Every other enquiry I receive lately is about a thin horse, and the Horse and Hound feeding forum is full of posts about how to ‘bulk out’ or put weight on horses. So why do horses get thin at this time of year and how can we successfully put weight on them?

The first point is that it is entirely natural for horses to lose weight over winter and for many, it is actually healthy. If you have a good doer who struggles to keep slim enough over summer then welcome winter weight loss and live with it until the spring! Entering spring with a thin good doer will give them a health advantage.

Most horses lose weight at this time of year due to a lack of good quality forage. During spring, summer and autumn there is usually enough grass to keep them in good condition, but by now most horse pasture is well eaten down so even those who still have turnout don’t have much to eat from it. Many owners don’t feed enough hay/haylage in the stable or the forage they feed is too low in energy (calories) to maintain condition. Alternatively, some owners feed plenty but the horse doesn’t eat enough, perhaps due to insufficient dental function.

Lack of forage is one of the main reasons for weight loss.
Lack of forage is one of the main reasons for weight loss.

Some horses find stabling stressful and don’t thrive for this reason. Turning these horses out as much as possible usually helps them gain weight, regardless of what feed they have on offer (but do offer forage in a well-grazed pasture). Worry and stress are excellent at causing weight loss so bear this in mind with your overall management and riding.

For weight gain, the first step is to make sure your horse’s dental regime is up to date and that it’s not their teeth that are causing the problem. Once you are sure your horse is otherwise healthy increase the forage up to ad lib (free choice) both in the stable and out in the field if possible. Try to source good quality hay/haylage and make sure it is palatable i.e. doesn’t have mouldy parts in it or something else to limit how much the horse eats. Very late cut stalky forage can be unpalatable for some horses, and some prefer hay to haylage and vice versa. Maximising the forage your horse eats will make a big difference to their weight maintenance.

Next, choose a good quality compound feed and gradually increase up to the maximum recommended amount. Feed 1.5 kg maximum per meal and ideally feed 3 meals daily. They don’t need to be equidistant in time e.g. the third could be a couple of hours after the second. You could replace some of this with soaked sugar beet but weight out the amount dry (before soaking) so that you feed enough. You can feed up to 2 kg dry weight unmolassed sugar beet per day to a 500 kg horse along with compound feed.

Finally, add a calorie-rich supplement such as vegetable oil. If you choose flaxseed oil your horse’s new spring coat will get a boost at the same time. Feed at least 100 ml daily and up to 300 ml. Alternatively you could choose an oil-rich supplement, usually fed at a rate of 200-500 g daily.

Use a weightape weekly and record the reading. Although weightapes are not always absolutely accurate for weight, they are useful for monitoring changes.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.