Increasing a horse’s weight and appetite (June 1, 2017)

Animal Science Update

By Carey A. Williams, Equine Extension Specialist, Rutgers University

Recently, I have gotten a few questions regarding increasing horse’s weight or about finicky horses and getting them to eat more.
I thought it might be worth sharing this information with all of you.
If you have a horse that is not the best eater, and just could use a few more pounds to look its best let’s first assume that you have already checked teeth and deworming program, if not, start there.
After those are in check, it is important to know that horses need to consume about 2-2.5 percent of their body weight, so through this article I will assume an average horse is about 1,000 pounds, therefore it should be eating about 20-25 pounds of food every day.
If you don’t already have a bathroom or kitchen scale, go to Walmart, or the like, and get one.
You will need it to measure the amount of feed you are currently feeding, hay and grain included.
Once you weigh the feed you will be able to get a better idea of where you need to go from there.
If amount of feed is adequate and hay is at least three quarters of the total ration, check the hay quality.
If horses don’t finish their ration of hay it leads me to believe that the quality is poor.
The forage should be a high quality grass variety; the type doesn’t matter as much as making sure that it doesn’t consist of a lot of stems or seed heads.
The hay should be softer with more leaves than stems.
This will basically tell you that the hay has more nutrients in it (i.e. protein, vitamins and minerals) than something very coarse with a lot of stems.
If you determine that the hay quality is decent, make sure there is at least 1.5  percent of body weight (15 pounds).
If fed free choice, monitor how much of the bale or how many flakes they would be consuming free choice then weight one flake and multiply from there to estimate the daily hay intake.
If the hay is both good quality and they are provided enough but just not eating it, you may have to try another forage source to make up for what they will not eat.
In this case I would recommend an alfalfa mix hay cubes or beet pulp.
You can feed both of these either dry or moistened in the same amounts you would need to make up the difference of what is not getting eaten.
So if only 10 pounds of hay is eaten you would give five pounds of cubes, etc.
The remainder of diet can be in grain or other concentrated feeds.
Depending on how much exercise the horse is getting weekly try to keep this portion around five pounds or less.
Some horses will pick through grain like they are uninterested.
If this is the case you could try another type (for example, textured-versus-pelleted).
You could also try top dressing it with a fat supplement.
Rice bran is nice because rarely will a horse reject it and it is also high in fiber.
Adding rice bran will increase the fat content in the feed and will create more energy for weight gain without the effect of a high sugar diet (or no hyperactivity).
The average horse can have about a pound or two per day, but different types of rice bran vary so it is also good to read the recommendation on the bag.
If the rice bran says it is ‘stabilized’ that just means it is fortified with a higher level of calcium since natural rice bran is typically low.
Remember you need to be careful when adding fat to the diet; you should increase the amount slowly over about two weeks.
Try this for a few month and monitor body condition and weight (using a weight tape).
As with any horse, you should not be able to see ribs, but you should be able to easily feel them when running your hand down the side.
The top line should also have fat cover without bulging or rippling.
If the condition still does not change or the horse is still not eating, adding straight alfalfa to the diet might do the trick.
It is higher in nutrients than a typical grass hay.
Something to note…alfalfa does not create a hyper or ‘hot’ horse if fed right.
Alfalfa it just higher in protein, vitamins, minerals, and a little more energy; protein will be good for the condition and the energy will help weight gain.
Again, same as with the rice bran, introduce the alfalfa very slowly will also help prevent possible diarrhea due to a rapid change in feed source.