Feeding thin horses can be a bit of a challenge; especially until you understand the causes for your horse’s poor condition.
Last time we discussed dental problems, parasites and inadequate nutrition as causes, today we will finish up by discussing temperament, work and age. Consulting with your Veterinarian is the most effective way of getting to the bottom of your horse’s weight loss.
Burning more calories than the horse consumes is a fairly obvious cause for loss of condition. This may be due to a few reasons.
Obviously a horse working very hard requires a lot of energy to sustain their condition. A hot blooded, nervous horse that burns off a lot of energy in the paddock or stall also requires special considerations for feeding. The addition of fat to the diet of a “hard keeper” or a horse in hard work is a nutritional trend that is gaining a lot of attention.
Fats contain on average 2.25 times more energy (calories) than the same amount of carbohydrates. Now, that value combined with people’s concern that carbohydrates will make their horse “hot” or “hotter” (that’s a whole other column!) and recent insight into insulin resistance in horses, fats are becoming a very interesting source of energy. Hard working horses especially are finding great value in the addition of dietary fat for their potential anti-inflammatory properties and immune system boosting properties.
Fats are required by all animals, they are required for normal cell function. Fats are supplied to horses in their diets. The average horse in light work will derive adequate fat from forage (hay) and not require the addition of fat to balance his diet. Senior horses can also benefit from increased fat in their diet, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
Flaxseed (fed either cooked or ground) is a terrific source of omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetable oils such as canola, corn or soybean are easily accessible choices to add to your horse’s existing diet. Extruded (processed) feeds now offer lines of high fat products that are nutritionally balanced and highly palatable options. Another source of fat is rice bran; it can be added to the horse’s regular concentrate ration.
I can’t stress enough that fat is not for every horse. Adding fat to the diet of easy keepers or overweight horses is only going to add to the problem. A horse with compromised liver function should not receive any additional fat; in fact they should be on a low fat diet. Be aware that fats spoil quickly and need to be stored properly to maintain. Some horses that are eating diets that are high in fat may experience a decrease in appetite, just something to keep in the back of your mind!
Older horses have may have slightly different nutritional requirements. As they age, because of their teeth (or lack thereof) they may require food that is easier to digest. There are many senior feeds on the market that make digestion more efficient and provide appropriate nutrition to our older horses. Feeding beet pulp is an excellent addition to the diet; it’s a significant source of fibre and is easily digested.
As long as the senior horse is in good weight and appears to be healthy, there is no need to change his diet. Providing a balanced ration of top quality hay, fresh clean water at all times and a vitamin/mineral supplement is all that is needed.
If a senior horse begins to lose weight, whether it is rapid or gradual, it’s a good idea to have a veterinary exam done. This allows your Veterinarian to rules out the causes we’ve already discussed as well as more serious physical and metabolic conditions.
One of the more common issues for senior equines is Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s is a hormonal disorder caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland. It is the condition that causes the long haired, potbellied, and thin but crested appearance in some older horses. It develops slowly and can be difficult to diagnose. Your veterinarian will have to perform blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.
In this condition, the pituitary gland produces large amounts of a variety of hormones. These abnormally high levels cause all sorts of havoc including increased blood sugar levels, increased cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and suppressed immune system. A horse that has or is developing Cushing’s disease needs to be fed a diet low in sugar (no grains or sweet feeds). Medication is necessary to control the hormonal overload. Horses, as people, do not just become thin. Some are of a naturally thin stature, and provided they are eating and performing well, that may be just normal for them. If a horse begins to lose weight, either gradually or rapidly, it’s time to call the Veterinarian and get to the bottom of the mystery before it becomes too late.
Shelly Graham is a local rider, trainer, horse breeder and Equine Canada certified coach.