From AAEP’s Ask the Vet: Horse Needs to Gain Weight

I have had my mare for 3 years and I can’t seem to get her to gain weight. She is scary thin no matter what or how much I feed her. I love my horse a lot and have never ridden her because of this problem. Why won’t she gain weight and keep it on? – Lisa

Dear Lisa,

I can tell you’re very concerned about your mare so let’s see what we can do to help her. First of all, how old is she? There are different reasons why a young, middle-aged, or senior horse may have trouble keeping weight on.

Have you had a veterinarian examine her? A complete physical examination—which may include bloodwork, a fecal, a dental exam and other specific tests—could rule in or rule out specific health conditions that may be responsible for her thin body condition.

Speaking of body condition, have you or someone else officially scored her? The horse industry uses the Henneke Body Condition Scoring scale as a standardized, uniform system for assessing the fat cover on horses. The scale ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese), with 5 being moderate or ideal. It may also be a good idea to regularly weigh her with a weight tape and record these two separate measurements so you have an objective record of changes or trends.

Next, I strongly recommend you weigh everything you feed your mare now: hay, grain, etc. You may find out that you’re not supplying her with the recommended 2% of her body weight each day in hay, or that you haven’t been giving a full serving of grain as recommended on the bag.

Environment can have a lot to do with how well and how much horses eat. For example, if she primarily eats meals in a stall where she can’t see any other horses, she may be either too stressed to eat or burning every calorie she’s taking in worrying about being alone. On the other hand, if she’s at the bottom of the herd pecking order and having to scramble for every morsel of hay and grain, she may be using up valuable energy scrounging for her food.

Once you’ve addressed all these issues, it’s time to experiment with different forages such as alfalfa hay, cubes or pellets; calorie-adding feeds such as beet pulp and rice bran; and specific ingredients like fat and amino acids. Your mare may benefit from digestive support that improves her digestive efficiency, helping her extract the most nutrition possible from what she’s already eating.

You certainly have your work cut out for you, I hope the “homework” I have provided yields some answers for you!

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+

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17 comments on “From AAEP’s Ask the Vet: Horse Needs to Gain Weight
  1. christine desibio says:

    She looks like a TB they need 10lbs of gain aday with good quality hay.
    I had the same problem. Put him on 10lbs of sentinal LS & 2lbs of sunshine plus..
    He is looking so good. He even leaves some feed now in his bucket..

  2. lydia says:

    My 9 yr old Tb wont keep weight on either. Hes Utd on deworming vaccinations and teeth floating. He gets 12 lbs of grain a day, unlimited hay, and smart gain 4. I blanket him and everything! I don’t know what else to do for him! Our neighbors evens sneak hay over because they don’t think he gets enough to eat!

    • julie says:

      For just about everyone here who has problems, get your horse on u-guard pellets. That will help out a lot, especially with OTTTB’s. I also do the psyllium treatment for 7 days every month. One more thing, exercise your horse and build muscle.

    • Cassy says:

      Hey have you tried cool calories 100 from Smart pak I have a gelding who would not put on weight started him on taht and it made a huge difference withing 30 days good luck

    • Mary Edwards says:

      I have had excellent results with OMAGA MAX from Triple Crown Feeds. Cool Calories worked for awhile on a mare we rescued but she quite eating it after awhile. I am so glad we found Omaga Max. She is on 1 cup morning and night top dressed on her senior food also from Triple Crown and has gained 158 lbs in 2 1/2 years. Yes she was just skin over bones when we found her but you should see her now. Our vet is impressed !

  3. kate vdc says:

    I have an off the track TB and we addressed her digestive and mineral deficiency first, and now she is gaining weight. I did a sand test, we sent off fecal sample and had the vet examine her. Then came up with a plan, there is a good supplement, natural that helps her with her digestion issues a lot.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have a 25 year old TB that I have owned since she was 4 with the same results as the people above. She was always skinny and looked like I didn’t feed her. Now, I free feed her hay. She gets as much as she wants whenever she wants. I don’t worry if she is getting the right lbs per her size since for some reason with TB it doesn’t work. In the summer she gets 1 lb of Equine senior and in the winter she gets 3 lbs equine senior, 1/2 lb omolene and 1/2 lb rice bran. This has maintained her for about the last 3 years. I also make sure she is a tad overweight going into the winter because if I don’t, it is a struggle to get the weight back on her.

  5. Janet says:

    I have had great success putting weight on my Quarter/Arab mare who is in her 30’s by mixing Rice Bran Pellets/Dry Cobb/Oat Hay Pellets sufficient for her body weight. She has free choice orchard grass and alfalfa hay. I also add 1 cup of corn oil to the above mix.

    I agree to have the vet do a dental check and blood work to rule out any health issues.

    A friend at our boarding facility has had great success feeding her underweight TB soaked Beet Pulp Shreds and Rice Bran Powder 2x a day with Hay fed 3 x a day.

    By the way, I make sure my mare has hay in front of her 24/7 around the clock. And she has no stress in her environment.

  6. Jessica says:

    As an owner of a 26 year old off track TB I am more than familiar with this issue and the embarrassment that comes from people thinking you are simply underfeeding your horse. My guy is nearly 17 hands and very leggy and high withered….I have owned him for the better part of a decade and 2 years prior before he was mine…he has been near death thin twice in that decade…all the while eating his hay and 10 lbs of senior per day. (free hay)….the despair an owner feels while this happens is terrible. I wish the article had addressed more ways to maintain a hard keeper. I have had great success with maintaining a two time a year float schedule (manual only as to preserve his teeth). and a strict deworming rotation….He also eats aprox 8 lbs of soaked beet pulp in addition to his grain and hay each day. And he’s not overweight. He’s slim. The other 20 horses he lives with eat a 10th of his rations each day and they are all borderline rotund….Remember not to judge…it really may be more than it appears …

  7. Annmarie says:

    My 8YO paint has the same problem. He’s now comfortably on 2.5# Triple Crown Complete and 3/4# Purina Amplify, twicce a day. We tried him on rice bran, and it just did not digest as well as the Amplify. He’s always spend all day in the pasture, he’s just an active wonder in the pasture(he’s the fittest horse I’ve ever had!!), and can only tolerate 24-36 hours of inclement weather when he’s got to stay inside, so he paces the calories off out of boredom. We also have some aged horses that do extremely well with soaked hay cubes (3/4# dry soaks up to ~4# when full of water), and senior feed…one needed a little more, so he utilizes Horsetech’s FB-100 (100% fat!!), and his coat glistens at 34!!
    But whatever you do to her feed, rule out all possibilities from parasites to ulcers and listen to a trusted nutritionist/veterinarian!!

  8. Liss says:

    I went through the same thing with my OTTB, he was only 700 pounds when I first bought him and I went through a ton of different things to try and put weight on him. I used all kinds of supplements, different grain brands and hay. Finally it clicked for him and now he is gaining weight and looking good. But not just weight but muscle. I feed him Healthy Edge by Purina. With the supplements of Empower (with his A.M grain) then he gets his smartpaks at night that includes Smart Hoof, Smart Flex and Tri Amino. He now weighs 1000 and still gaining healthy good looking weight and muscle. I’m no longer embarrassed to have people drive down the driveway and see my boy standing in the paddocks.

  9. Liz Pursian says:

    Yes do the vet check, teeth, worms,ect. I was told that my appendix would never gain weight and that he would always be ribbey, this is so not true! Switching his diet to triump and lots of hay and treating for an ulcer made all the difference. In 6 short months he gained around 300 lbs. and is happy! My new trainer still wants him to gain a bit more but he is looking very good, he has done very well in halter classes that he was always passed by on. Work with your vet and if you have a trainer or barn owner work closely with them. Also smartpak is really helpful with picking the right supplements!

  10. Shirley Hazen says:

    I have a few rescue horses that wont keep the weight they gain on.I currently feed them
    3lb sweet feed 1 lb Beet Pulp 1 lb performance 1 lb crushed Oats 1 cup
    oil soaked ;2x a day because they are older horses.(24 and 21)And one is nursing a three month old Molly Mule. They have free range to pasture grass and all the hay they want,teeth have been floated,and they have been wormed at first for 3 months once a month now its every 3 months The vet thinks they are doing great but I worry with winter coming on that I cant see the improvements that he seems to see.Any suggestions are appreciated Thank You

  11. Mary says:

    I addressed this problem with a hard keeper by adding 5 lb chopped alfalfa (Lucerne farms) to free choice grass hay and 15 lb high fat high fiber grain per day. Not only did she gain the desired weight, we have actually cut back her grain a bit, and kept the forage the same. It took about 18 months to achieve the desired results, but she has gone from a body condition score of 3 to 5+!

  12. carol says:

    my husband and i got a rescue back in june. he was about 300lbs underweight and had hair falling out all over his back and butt. so we put him on 3lbs 3 times a day of grain and got him a hay roll that we put next to his stall so he had hay all day whenever he wanted to eat ( he went through his first hay roll in 2 weeks). he also gets turn out in a pasture and we hand walked him to help builld muscle. after only 2 months he gained 150lbs. and now after 4 months hes being riden and is doing very well. his muscle is coming back and hes starting to look healthy as a horse. the best advice i got from my vet was to let him have grass hay all day because a wild horse will eat up to 22 hrs a day.

  13. Jordan says:

    I can’t tell you what a relief it was to read these posts. I have a 12 y/o appendix who I have had trouble keeping weight on as well. I just started him on Smart Gut & Digest Ultra and am hoping that will make a difference. He is a thin guy but I know he has underlying digestive issues. I also have been keeping him in pasture with 2 other horses. While I think it is good for him to have buddies I am considering moving him because he is the low man on the totem pole. Anyone have any insight on this?

  14. Connie says:

    I have a16yo tb/appy who started life as a race horse. I had a terrible time keeping weight on her. She has always had hay 24/7 when not in pasture. Did fecal checks, teeth, scoped for an ulcer … you name it. It wasn’t until I bought the grains myself (working with my vet) to mix them that she started to gain weight. In the winter I give the extra grain as an additional meal. She gains weight faster with the extra meal than just adding grain. She gets fed 2x/day year round and holds her weight with less grain. She also gets a probiotic, vitamin, and cinnamom.

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