Feeding the Hard-Keeper Horse that has Ulcers

My horse is a hard keeper, and is also prone to ulcers.  What should I feed?

Horses vary a great deal in what level of nutrition is required to maintain desired body condition and muscle mass.  Horses have not been selected or bred based on feed efficiency, feed conversion or rate of gain, so there a lot of variation between horses.

A horse that is a hard keeper may require more Calories per day to maintain body condition than an easy keeper doing the same work.  One way to help this horse will be to feed high quality forage that has a high Relative Feed Value (RFV) that is associated with higher Digestible Energy (DE) per pound.  A good choice might be an alfalfa or alfalfa grass mix that was cut at early maturity so it has fine stems and lots of leaves.  This hay could be fed free choice or at least 3-4 times per day at a rate of about 2% or above BW/head/day.

The hard keeper may also benefit from a commercial feed that is high fat (8-9 % or higher) and controlled starch and sugar (so it can be fed at higher levels) with amino acid fortification (lysine, methionine and threonine) to help maintain muscle mass.  This feed can be fed a minimum of 2 times per day, and preferably 3-4 times per day so that the quantity being fed can be increased while controlling risk of starch overload through smaller individual meals.  The quantity can be increased with the desired forage to produce weight gain, and then adjusted to maintain desired weight.

A high fat supplement that is 20+% fat can also be used as a top dress.

This feeding plan may also be useful in reducing the risk of having ulcers redevelop after a horse has been treated with appropriate medication.  Free choice forage or pasture is a good option so the horse’s stomach is not empty for long periods of time.  Alfalfa contains levels of calcium and magnesium that may be useful in buffering acid in the stomach.  High fat, controlled starch feeds fed in small meals at frequent intervals may also be useful in reducing the risk of re-occurrence.   A feed that contains specific metal amino acid complex trace minerals may also help improve gut health and digestive tract tissue integrity in the stomach.

Feeding Beet Pulp For Weight Gain in Horses

Many horse owners ask if beet pulp is a good way to put weight on a horse. This is a great question, as many horse owners struggle to keep weight on their horses, whether they are being used heavily or they are simply trying to maintain a “hard keeper”.  Weight gain in horses is a function of Calorie intake, just as it is in humans.  If a horse needs to gain weight, you have to increase the Calorie intake per day above the current level that the horse is being fed.

Beet pulp is what we sometimes refer to as a “super fiber”.  Because it has a high percentage of highly digestible or readily fermentable fiber, it contains more digestible energy per pound than hay and is actually about the same as oats, as beet pulp contains about 2.98 Mcal/kg.  Unless there is a lot of molasses added, it is also fairly low in starch and sugar with a non-structural carbohydrate level of about 9.8%. That is why it is considered a fairly “safe” energy source.  Soy hulls have a similar status, with a digestible energy value of about 3.0 Mcal/kg.

So, if one kilogram of feed that contains 1.4 Mcal/kg is removed and replaced with one kilogram of beet pulp that contains 2.98 Mcal/kg, then 1.58 Mcal or 1,580 Calories have been added, all while feeding the same amount of stuff.  Because beet pulp is highly digestible, the horse has less gut fill and can actually consume a bit more per day as well, so the feed intake and Calorie intake can be further increased, which supports the weight gain theory that many horse owners follow.

That said, beet pulp is not a well-balanced feed.  It has low mineral content, is a very poor amino acid source, and only contains about 9.3% protein.    Beet pulp fits into a feeding program very well as an energy ingredient, but it needs to be balanced for the other nutrients.

In conclusion, it is important to bear in mind that rarely is a single ingredient the answer to an equine nutrition situation.  Ingredients on their own are simply not balanced solutions.  While beet pulp is a very viable ingredient for use in a horse’s overall diet, and it can definitely be used to increase the caloric intake, it needs to be evaluated in the scope of the entire diet to determine if the horse is receiving a balanced ration.  For most horse owners, the simplest route if beet pulp is a desired ingredient is to purchase a commercially available feed that incorporates it as a major ingredient and adds the needed protein, vitamins and minerals to balance the diet for overall health and well being of the animal.

Feeding Horses that are Hard Keepers

Much like teenage boys, some horses seem to be able to devour every bit of feed in sight, and still not gain weight. Unlike the teenage boys, however, and unfortunately for the owners of these hard keepers, this generally isn’t just a stage that the horse is going through. So, what is the best way to feed a horse to increase weight gain to the desired level, and then maintain it there?

First, start by taking a Body Condition Score and determining the current weight of the horse, and tracking those two elements over time, so you can know for sure if you are making progress or not. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of trying to remember what the horse was like a couple months ago, so a tracking program will help give a fact basis to your feeding program.

Second, weigh both the hay and any grain you are feeding your horse. A bathroom scale can do the trick, or especially handy is a fish or luggage scale that you can hang a bucket from. Every barn has a different scoop, from the old reliable coffee can to a plastic scoop purchased at the feed store. Weighing the scoop, then weighing it with the feed in it, allows you to mark your scoop so you can see where to fill it to for various feeds & weights of that feed. Note that not all feeds weigh the same, either, so measure each one independently.

Third, ensure that the horse is receiving enough forage in the diet. This is the base of any feeding program, and a good target is to be feeding 1.5% of body weight in forages. For a 1000 lb horse, that means at least 15 lbs of hay. Weigh a few flakes of hay and see just what a flake is from your supplier. Not all small square bales are created equally!

Fourth is the grain portion of the diet. A key thing to look at in evaluating feeds for hard keepers is the “Crude Fat” content of a feed. A basic corn/oats/mineral sweet feed mix will likely run around 2.5-3.0% fat, since that is what is naturally present in a lot of grains. These are fine for easier keepers, but many active horses need more – there are a variety of horse feeds on the market today that are in the 6-7% fat range, and a few horse feeds even reach up to the 12% fat range. Remember to feed within the guidelines printed on the tag, so that you get the nutrition portion of the diet correct. Start your horse on a higher fat diet slowly to allow them to adjust to the increased fat, and work up to a level where the weight starts to come on. Once you’ve reached a desirable weight and body condition, you can begin to back off the amount fed until you determine the amount of feed that will help maintain your horse for the long haul.