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Feeding Underweight Horses

There are lots of possible reasons why a horse is underweight, but the starting point is to simply ensure that enough energy is being supplied for the horse’s size and workload. Total intake should be between 2 and 2.5% of bodyweight and this should be made up of as high-quality feed materials as possible – investing in the best forage you can will help to keep your overall feed bill down.

It is important to rule out health issues such as worms and poor dentition as no matter what you feed, your horse still won’t gain weight if they can’t eat or digest their feed properly. When researching weight gain horse feeds, look at the energy value of the feed. There is no legal requirement to put this on a bag of feed but most suppliers do as it provides a guide to how conditioning a feed will be. If it isn’t on the bag give the manufacturer a call and they should provide it for you.

Weight Gain Horse Feed: What You Need to Know

For horses that need to gain weight ad lib forage should be available. Ad lib feeding means that your horse always has forage available – so if you turned up at 3am would there still be some hay or haylage in their stable for them to eat? Horses that are turned out also need an alternative source of forage if the grazing is poor or in inclement weather conditions such as frost and snow.

Choose a bucket feed that is high in fibre and oil as the main source of energy in the ration. These are slow release energy sources that are less likely to encourage the horse to waste energy on over-excitable or fizzy behaviour. Fibre and oil provide plenty of energy; Alfa-A Oil for example, contains as much energy as a conditioning mix (12.5 MJ/kg) but with around 10 times less starch.

Adding highly digestible fibre sources such as sugar beet is beneficial for promoting weight gain in horses. Dengie Alfa-Beet is an ideal feed for underweight horses as it combines alfalfa with unmolassed sugar beet. Studies have shown this also helps to improve the digestibility of other fibre sources in the diet.

Additional high oil feeds such as micronized linseed can be added to provide more energy and should be used in preference to cereal based feeds.

Best Weight Gain Supplements For Horses

Using a digestive supplement that contains ingredients such as yeast and prebiotics will help to establish a healthy population of microbes in the gut that the horse relies on to digest fibre.  The more energy the horse can obtain from fibre, the less cereal based feeds are likely to be required which helps to keep the gut healthy and reduces the risk of over-excitable behaviour.

Frequently Asked Questions

My horse has 3 big buckets of feed a day – is this too much?

The answer to this is it depends on what is in the bucket! If you are using a chopped fibre feed such as Alfa-A Oil then it is very voluminous and so a bucketful is probably about 1.5kgs (check this number!). The key thing is also that it is a high fibre feed and so can be thought of in the same way as forage – you wouldn’t be worried about feeding a bucketful of hay. High fibre feeds don’t overload the digestive system in the same way that cereal based feeds can and so it is perfectly acceptable to feed them in bigger quantities in one bucket. In fact, if your horse spends all night eating a big bucket of chopped fibre, it is a much more natural way to feed than giving a small meal of cereals. Horses would spend 16-18 hours a day grazing and the more we can replicate this in the stable the better.

With cereal based feeds, giving more than 1.5kgs in each feed is likely to reduce the efficiency with which the nutrients are absorbed and increases the risk of digestive upsets. It is far better to introduce a 4th feed than carry on with 3 large meals.

How can a hay replacer be used to help with weight gain?

On average hay provides approximately 8MJ/kg of digestible energy. For a 500kg horse stabled overnight they would typically consume 5-6kg of hay providing 40-48MJ. If they struggle to eat this amount they miss out on a large amount of energy which tends to result in weight loss. Providing an alternative to long stem forage will therefore help the horse to gain weight and also provide fibre that is vital for digestive health.  Chopped fibre feeds including Dengie Hi-Fi Senior combined with soaked fibre products such as Dengie Alfa-Beet or Grass Pellets provide a high quality forage replacement. For more information on Dengie forage replacers and how to use them click here.

What are the best types of fibre for weight gain?

How useful a fibre source is to the horse in terms of weight gain or energy provision depends on its digestibility. There are many factors that affect digestibility including the type of plant, environmental conditions during growth and particularly the age of the plant when harvested. The more mature a plant is when it is harvested the more fibre it will contain and the less digestible it will be. Straw and late cut hay that feels coarse in the hand are examples of fibre sources with low digestibility. Whilst these types of fibre can be great for helping to manage the weight of good do-ers they won’t be as useful to the horse that needs to gain weight. Examples of fibre types with higher digestibility include early cut, soft leafy hay, haylage, grass, alfalfa and sugar beet. For horses that need to gain weight we should therefore focus on using these types of fibre. Dengie Alfa-A Oil which combines alfalfa with a rapeseed oil coating has as much energy as a conditioning mix/cube for example, but is based on entirely slow-release energy sources.

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