This started in the comments and I know Cathy addressed it before but it is good to talk about again.
It is a very rare occasion that a horse is skinny and there is nothing that can be done. Most of the time it is easily fixable if you spend the time and money to correct it. So if you have a horse that has started to lose weight or acquire one that starts skinny here is my plan to get a horse back on track weight wise.
1. Full veterinarian exam. This includes full bloodwork, oral exam and a fecal exam. I would even include bloodwork for cushings and insulin resistance. Feeding those type of horses wrong can lead to weight loss and cushings itself can cause muscle wasting which can show up as weight loss.
This was my Pony’s bloodwork. Only symptom of his off the charts cushings was weight loss.
2. With the fecal you can look for worm eggs and worm with the appropriate drug as to what egg species is present in the horse. This takes the guess work out of it. One thing to note encysted small strongyles cannot be detected on fecal exams. If you try everything on this list and don’t see results in 30 days then I would try to worm with a panacur powerpac. This is a five day double dose of fenbendazole and the only was to get both larval stages of encysted small strongyles.
3. At the exam the vet will note if the oral cavity looks good. Does the horse need to be floated? Are there teeth missing? Is there evidence that mastication (chewing) is not taking place properly? Are there any ulcers or abnormalities in the gums or cheeks? Float the teeth if needed but if all good in the mouth move on. Along this line look in the manure for long pieces of hay that could mean the horse isn’t chewing fully. Also check around the eating area for quids, which are chunks of hay that have been chewed on and spit back out. Both are signs of additional teeth trouble.
4. What are you feeding? Free choice hay is usually the best bet for most horses. If the horse is old or can’t masticate due to missing teeth or poor molars then hay pellets are your best friend here. They can be fed soaked to any horse regardless of teeth. Soaked pellets have the added benefit of adding moisture. I prefer alfalfa because they can stimulate appetite but any hay pellet can be used. Make sure you are feeding enough though, I had a customer tell me her horse was losing more weight on this plan but upon measuring the amount she was feeding she was only feeding half the daily requirement. So what is the daily requirement? Well that depends on the weight of the horse. Ideally a horse gets 1.5-3% of their body weight in forage daily. So get a measuring tape and get a starting value for your horse, this will also allow you to track progress. Then start with 2% of their body weight in hay and/or pellets and then work from their based on how the horse does. If they gain too much you can back off if they don’t gain enough increase. Weighing input usually puts things in perspective as people don’t realize they are not feeding enough so of course the horse is underweight. They can also be fed free choice but watch that they don’t get too heavy as that can cause its own problems. To the hay pellets I would add a vitamin/mineral supplement. In the perfect world everyone would test their hay and balance the diet to vitamins and minerals. If you can do this, that is awesome, but I know most people don’t have the ability to do this for various reasons. If you do decide to pursue this then Dr Kellon and Uckele nutrition are a great resource and place to start.
I am not a huge fan of senior feeds. I think they add too much molasses and sugar and ultimately you would be better making your own mash and adding needed vitamins and minerals.
What about beet pulp? I think beet pulp can be a great addition to a horse’s diet and can replace up to 50% of their forage requirement. I do believe it should be soaked even though there are studies out there saying it doesn’t have to be. Keep in mind both beet pulp and alfalfa are high in calcium so that should be addressed and balanced with wheat bran, rice bran or oats. Again the benefit of having a soaked feed is the added water intake but depending on the management of the horses soaked feed can be hard in the winter because it freezes and hard in the summer because it can ferment. Hay pellets take up water much faster making them my go to when feeding a soaked feed. Plus I can buy non-GMO alfalfa pellets and right now it is difficult to get non-GMO beet pulp. The only brand available is Speedi-Beet and it isn’t always available.
5. So I have mentioned the base program of making sure you are feeding enough forage and balancing it out with vitamins and minerals, but what if that is not enough? Here are a couple things you can add:
Pre/pro biotics. These are the good flora in the gut and sometimes due to stress and age they can die. Prebiotics feed the probiotics so it can be helpful to add both. This can get the gut in better condition to digest the food more efficiently. If your horse has diarrhea adding probiotics can help here too.
Fat in a powder or liquid form. There are a ton of these avaiable. Some people think horses can’t digest fat because they lack a gall bladder. Well anyone who has gone through biology knows the gall baldder doesn’t make bile it just stores it. So it makes sense that horses just have continual productions and secretion of bile from the liver, just like they have continuous production of hydrochloric acid from the stomach (more on this in a minute) .
Keep in mind ideally you want you omega 3 fats to be higher than your omega 6 fats. Having an inverted omega ratio can lead to inflammation and since most of these skinny horses are older we don’t need to encourage any inflammation. Good choices are flaxseed and chia seed. Other oils can be used to put weight on but keep in mind that omega ratio these would include soybean meal, rice bran and wheat germ oil. One good product is by ADM nutrition and that is Healthy Glo. It is a 50/50 mixture of flaxseed and rice bran so you get all the essential amino acids from the rice bran and the balanced omega profile from the flaxseed.
Between having the proper amount of forage and adding a good vitamin/mineral and a fat product you should see weight gain pretty quickly. If you don’t here are some other things to look at.
Ulcers, more common in horses then people think, and it makes sense. Horses have a very large esophageal region in the stomach. This region lack mucousal lining. Pair that with constant production of hydrochloric acid and you have an environment ready to ulcerate. Horses were designed to eat 20 hours a day, but think of how we feed them, usually twice a day so if they are going long periods of time without food then ulcers can happen. Although I have seen them in horses that are pastured 24/7 and lead stress free lives so it can happen there too. If you are feeding properly and don’t see results this is a big one to look at.
Stress, this can be cause by a lot of things. Losing pasturemates, being alone, living in a busy barn and the list goes on and on. If the horse is showing signs of stress such as cribbing, weaving, calling etc then look to what you can do to limit that stress because that can cause weight loss too.
Living environment, if an older horse is living outside with no shelter in a cold climate it could make it hard for the horse to gain and maintain weight. These horses may need blankets. The older a horse gets the less able they are to properly regulate their temperature. Help them out by having good shelters for both hot and cold areas.
By keeping your horse at a good weight you are ensuring his/her health for the long term. It is not something that should be ignored “because he is old” Anyone who tells you that is plain wrong.