“He is a Hard Keeper.”

We hear this statement often in the horse world. You hear it much less often in cats and dogs. Generally, in companion animals, we connect weight loss with either too little food or a health concern.

Did you know in horses, a hard keeper usually describes a horse with an

Untreated and un-diagnosed problem?

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The mare above may not look like a hard keeper, but she used to appear to be one.

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Her weight, no matter how she was fed, was too lean for my preference, as seen in the second image. She was a body score of 4 or so, when I wanted to see her a solid 5. She was a “hard keeper,” so I thought. She was fed 4x the amount of concentrate of the other horses. She stayed 75lbs lighter than they did.

We finally discovered, with various folks helping, this young mare just had to have her teeth floated a lot. It took 3 floats in 12 months to get her on the right track. She will need to have much more frequent floating for the rest of her life than other horses. She is still under 10 with no dental deformities at all or conformational issues of the mouth. It took a lot of investigation to figure all of this out. Dental professionals had missed this. It happens. Maybe she chews oddly. Who knows? But she isn’t a “hard keeper” now.

In the 2.5 years since this correction / discovery, her weight has stayed excellent on 3lbs of concentrate and no fat supplements at all each day. Her tale isn’t a unique one, but finding the reason instead of chalking her up to being a horse who needed oil on her grain is unusual.

We’ve assisted countless horses by offering advice on hard keepers. Often, what is found out is there was either too little excellent forage, nutritional absorbency issues, mineral deficiencies, poor teeth, parasite resistance and / or ulcers at play. Sometimes, unfortunately, diagnosed lameness or cancer have been involved.

Of the countless stories we’ve offered advice on or worked with hands on, we have seen very, very few horses that truly have a metabolism that requires true calorie supplementation. Those horses are out there, but they are rare.

Stallions, broodmares and athletes are exempt from this talk, as they are working beyond the typical scope of equine life. They aren’t hard keepers. Not quite the same.

If you believe your horse is a hard keeper,  first consider these things:

Forage: How much do you provide? How do you know the quality is excellent? Has the Hay been tested for nutritional levels? How much are you feeding? Some horses require over a bale of hay a day (75lbs) of good hay to gave a good weight. First, increase your forage. If the horse can’t chew, soak alfalfa pellets or cubes. Measure them dry for weight. Generally, you feed at least 2% of a horse’s ideal weight a day in forage.

Teeth: Yearly dentals are a must, but many dentists, we’ve found, do not perform a good job. SOMETIMES they actually do damage. You have to first make sure your dentist is doing a good job, and then you need to immediately have teeth checked at the first sign of unexplained weight loss or in any horse you consider a chronic hard keeper.

Parasites: Worms. Did you know rotating wormers builds resistance? Did you know you may be worming your horse often and the wormer could have become ineffective? You need to run a fecal with a vet or learn to do them once a year to be sure your wormer is working.

Concentrated Feeds: Some feeds are little more than sugary treats for horses. Poor concentrate isn’t a good way to help achieve a good weight on a horse. Most horses will keep a good weight on forage / hay / grass only, but if you’re working the horse or have a senior, this isn’t usually going to work. We really support feeds that have a no corn, no molasses and have more forage base than what we consider sweet feeds. Look to something like Buckeye Safe and Easy Performance (is amazing) or Tribute’s Kalm and Easy. These have a high fat (sweet feeds are 2.5 to 3% usually) contents of 7-10%. Never rely mostly on concentrates for your horse’s main diet staple. That must be hay unless there serious dental issues or health concerns. All feeds aren’t created equal. Some are just poor quality, especially when they are cheap.

 Ulcers: While in an ideal world, you would scope to see if ulcers are present and if they are, treat with omeprazole, other options include reducing molasses, increasing forage,  use less grain, make a low stress environment and then feeding aloe vera juice over a low starch pellet several times a day for a month or for good. Some good suggestions can be found here.

Pecking order: This may be one of the top reasons for weight loss in a horse. If you have a herd, you may feel all eat equally in a pasture, but it isn’t consistently true. If you see weight loss in a horse you know is lower on the pecking order, pull that horse in and make sure they finish their meals. If the horse is primarily on hay and grass, you may need to separate overnight and feed hay alone to make sure the horse gets enough.

Feed based on Work Load: If your horse is working hard, calorie count needs to increase. This applied to breeding stallions, mares in foal or nursing or horses working hard in their discipline. Make sure you aren’t taking a “one amount of feed and type of feed fits all,” as it simply doesn’t.

Minerals: A tremendous number of soils are deficient in needed minerals, thus a lot of pasture and hay is, as a result. This is so important. Red mineral blocks are not enough to correct the problem. Make sure to have a quality loose mineral or easy access tub of minerals for your horses. One we’ve had success with is Equi-pride.

Blood Work: Run blood work if the above considerations do not yield results.  There are various medical concerns that could cause weight loss.

In the end, if you truly do need to up the calories your horse is getting in a way better hay, most hay, easier to digest forage and better concentrate will not cover, then turn to oils or powders.

Do not turn to those first, though.