The Hard Keeper: How to Put Weight on Safely and Sanely

I have a nine year old Thoroughbred. He’s a super hard keeper. Prone to be a bit anxious, although not a ‘hot’ horse at all. I’m looking for a good weight gainer supplement that will help him build muscle for moving up to jumping 1.30. Any ideas? I’ve had him on and off of Succeed. Tried the peanut oil route. Currently he is just on 5 to 7 extra cups of feed and extra hay.
– AC, Texas

Dear AC,

When trying to put weight on horses, adding extra hay like you’re doing is always the first and best option. In addition to the calories, or energy, gained from the fermentation of fiber in the hindgut, the stomach is healthier and the horse is happier (because he has more to chew). Interestingly enough, studies have shown that hard keepers gain weight and easy keepers lose weight when fed hay from a small hole hay net or other system that slows the rate of consumption down. Experts theorize a constant, controlled pace of feed intake is more natural and healthy for both categories of horses, preventing periods of feed deprivation and hunger as well as wild swings in blood sugar (glucose) and insulin.

On the other hand, extra fortified grain or concentrate can lead to problems. The rule of thumb for grain feeding is to give no more than 0.5% of a horse’s body weight at a time. So a 1,000 pound horse should not be fed more than 5 pounds of grain at one meal. That’s because the stomach and small intestine cannot handle a larger amount of simple sugars and starches at one time. The feed will simply bypass the foregut, making its way undigested and unabsorbed to the hindgut. Now not only is the horse missing out on important nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals that should have been broken down and taken in by the front part of the digestive system, microbes in the hindgut are exposed to unfamiliar carbohydrates that they will unfortunately ferment to harmful end products like lactic acid. The overfeeding of grain can lead to serious consequences like colic, ulcers, hindgut acidosis and even laminitis (founder).

However, there are other, safer ways to provide extra calories to horses. One of the most researched is the addition of fat. Pound for pound, fat supplies more than twice as much energy as either protein or carbohydrates and is considered a “cool” source of calories because it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar like simple sugars and starches can. There’s even a product named “Cool Calories 100” for this very reason. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when adding fat to the diet. First, add it slowly so that the horse’s digestive system has time to adjust. Begin with just a couple ounces and gradually work up to a full pound, if necessary. Second, supplement with the antioxidant Vitamin E so that the free radicals generated by the aerobic metabolism of the fat can be effectively neutralized.

Sometimes hard keepers need more than just additional calories though. Sometimes they need additional protein, or amino acids, to maintain their weight. Research has shown that all ages of horses increase their muscle mass (such as their topline) when supplemented with amino acids, especially the limiting ones lysine, threonine and methionine. Since your horse is not just a hard keeper but a hard worker, protein supplementation may be something for you to consider.

A third category of support for the hard keeper is in the digestive arena. Sometimes these horses need probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, yeast or other intestinal ingredients to help them maximize the nutrition from their feedstuffs and keep their GI tract in good working order. The SUCCEED you mention is a digestive conditioner that many horses do quite well on. However, in my experience, horses can have very individual responses to specific digestive supplements so you may want to experiment with other products and see how his body reacts.

Finally, there’s my all-time favorite weight-builder, beet pulp. With a nutritional profile between that of hay and grain, it is a safe source of calories from fermentable fiber that most horses love!

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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36 comments on “The Hard Keeper: How to Put Weight on Safely and Sanely
  1. I agree with adding the beet pulp, I have two horses who work daily in my lesson program both are about 30 years old. ON beet pulp they hold great weight with out it they both loose it. I have tried other supplements and formulations of feed, hay and supplements overall I have had the best success with multiple horses that are hard keepers by adding rations of beet pulp to each feeding and free feeding hay as much as possible.

  2. Rhiannon says:

    I also have a 22 yr Flea bitten grey arab.He is a hard keeper too.I have him on beet pulp and senior feed.We have to cut his is hay with a lawn mower because he has 4 teeth missing in the back and he can’t chew the hay.Do you have any other ideas? Thank you

    • Jolene says:

      You could use hay cubes, soaked, instead of chopping up hay with a lawn mower. That way the pieces are already about 2 inches long and it would be very easy to chew.

    • as says:

      try veg. oil. start with a small amount at first and slowly increase it to 1 cup daily. its a great way to put weight on them. pluse plus it helps with there coat :) also rice bran pellets. it works wonders! also i recamend using 20/80 grass hay. it has done wonders on my hard keeper old tb mare and gelding.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Rhiannon, thanks for your question. While we applaud your commitment, there are definitely easier ways to feed your senior without having to spend so much time chopping his hay for him! First, many feed stores offer chopped hay, or dengie, both of which are available pre-bagged for easy feeding. You may also want to consider hay cubes or hay pellets, both of which can be soaked into a mash, along with his beet pulp. Best of luck!

  3. Diane Crone says:

    How do you feed the beet pulp? Do you soak it first or just add it to the feed? I have an older 18 yr old thoroughbred hard keeper.

    • Rhiannon says:

      I mix,it with his,grain and soak it..

    • Anastacia says:

      I have tried beet pulp..It can be difficult to chew especially in older horses and can become a choking hazard..After spending alot of money on other products with not satisfaction I finally discovered something that not only works but is easy on the pocket…Black oil sunflower seeds!! I started my gelding out on a 1/2 cup twice a day and gradually increased it until I reached a maximum of 4 cups per day total..Not only does he LOVE it but he is a true black and it makes his coat shine like black glass.the shells are very soft making them easy to chew and digest. Do not mistake them for the striped shells..they are harder to break and not suggested. Go ahead and google Black oil sunflower seeds as a supplement for horses..see for yourselves..Its $26.99 for a 50lb bag and last forever..Much cheaper than the other products and I believe much more effective..All of my friends were amazed at the results and are now all using the seeds in their feeding program as well..Good Luck!

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Diane, thanks for your question. Beet pulp can be added directly to your horse’s grain for easy feeding. While it is not required to soak beet pulp, most people do as it is a great way to add more water to your horse’s ration and also makes it easier to consume for the older horse. The type of beet pulp you buy determines how long you should soak it. Some brands are ready to serve in just two minutes, while shredded beet pulp is typically soaked for several minutes (most people prefer 15 minutes), but don’t soak too long! Rancidity and mold are two big concerns if you let you beet soak for hours on end. Your local feed dealer should be able to advise you on the proper soaking time for the brand and form which you are purchasing.

  4. Anastacia says:

    I have tried all of the above and finally found the something that not only works but is easy on the pocket…Black oil sunflower seeds!! I started my gelding out on a 1/2 cup twice a day and gradually increased it until I reached a maximum of 4 cups per day total..Not only does he LOVE it but he is a true black and it makes his coat shine like black glass..the shells are very soft making them easy to chew and digest. Do not mistake them for the striped shells..they are harder to break and not suggested. Go ahead and google Black oil sunflower seeds as a supplement for horses..see for yourselves..Its $26.99 for a 50lb bag and last forever..Much cheaper than the other products and I believe much more effective..Good Luck!

    • Bev says:

      Do you find the black oil sunflower seeds make your horse “hot”. I am trying to do research for my bery hard keeper. Have had her teeth floated, feed excellent high protein grass hay (2-3 flakes twice per day) as well as Equine Senior “active”. I see a small amount of wt gain but not enough. I’d like to try the seeds but she is already a bit on the hyper side.

  5. Julie says:

    I have never seen Cool Calories work for any of the 20 horses at my barn work. Its a waste. FB100 from horsetech works wonders and changing the hay to T/A only.

  6. Tami Cays says:

    If this is an off the track thoroughbred I would check him for ulcers. I spent a year trying to keep weight on one of mine and finally had him scoped and he had an ulcer. Not bad ones but some. I did a 4 week ulcer treatment and now keep him on Smart Gut Ultra and Smart Calm. He holds his weight and now we can take him to shows without him getting a tummy ache.

  7. I’ve gotten some pretty poor cases of horses being thin. The best that has worked for me is a high fat, high protein grain such as Demand or Compete. along with Alfalfa pellets ( a cup or 2 a day), Also Alfalfa Pellets are great for horses in alot of work or if hay is poor. I feed a more grass/Tim. mix hay since I have alot of easy keepers that don’t need Alfalfa. and weight buider. At 1st then cut down the weight builder till gone. Using 2-3 containers at 1st. I own a X- Halter horse right now that is a hard keeper due to his diet as a yearling feeding alot of grain and not alot of hay…. Has worked for him and T.B. and Unwanted horses. Hope this my help someone.

  8. Izzy says:

    Hi
    I have a hard keeper. He is only 12, but looks about 25. I need a not-to-expensive, safe way to make him keep the weight on, and look and act like the other 12 year old hunter jumpers out there. I love him, and want him to be safe, and happy.
    Any Ideas?

  9. Emily says:

    Hi,
    My horse is a 10 year old TB. He lives outside and in the summer when the pastures good he maintains a good weight but now he is underweight and ribby. He gets 3.5 quarts of safechoice grain split into 2 feedings. He lives with 3 other horses, a mini and a donkey, between them they get 2.5 bales of pretty good grass hay a day. I was giving him a half quart of beet pulp [no molasses] a day soaked with his grain but he won’t eat it now. He is on 3grams of bute a day for inflammation, I tried putting it in his food and beet pulp and that might be why he won’t eat it anymore even though I have since stopped
    Is there anything I can give him that isn’t to expensive and that won’t make him ‘hot’

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Emily, thanks for your question. Our first recommendation is to have your horse examined by a vet to determine if a health condition, such as ulcers, is causing his lack of appetite. If he or she determines your horse to be healthy, you may want to consider switching to an alternate grain that is more palatable for him. The good news is that there are lots of feed options out there that he may find enticing!

  10. nicole says:

    i am in the same spot as most of you…13 yo tb…looks decent in winter (prob because his winter coat) but bag of bones in summer…he has lost so much weight his saddle dosent even fit properly..i have him on cool 100..ADM senior glo…rice stabalizer and beet pulp..with 3/4 bale of hay a day..im going broke just trying to fatten him up and still not working…my vet has checked him..im just at the point were i think it a problem i just cant fix…makes me sad and frustrated that i dont even want to ride anymore..:(

  11. Jen says:

    How many IUs of vitamin E should a 1100 pound horse on 4oz of Cool Calories 100/day get?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Jen, thanks for your question. Our first recommendation is to consult your vet and/or nutritionist for help in balancing your horse’s diet. In regards to Vitamin E, the amount needed varies depending on your horse’s workload and the rest of his diet. The NRC or National Research Council recommends that adult horse’s weighing 500 kg or 1100 lbs receive a minimum of 500-1000 I.U. of Vitamin E per day. It is also recommended to feed additional Vitamin E to horse’s on a high fat diet for its antioxidant properties. Please let us know if you have any further questions!

  12. Kristen says:

    Is Cool Calories 100 a banned substance for endurance races by AERC?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Kristen, thank you for your question! Cool Calories 100 will simply provide additional fat to your horse’s diet, however we would encourage you to review your show association rule book before making adjustments to your horse’s supplement program if you are competing. Please let us know if there is anything else we can help with!

  13. Savy collige says:

    I have a 9,10 year old bay and white Indian paint and he is from an auction and when I got him he was under weight, now he is looking bet but he still a little under weight can u help me.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      You bet, Savy! You probably didn’t have an opportunity to have a pre-purchase examination performed on this horse before you bought him. If you haven’t had your veterinarian out yet to give him a thorough going over and perhaps uncover a medical reason for his less-than-ideal weight (such as dental issues, parasites or ulcers), now’s the time. In the meantime, forage, forage, forage! Keep high-quality hay in front of him, begin introducing him to grass in small time increments and consider a digestive support supplement (http://bit.ly/12iq7jH) during this transition period. – SmartPaker Sarah

  14. Dee says:

    Hello I have been reading all these suggestions on weigh gain. I was given a rescued Paso Fino mare. My vet has aged her to be 20 yo. Saying as horses get older it is harder to age them. I had her teeth checked and she had to have 3 teeth pulled. Her teeth were in bad shape. Just watching her eat I could tell it was painful for her. I feed her Nutrena Senior feed. I have in the past added corn oil. I have had her since Feb.14th of this year. She eats more than my other horse and she still looks too skinny. She is swayed back and her backbone protrudes as well as her hips are pointy. She has good energy and loves to go. I would welcome some suggestions for helping her to not only gain weight but add muscle mass along her backbone. I want her to achieve all this without making her hot and hyperuped. Thank you Dee

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Dee, thanks for your question, and we’re sorry to hear about your mare’s weight issues. It sounds like you’ve been working with your veterinarian, which is fantastic, and I would encourage you to keep him or her in the loop as to the adjustments you’re trying and any results you’re seeing. One basic place to start with your horse is to figure out exactly how much grain and hay she is getting each day. It’s important to weigh both your hay and grain to be sure that your horse is getting an appropriate amount of each, and I’ve included an article about that specifically. Once you’ve determined that your horse’s nutrition program is squared away, you could consider getting additional calories from sources such as fiber and fat, from things like beet pulp and weight gain supplements. – Dr. Lydia Gray

      The inside scoop: is my horse’s grain enough?: http://bit.ly/18AdVR9
      Weight Gain Supplements: http://bit.ly/18Ae0Ee

  15. Dee Elfrink says:

    Thank you for the information. After sending my first question I got to thinking and I took my weight tape and measured Lady. She is 13.3h and weights 720 pounds. I checked the breed requirements on Paso Fino and the weight is between 700-1000 pounds. She is a fine boned pony so I guess I am not too far from a good weight for her I would like to get her up to 800 pounds. Is there anything I can provide for her to help her build up her topline? Again thank you for any information you can provide for me. Dee

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Dee, good for you for all the work you’re doing making sure your horses are in a good weight. The best way to determine if your horse is carrying an ideal weight is to body condition score her. The body condition score is a much more valuable measurement, especially when you take into consideration the inaccuracies associated with weight tapes and the like. I’ve included 2 additional articles that explain how to body condition score and why it’s important. I hope it’s helpful information! – Dr. Lydia Gray

      How to Body Condition Score Your Horse: http://bit.ly/1cgP7jl

      Is There a Perfect Weight for a Horse? http://bit.ly/1cgP9rt

  16. sarah says:

    i have an 30 year old arab that cant eat hay but we give him 4 scoops of equine senior every day. he is still skinny please help.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Sarah, thank you for asking. There are a variety of reasons why your horse may struggle to gain or maintain weight. I would definitely encourage you to have a conversation about your horse’s health with your veterinarian to keep him or her in the loop. One other simple place you can start is to determine if your horse is getting the full recommended amount of the senior feed you’re currently feeding. This blog: http://bit.ly/1f0HpNb helps walk you through that process. You could also consult your veterinarian about adding additional sources of calories with products such as fat or beet pulp. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  17. Kate says:

    While I know lots of people who have had success with beet pulp, I’ve worked with a number of picky eaters that just did not like it. A lot of these horses really responded well to a stabilized rice bran pellet. While my personal horse (2008 Thoroughbred mare) isn’t picky, I’ve decided to go the rice bran route with her and she’s responded incredibly well to it and definitely has gained weight in time for winter. Plus she loves the taste and I don’t have to spend the time soaking anything; she just gets 1/2 lb twice a day with her regular grain schedule (plus free choice hay throughout the day, and alfalfa twice daily).

  18. Katie says:

    My Arabian has a similar body condition as this TB. Is that typical/acceptable for an Arab, or should I put more weight on her?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Katie, thanks for asking! The best tool I can recommend for evaluating your horse’s weight is still the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale, which provides a standardized scoring system to evaluate if your horse is underweight, at an ideal weight, or overweight. I’ve included a link to the blog article that explains how to do this. While “5″ is the ideal score for most breeds, disciplines, and life stages, you’ll want to work with your veterinarian to make sure this amount of fat cover is appropriate for your guy. He or she is also a great resource for encouraging your horse to gain weight. I’m guessing this is the direction you need to take with your guy since the Thoroughbred pictured at the top of “The Hard Keeper” blog is probably about a 4 on the body condition score scale, meaning that he needs to gain some weight to reach the ideal score of “5.” – Dr. Lydia Gray

  19. Jessica says:

    Hello-
    I have a 4 yr old Clydesdale stallion. He’s about 18.1hh. He’s on unlimited very good quality round bales of hay and feed a 12% protein 6% fat pellet with rice bran powder. Tried DAC bloom & cocosoya oil. No results from either supplement. He does well on alfalfa flakes but with the drought here, they are hard to get. Anything else I can try? His topline is not like I’d like and his hind end could use some “apple bottom” to it.

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