Managing Over-Weight Horses

Managing your horse’s weight is key to healthy joints and bones, hooves and can play into body physiology including hormone balance. In this video you will learn how to manage weight, while still supplementing a healthy diet. It can be as easy as swapping grains and treats with a ration balancer like Empower Topline Balance.

This video was shared with permission from University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program. Make sure to follow them on Facebook and YouTube for even more equine information & education!

How to Weigh Your Feed

Feed your horse by weight, not by volume.

This is a common sentence uttered by many-a-feed professional and the more I talk with horse owners, the more I find myself saying it.   If someone is having an issue with their horse’s weight, whether over or under, I will first ask what kind and how much hay they are feeding.  My next question is what kind and how much feed does your horse get?

Responses to the hay questions are varied as are the kind of feed, but more often than not, I hear ‘a scoop’ or ‘a coffee can’ when describing how much feed the horse in question is receiving.  One customer even mentioned using a Bob the Builder Helmet as her scoop….now that is creative!

How much does your scoop or coffee can of feed weigh? is my next question.   Hmm…Good question is the response all too often. 

A hanging scale, such as this (dirty) one is helpful to hang a bucket from and weigh feed. Note that the scale has been tared for a bucket.

There is a simple, inexpensive way to find out: most mass retailers or farm/feed supply stores sell scales, such as a fish scale, a kitchen scale, or hanging scale that range from $10-20.  When you put your feed bucket on the scale, make sure to ‘tare’ the scale, or zero out the weight of the bucket so you get the true weight of the feed itself.  Then, fill your scoop, coffee can, or Bob the Builder helmet, and see what weight one regular serving is. 

Next step is, check the feeding directions for the feed you use and calculate how much your horse should be fed based on his body weight.  Does your scoop or coffee can serving fall within the appropriate feeding range?  If not, make sure to adjust the fill level of your dispensing item to fall within the recommended quantity for your horse.

It is unlikely that you will need to re-weigh the same feed for each meal, as the density of the feed will likely not vary much.  Most commercial feed companies formulate their feed to meet a specific energy density from which the feeding directions are based .  All other nutrients are balanced based on the energy value, which is why it is so important to select the right feed for your horse and feed the proper amounts.

Feeding your horse the appropriate amount, by weight, will ensure she is getting the balanced, necessary nutrients she needs for everyday activity and development.  Once you have found the feed to match her needs, its only a matter of feeding the right amount and enjoying the end result.

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.