in the mindset of “forage first.”
Forage/Alfalfa: Forage is the most natural thing for a horse and the safest for their body. Forage doesn’t just mean hay though, it can come in many forms. When feeding hard keepers, it is important to have a high quality forage source. This can be pasture grass, a good high quality first crop hay, second crop hay, an alfalfa hay mix, or straight alfalfa. Alfalfa is extremely good for horses, it is not only great for putting on weight but can also help with ulcers. However, since alfalfa is so rich it is important not to overfeed, and introduce it to your horse slowly so as not to upset their stomachs. Alfalfa can also come in a cube or pellet form that is easily bought at most feed stores if you do not have access to baled alfalfa.
Beet Pulp: Another fabulous resource for hard keepers is beet pulp. Beet pulp is a fiber source, so again it is more natural for a horse than a grain concentrate. Beet pulp is found readily available at most feed stores and should be soaked prior to feeding it to your horse. It comes plain, or with molasses flavoring to help in palatability. Beet pulp is very high in digestible energy, and it is good for ulcer prone horses as well.
Grain: Grain is a good source for promoting weight gain, but it should not be relied on too heavily, or fed in large amounts. Horses fed more than .5% of their body weight per feeding are at a higher risk for hindgut acidosis, colic and ulcers. Horses have fairly large stomachs, and can easily get overloaded being fed too much grain. Too much grain can also provide large quantities of carbohydrates which can provide too much energy and make horses misbehave under saddle and on the ground. Grain can be a great resource when fed properly. Our best recommendation is to do your research and find a quality grain that suits the needs of your horse. This is best done by being diligent in reading and comparing feed tags. Following the manufacturer’s feeding instructions is vital as well.
Fat: Lastly, another great resource for your hard keeper is fat. Fat is a highly digestible and safe source of calories for your horse. There are many fat supplements of the market these days that are great for these hard keepers. Some of these include, rice bran oil, coco soya oil, Cool calories, Flax oil/flax seed, or even just straight vegetable oil. These supplements are great for adding to your horse’s grain. However one thing to keep in mind when feeding a fat supplement is omega 3’s and omega 6’s. Omega 3’s are anti-inflamatory, and Omega 6’s are pro-inflamatory, and they need to be kept at the ratio of omega-3:omega-6 1:3. So again please check labels on these supplements and make sure to find one that reflects this ratio.
“Hard Keepers” are not for everyone, and require a lot of patience and some extra effort, however with the right regimen, it is possible to pack on the pounds! If you are ever in doubt we strongly encourage you to consult your veterinarian to develop a feeding plan that is right for your individual horse. We hope these tips give you some things to consider when feeding your “hard keeper.”