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3 Ways to Safely Prep Your Underweight Horse for Winter

3 Ways to Safely Prep Your Underweight Horse for Winter

To understand weight gain and loss in horses, we must first be able to accurately evaluate the horse’s current body condition. The Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system has been developed to help horse owners visually determine if their horse is overweight, underweight or in ideal condition. It assigns values from 1 to 9, to classify horses from underweight to overweight in each the following areas:

  • Loin
  • Rib
  • Tail Head
  • Withers
  • Neck
  • Behind the Shoulders

Horses with a BCS of:

  • 1-4 are underweight
  • 5-6 are ideal
  • 7-8 is overweight
  • 9 is obese

Horse owners have numerous strategies for increasing a horse’s body weight. The 2007 National Requirements for Horses suggests that it takes 40 to 45 pounds of gain to change a horse’s body condition score by 1 unit (based on a 1000/1100 pound horse).

We can safely achieve this amount of weight gain in approximately 90 days by adding additional calories to the diet. Care should also be taken when feeding for weight gain not to cause digestive disturbances with the increased feed intake. Feed changes should be transitioned over several days and not made rapidly. The question then becomes “what should I feed my horse for weight gain?”

  • Amount and Quality of Forage

    We need to increase the amount and quality of forage available to the horse. Adding quality alfalfa long stemmed forage, cubes or pellets will increase the calorie content of the diet as well as supplying other critical nutrients such as amino acids and minerals. Beet pulp has a similar calorie content to oats and can also be added to increase the quality of forage provided to the horse.

  • Gradually Increase Grain

    We can start to gradually increase the grain portion of the diet – this must be done with care so as not to cause any digestive disturbance.

  • Addition of Fats and Oils

    Fats and oils are commonly used in horse feeds to increase the calorie content of the feed or to replace the calories supplied by carbohydrates. Fat supplementation has many benefits including, providing calories for weight gain and providing essential fatty acids to improve skin and coat condition. On an equal weight basis, vegetable oil provides horses with 2.5 times the digestible energy of corn and nearly 3 times the digestible energy of feeding oats. Thus, adding fat to the diet increases the energy density (number of calories per pound of feed) of the diet. Thin horses will gain weight and do so without having to eat as much grain, if the diet is fortified with additional fat.

Weight loss in horses can be caused by many different factors. Work with your veterinarian or nutritionist to identify the cause of weight loss. Once you have resolved those issues and started your horse on a more calorie dense diet, it will begin to gain weight. Remember weight gain is a slow process – do not expect results over night.

By Dr. Tania Cubitt
Standlee Nutritional Expert

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