We hear this quite frequently. “I have this horse and I am feeding him 3 scoops of sweet feed a day, and he is skinny. How can I get him to put on weight?”

Well, to answer this we need to address several different issues.

First, what some people fail to realize is that horses need to go to the dentist just like we do. When horses foraged in the wild, they wore their teeth off in lean seasons by eating shrubbery and tree bark and also wore them down getting a bit of sand, etc in with their grass. Now that we humans have completely changed their environment, we must artificially wear them down. If you have a horse that won’t gain weight, please get his teeth checked first!

Second, the very best thing your horse can eat is an all grass/good quality hay diet. Horses use their food intake most effectively when they eat small amounts of forage all day long. Understanding that all horses cannot be kept out in a pasture, still we can mimic this by haying them small amounts all day long. Of course, this is not practical sometimes so we can get small holed hay bags or create a slow feeder. (see one type in the picture below). If your horse must eat grain, frequent small meals allow him to make the best use of those concentrated calories. Feeding large meals twice per day actually works against the owner because the horses digestive system cannot process all of that in a timely manner and some of it winds up being “dumped” in their poo without ever being used!

Third, the “scoop” may be the culprit. A scoop is a subjective measurement. They come in a few different sizes or people use coffee cans or butter tubs or whatever is convenient. There is nothing wrong with this except somehow you need to determine exactly how much grain that “scoop” is. If you read your bag of feed, it probably advises you to feed your horse in “pounds”. Perhaps your “scoop” is under the recommended pounds for your size horse.

Fourth, your horse may be lacking a necessary mineral or vitamin. In the wild a horse can find these naturally at salt licks or mineral deposits. When we lock them up, we deprive them of the opportunity to find what their body instinctively knows it needs. Lacking these vital nutrients, the horse digestive system does not make efficient use of its calories. (See included link for a list of those) Ask your veterinarian to recommend a high quality loose mineral supplement that might address your horses needs.

Fifth, your feed may be the problem. Many many people feed sweet feed and this works just fine for many horses. However; what we have found is that sweet feed is a bit harder to digest. If you have chickens, you may notice they are pretty excited about your horses poo. The reason why is they are finding whole horse feed in it to eat. Sweet feed is also sort of like feeding your child a Hershey bar for dinner instead of chicken and peas. Your child will get more calories from the Hershey bar for cheaper, but the chicken and peas is the better dinner choice. A few horse owners have been surprised when they have switched to a high quality horse feed like Kalm & EZ which they had argued would cost too much. After several weeks, they discover they are spending a comparable amount because they are able to feed less Kalm & EZ per day then sweet feed and maintain their horses weight. An owner should also be aware of the need to read the label on their horse feed. Fat content can vary widely from brand to brand and even from product to product. Finding a feed with a higher fat content (but not fillers such as corn and molasses) may give a hard keeper the boost that they need. Here at HOP, if we must use grain, we use Nutrena Safe Choice or Safe Choice Senior., Kalm & EZ or certain Purina feeds. Sweet feeds usually contain corn and heavy molasses, an ingredient that is hard for a horse to digest and have a higher risk of colic.

Sixth, if your horse is getting up their in years, it may just be that they need to switch from “regular” horse feed to “senior”. Often this makes quite a difference as Senior is easier to digest and a more complete feed. If their teeth don’t have the greatest grinding surfaces, these feeds are designed to be fed wet or dry and making a mash out of them often helps. Some elderly horses need to be supplemented with soaked alfalfa cubes or alfalfa pellets to keep the weight on.

If all these things do not remedy your horse’s weight problems, please consult with your veterinarian! Your horse could have worms or need treated for sand retention or ulcers or a few other things that only a professional can help you determine.

The very best way to keep your horse fed is to allow them free access to forages the way nature designed. But if that is not possible (and many horses are kept perfectly healthy by feeding other ways) changing how you feed or what you feed just may just give your hard to keep horse the push he needs to get back to a healthy weight.