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Rehabilitating a Hardkeeper

I have recently taken in a 21-year-old gelding that had been in my family in the past. His body condition score (BCS) was between a one/two, according to my veterinarian. He has been fed performance 12:12, which is a long pellet and contains “cool calories.” He seems to plateau at a BCS of four. He has constant access to crop hay (second cutting). I wondered if there is something else I can offer him or am I just being too impatient?



Dear Amy,

In order to really help you I would have to know some more details about the horse and your situation but hopefully I can provide some useful advice. You don’t say how long ago you took in this horse—is “recently” a week, a month, a year? It takes about two weeks before horses show weight changes up or down, and in the case of a starved horse like this, it can take longer since they have some repairing to do on the inside before muscle and fat can begin to be added on the outside.

It appears you’ve involved your veterinarian in this horse’s rehabilitation, which is great, but you don’t indicate if he’s examined his mouth for dental issues, his stool for parasite issues, and his blood for organ issues. I would make sure this horse had an extensive physical examination to rule out any medical issues that may be impeding his weight gain.

Next, what breed is he? Some, like thoroughbreds, have a higher metabolism and are on the “hot” side. They may take longer to recover because they’re burning calories rapidly just thinking about things. Others, like quarter horses, morgans and ponies, have a slower metabolism and should have an easier time gaining and keeping weight. On a related topic, how are you housing this horse? Some horses do better alone but within sight of other horses while others prefer to mingle in a herd as soon as they’re strong enough to compete for food. Make sure he’s not losing precious calories stressing about his living situation or his next meal.

I’m guessing from your description he’s getting grass hay, which is nice to have in front of him all the time. You may want to add some alfalfa to his diet—either as long-stem hay, hay cubes or even pellets—to whet his appetite and provide more nutrition. When it comes to forages I’m a big fan of soaked beet pulp for supplying calories and adding weight (it’s also a great mixer for supplements!) I’m not familiar with the concentrate you mentioned so I can’t tell if he’s getting grain or a ration balancer. If he’s not, you may want to add in some oats or a fortified grain product to see if that helps.

If you feel like he’s getting as much good quality hay as he can eat and you’re correctly balancing his forage-based diet with fortified grain or a ration balancer, then it may be time to add in supplements. I like to start one at a time so I know what helps and what doesn’t. Options include fat (there’s a separate Cool Calories product), protein (essential amino acids have been shown to improve the muscling of older horses), digestive support (probiotics, prebiotics and enzymes may help him digest and absorb his feed better) and even daily dewormers, which are advertised to provide a 40% improvement in feed conversion.

[Ed. note: from the AAEP Ask a Vet]

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in SmartPak Features, Weight Management

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5 comments on “Rehabilitating a Hardkeeper
  1. Jill Ennis says:

    Great article! I would like to hear more about the protein for helping with muscling on older horses. Most of the horses I use for lessons are in their mid twenties and are starting to lose their muscle tone. My hardest keeper is a 28 yr old QH with mild cushings. He gets free choice grass hay and 6lbs of low starch (triple crown) a day. He foundered last summer and lost a lot of weight while recovering. What could I add to help him gain weight?

  2. Heather says:

    I can personally recommend CC100. That stuff works! I fed 4 scoops a day for two weeks and started to see HUGE gains! I cut back to 2 scoops a day and have been using 2 scoops a day for over a year now. I can keep my horse on minimal grain (1 pound on days he is worked, plus CC100) and on 24/7 pasture and he keeps his condition perfectly!

  3. How do you feed beet pulp as the directions are not very clear on the bag on how to feed to horses. I know it should be soaked,but how much would I give a 1,000# Thoroughbred that needs to put on weight. He gets 4-5# twice a day of senior and is on grass 24/7.
    He is a hard keeper.

  4. Geri says:

    What is CC 100,and where can u get it

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