Putting Weight on Horses
By Eleanor Richards

        If a horse is under-weight, it's hard to get him fat.

        Whoa!  It's easy; just feed him more, you say.

        Well, it's not that simple

        Before we start thinking about increasing feeds and making changes we need to make sure the horse is truly underweight.  We are so accustomed to seeing "well-rounded" horses when we see a fit horse we tend to think he is underweight.

        Dr. Don Henneke developed the industry standard for determining the condition of a horse in regard to body fat.  The body condition score (BCS)  rates horses on a scale of 1-9.  One is a walking skeleton and nine is obese. 

       The desired score for most horses would be 5 - Moderate: The back is flat with no crease or ridge.  Ribs are not visible, but can be felt with very slight pressure.  Fat around the tail head feels somewhat spongy.  Fat along the withers and over the top of the back vertebrae make them somewhat rounded.  The shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body.  For more information about the body condition score chart
Click Here.

      A horse that is severely underweight cannot recover from disease or illness quickly, is apt to become sick, will have poor quality hooves, will not be able to maintain body heat in cold weather, will not be able to perform or recover from exertion and will not thrive. 

      The first steps to take in helping the underweight horse is determine why he is thin.  There could be one or several reasons.

               1.  Have a veterinarian visit to rule out illness.  A latent infection may be present.

               2. Have the vet or an equine dentist check the teeth.  Malocclusion (teeth do not meet properly), high points, missing teeth, infection, sores and other problems may be causing chewing problems or causing the horse not to eat.

               3. Have a good de-worming program in place.  Conduct a fecal exam several times a year to determine worm types and load.

               4. Ask your veterinarian about the possibilities of ulcers.  He may recommend scoping the horse to detect ulcers. You may decide to try the ulcer medications without a scope and see if they help.

               5. Alleviate stress. 

               6.  Is he getting enough to eat and is it of good quality?  The high price of hay, cheap commercial feeds, cutting back to save money and the shortage of good pasture for grazing are the most likely reasons for a thin horse.  If this is the reason the horse is thin - it's time to sell the horse.

               7.  The horse may be a senior horse and can't utilize the nutrients available in feeds any longer. 

     Once the cause of the thinness is determined how to fix it can be addressed.

     Your veterinarian can help you with disease, dental problems, deworming or ulcers.  Alleviating the stress, providing better quality feed and more of it, better management and commitment to the care of the senior horse is up to you.


      You must alleviate as much stress as possible when dealing with a nervous horse.  These horses may have high metabolisms and burn calories easily.  Stall walking and weaving is not going to help maintain or gain weight. 

      The nervous horse may calm down if another animal is nearby.  If your horse is alone try getting a goat or pony for companionship. 

      Providing a stall with plenty of windows, a Dutch door or stall guard so the horse can look out may help calm a nervous horse.  Try hanging hay net filled with hay outside the door so he can munch on hay while watching the activity around the barn.  Grabbing a mouth full of hay and running to look out the door can burn calories.  Continue to provide hay on the floor in the stall so he can also eat in the natural position with his head down.

      More turn-out time with plenty of forage may also help the nervous horse.  If the lot does not have adequate forage you can scatter hay to simulate grazing.

       If your horse does have ulcers alleviating the stress will help speed the healing process.

       A major stress factor is the feeding schedule.  A horse is a creature of habit.  Feed at the same time every day.  Small, frequent meals are best and they need to be on time.  Do not feed one big meal and expect it to last 24 hours or more.  Do not feed twice a day with a lapse of more than 12 hours between meals.  The best schedule is three or more times within a 24 hour period at the same time each day or night.  For example: 6 A.M., 1 P.M. and 8 PM, with the evening meal providing enough hay to last until the next morning.


       Most nutrition articles about feeding horses recommend approximately two (2) percent of their body weight in forage per day.  This would mean a 1,000-pound horse would need about 20 pounds a day. 

       This amount is not carved in stone. There are other factors to be considered.  What is the quality of the forage?  How much of it is edible?   How many calories is the forage providing?  How many calories per day does the horse require?  How digestible is the hay?

       Hay that is mature, full of weeds, stored improperly, soiled by other animals, made with inferior grass types or not harvested from well-maintained fields will not provide enough nutrients.  If the hay does contain adequate nutrients but the horse does not like the taste of it, then it's no good, too.

       It is possible the nervous horse with the high metabolism may eat as much as four or five percent of his body weight in forage per day.  Even if hay is provided 24-hours per day if it is not of good quality it will not provide enough calories.  

      If the underweight horse is on pasture the same problems must be addressed.  Is the horse expected to thrive on weeds?  A good pasture management program must be implemented which includes rotating pastures.  Contact your local cooperative extension office for assistance. 
http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html  In the meantime provide good quality hay in addition to the pasture.

       The bottom line is the thin horse (and all horses) should have forage available 24-hours per day.

        Once the forage part of the diet has been addressed a balanced commercial diet that compliments the forage should be added. 

        The key to this is read the feed tag!  The mix you choose should be designed for your horse based on age, activity level and forage type.  You do not want a feed made for adult horses at maintenance activity level when your horse is a high-performance nervous show horse.  You'll end up feeding more, spending more money (think supplements), being frustrated and not providing the needed nutrition for your horse.

       Commercial mixes designed for high performance horses and horses that need more calories will contain more fat and probably beet pulp.  The fat sources will be vegetable oil, flaxseed and rice bran.  These products will not be cheap, but they will be balanced. 

       Purchasing cheap feed and then adding supplements to try to make it better will only get your mineral ratios unbalanced, create more work for you and put your horse at risk.  Unless you are an equine nutritionist leave the mixing to the scientists.  Take my word for it - the math calculations are not fun.

       If you still decide to add supplements do lots of research.  Some key points are: rice bran has an inverted calcium to phosphorus ratio - it needs to be balanced.  Horses cannot digest whole flax - it needs to be ground.  High fat products turn rancid quickly - they need to be stabilized or purchased fresh frequently. Oil purchased at the grocery store lacks beneficial fatty acids.

       Adding a small amount of beet pulp to the diet will not hurt anything.  Many horses that are picky will eat with gusto if some moist beet pulp is added to their grain.

      Do not feed more than one-half percent of the body weight in grain at one feeding.  So a horse that weighs 1,000 pounds should not get more than 5 pounds at a time. (1,000 pounds times 0.005 equals 5 pounds).  A horse that weighs 800 pounds would not get more than 4 pounds (800 times 0.005).


       The senior horse will have trouble utilizing nutrients.  Tooth problems and loosing the ability to extract nutrients from feeds will cause weight loss. 

       Addressing all management issues can help ensure good quality of life for many years. 

       Do not neglect the geriatric horse - recovery from sickness, injury or malnutrition can be impossible. 

        Caring for horses can be expensive and time consuming.  Caring for a horse that has issues is worse - if you can't make the commitment, do not get a horse….they all end up with issues eventually.


Learning About Horses
Contact Us