Best of EN: Tips for Managing Hard Keepers

Managing a hard keeper can be frustrating, to say the least. Here are some helpful tips courtesy of our sister site, Eventing Nation, and Banixx. 

Hard keepers can keep us guessing! Photo credit: Shellie Sommerson

What do you do with those hard keepers — the horses that need to eat but don’t want to eat or eat but don’t seem to gain weight? Weight loss happens much more quickly than weight gain.

The first step is to make sure there are not any underlying health issues:

  • Teeth – get your horse’s teeth checked (especially if they were last checked 6 or more months ago)
  • Deworm/have an egg count done in a fecal
  • Sand – if you are in a sandy area give a supplement that helps remove sand from your horse’s system
  • Blood – have your veterinarian run a blood panel to ensure your horse’s system is functioning well and there is not an underlying issue (high white blood cell count, Cushing’s, etc.)
  • Non-sweaters – if your horse is a non-sweater talk with your veterinarian about options (clipping, air flow and there are some supplements on the market)

Then review your horse’s diet with your veterinarian. Does he/she feel that the quantity and quality is appropriate for your horse with his activity level or are there some adjustments that should be made? Today, more than ever, there are horse feeds designed for the hard keeper. Talk to the feed company that manufacturers the feed. Most have knowledgeable reps who are also horse people who can help and advise you. Use these experiences to improve your knowledge of what is available. Some feed companies will provide a coupon to get you started on their particular brand. And-remember knowledge is Power, so educate yourself.

The more comfortable and relaxed a horse is in his environment the more likely he is to eat well and not pace/walk off weight. So, review your horse’s living situation.

Be careful to not over blanket and do clip (trace clip) if your horse needs some help staying cool. Likewise, ensure he can get out of the wind, rain, snow, etc. or is properly blanketed. Poor eaters seem to eat even less if they are too hot or too cold.

Does he get anxious when alone, or does he not eat well where his hay is placed because he cannot see others? Environmental adjustments sometimes remedy the issue. Try moving his hay to an area where he can see others, or to the area of his space he seems most prone to hang out in. If your horse was moved recently it can take a bit for him to adjust to his new surrounds and new routine. Sometimes a little patience on our part is needed; however, if his weight drops quickly then you likely need to act right away.

The basics will do more than potions and supplements. The market is full of ‘magic fixes’, so don’t just fall for the latest and greatest weight-gain product – do your own research.  The basics for hard keepers are calories and fiber. Options like hay, pasture, beet pulp, hay stretcher, hay cubes (alfalfa and other mixes) are great for providing fiber, and some provide additional calories; all are good for your horse’s healthy digestive system and can add body mass. Soak anything pelleted to avoid choking issues. If your horse is not used to eating soaked feed, then start with small amounts and not too much water. Many horses enjoy their soaked food being topped lightly or inter-mixed with a fat-laced product such as rice bran, a little grain sprinkled over the top, chopped carrots and/or apples stirred in.

It’s a good idea when testing a different feed to start with very small portions to see what your horse likes. But in all cases avoid over-serving as it can be counterproductive.  Too much food in front of them at a time can be unappealing, just like when you don’t really feel like eating and someone puts a giant portion in front of you. Some horses will overeat at one meal and then not eat the next; their digestive systems are built for grazing, so smaller portions more often usually work best.

And lastly, interact with your horse! If he can still be exercised, then get him out and about with mild exercise or at least hand grazing or a walk in-hand. If he cannot be exercised, you can still interact with him by grooming him, massage or even teach him a simple trick. Horses are social creatures and interaction is part of their ‘need’.

Happy Horse Keeping!

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