A series of fantastic articles taken from The Chronicle Of The Horse...a must read for everyone and especially those in the business of breeding!!!
Some horses have a problem many of us envy—they have trouble gaining and
maintaining enough weight. Whether it’s a performance horse that drops condition
due to a heavy workload, or it's an off-the-track Thoroughbred that just can’t
lose its “racetrack fit” physique, it can be a frustrating problem for a
The answer is pretty simple—add more calories to the horse’s diet. But bags
of horse feed aren’t like human food; they don’t have calories or digestible
energy listed on the tag. “Energy is never on the tag because even today we
still have not found a good way to assess it,” said Tania Cubitt, Ph.D., a
nutritionist with Performance Horse Nutrition LLC.
“Digestible energy is a calculated number based on the fat, fiber and protein
of the ingredients. But there’s no standardization in the equations used to
calculate energy. Energy is the one thing we base all our feeding on, but we
still don’t really measure it properly,” she continued.
Even though there is no calorie guide on the feed tag, there are still some
good guidelines to follow that go beyond feeding more at every meal. You also
need to keep in mind that putting weight on your horse should be a gradual, slow
“If you start with a horse with a body condition score of 4 and want to make
it a 5, that’s going to take adding about 40-45 pounds—based on an 1100-pound
horse—and you can safely do that over a 60-day period. Weight gain is a slow
process,” Cubitt said.
1. Take A Good Look At Your Hay
Forage—hay and pasture—is the foundation of the horse’s diet. The first thing
Cubitt suggested to improve a horse’s condition is providing the best quality
forage possible and allowing a horse unlimited access to it.
Grand prix show jumper Scott Keller takes advantage of the Kentucky bluegrass
as long as weather permits. “With a hard keeper, I’ve found one of the most
important factors [in keeping weight on your horse] is giving ample turnout
time. It obviously boosts caloric intake, but it relaxes them, and it’s a sort
of mental detox,” said Keller, whose Townsend Springs Farm is located in Paris,
Ky. “As a substitute, when we’re at shows, I feed a lot of orchard grass
“If you’re feeding a first cut timothy that’s pretty stalky, then immediately
I’d at least try and find a second cutting timothy or a hay that has a lot more
leaf on it, a better quality hay,” Cubitt said. “Alfalfa’s the perfect choice in
the right circumstance. It’s much higher in calories, and the additional protein
it has will help build muscle. It won’t make your horse crazy. Protein does not
make your horse crazy.”
Cubitt’s ideal would be feeding 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent grass hay,
but the quality of the hay is paramount. Alfalfa availability is regionally
dependent, and many horses on the West Coast eat 100 percent alfalfa because
grass hay is hard to come by.
It’s also possible to replace mixed grass/alfalfa hay with a pound-for-pound
substitute of alfalfa cubes or pellets.
“With pellets, it’s not necessary to soak them. It’s really not necessary to
soak cubes either, but sometimes the cubes can be hard. It never hurts to soak
anything, because it also gets additional water into the horse, which never
hurts,” Cubitt said.
2. Feed A Stable Concentrate Ration
Feed company scientists put a lot of research into formulating their
concentrates so that if you feed according to the recommendations on the bag or
tag, your horse receives the nutrients he needs in the correct balance. Thus, it
isn’t a great idea to control your horse’s weight by adding or subtracting a
scoop of feed.
Cubitt recommends feeding according to the manufacturer’s recommendation. If
the feed bag suggests 4 pounds based on the weight of your horse, and you only
feed 2 pounds, your horse is getting half the vitamins and minerals he’s
supposed to. However, if you feed him 8 pounds, then you’re creating expensive
manure full of vitamins and minerals, when really you only wanted to add
For a performance horse that expends a fair amount of energy on a regular
basis, Cubitt recommended choosing a high-fat, high-fiber feed. “If you’re
feeding a sweet feed that’s 3 or 4 percent fat, I’d try to find a high-fiber
feed with a higher fat percentage, which is usually beet-pulp based. I like to
keep a consistent base ration, then add calories with better quality hay and
adding to the diet with beet pulp, rice bran or oil,” she said.
“My general thesis is that I can generate extra weight with grass and hay,
but I use grain to maintain fitness,” Keller said. “I prefer a high-quality, low
Keep in mind that the horse is a grazing animal, with a digestive system
designed for small amounts of food ingested constantly. “I never like to feed
more than 3 to 5 pounds in any one meal, and if I need to be feeding a
significant amount of grain, like 12 pounds a day, I would definitely split the
meals into three or four feedings a day. You should feed at least three meals a
day if you really want to put weight on your horse,” Cubitt said.
Once the horse achieves the desired body condition, the added calories can be
decreased to a maintenance level. “I can put in or take out oil or rice bran or
beet pulp, and all it’s adding is extra calories. Then I can decrease that or
take it away when the horse gets to an ideal weight,” Cubitt said.
However, if your horse turns out to be an easier keeper than you
expected, you may need to change to a feed that provides more nutrients in fewer
calories. Remember, if you go below the manufacturer’s recommendations, your
horse won’t receive the vitamins and minerals he needs.
3. Add Calories In An Educated Manner
There are many different ways to add calories to a horse’s diet. But it’s
important to consider which one will give you the most bang for the buck, or the
most digestible energy (calories) per pound.
Ingredient DE Mcal/lb Additional lbs/day *
Oats 1.5 4.4
Rice Bran 1.5 4.4
Beet Pulp 1.27 5.2
(dry, no molasses)
Alfalfa Hay 1.1 6.0
Oil 4.6 1.4 (a little more than 2 cups)
*Additional lbs/day is calculated on an 1100-pound horse and how much extra (over and above current feed) you would need to feed over a 60-day period to gain 1 condition score
National Requirements for Horses suggested that it takes 40 to 45 pounds of gain
to change a horses body condition score by 1 unit (based on an 1100 pound
horse). Therefore a horse with a body condition score of 2 would need to gain
around 120-135 pounds to increase its condition score to a 5. This would take
around six months to achieve and would require a very energy dense feeding
energy requirements for an average 1100lb horse are approximately 16.7
Beet pulp is one of the most popular and traditional things to add to a
horse’s ration to gain weight. “Beet pulp is a good option because it’s a highly
digestible fiber, but if I need to get some serious weight on a horse, I have to
feed a lot of additional beet pulp to get there,” Cubitt said. Beet pulp only
has 1.27 megacalories per pound. Rice bran has a slightly higher amount of
digestible energy, at 1.5 megacalories per pound.
Cubitt’s top choice for adding calories is simple vegetable oil. “There are a
lot of different ways to get to the same end point of an ideal weight. If you
have all the time in the world, yes, feed beet pulp. It’s going to work, but
it’s not going to work as quickly as feeding oil. Rice bran will put weight on a
horse, but also at a slower rate. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
“My preference is for vegetable oil because it’s easier and adding less bulk.
A lot of hard keepers are also really finicky eaters, which is why they’re thin.
They’re too busy looking around to eat a huge meal. If you can’t get them to eat
the volume of feed you’re already feeding, it’s going to be even harder to get
them to eat a few more pounds of wet beet pulp,” she continued.
Oil provides 4.6 megacalories per pound, packing the biggest digestible
energy punch of all the additives. Cubitt prefers vegetable oil or soybean
“Whatever your fat source is, whether it’s a powdered fat source, an oil, or
a fat concentrate supplement, you’ve just got to make sure things stay in
balance,” said Emily Lamprecht, a scientist at the Cargill Innovation Lab.
“Anytime you add something to an already balanced diet, it shifts the nutrient
ratios, so be sure that when you’re adding, everything else is still in
Corn oil is a well-known feed additive, but it has recently gotten bad press
because it has low amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids and high amounts of Omega 6
“Both Omega 3s and Omega 6s are important,” said Cubitt. “Omega 3s are
anti-inflammatory. For a horse that’s heavily exercising and in somewhat of an
inflamed state because of all that exercise, then we really would prefer to find
a fat source that’s higher in Omega 3s than corn oil.”
“Soybean oil and canola oil are higher in Omega 3 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil
is the highest plant form of omegas 3 fatty acids. But for sheer weight gain,
it’s expensive,” Cubitt continued.
Cubitt advised adding 1 to 2 cups of oil to the horse’s daily diet and
introducing the amount gradually over 10 to 15 days. “I don’t usually recommend
any more than 2 cups of oil additionally on top of whatever they’re getting fed
currently. At that point, palatability goes down,” she said.
“If you’re having to add an excess of oil to a horse’s diet, then you risk
diluting out the rest of the nutrient profile,” added Lamprecht. “This is a
circumstance where I would recommend a commercial high fat supplement formulated to complement the rest of the diet so the energy to nutrient ratio doesn’t get out of whack.”
There are powdered supplements on the market that add calories to the horse’s
diet, but Cubitt suggested reading the fine print on their packaging. “You have
to look at the fat content—if it’s 20 percent, then you’re better off going to
the grocery store and buying vegetable oil, which is 99.9 percent fat. A lot of
them are rice-bran based, and rice bran is only 20 percent fat. They will put
weight on your horse, but they’re very expensive and usually the feeding rate is
quite low, so they’ll work slowly,” she said.
There are powdered supplements made of hydrogenated vegetable oil with 99
percent fat, and they’re especially useful if a horse declines to eat oil in
4. Keep It Simple
When you’re desperate to put weight on your horse, it’s tempting to
pile on every possible solution and complicate the diet too much. In reality, a
simple strategy and a lot of patience will pay off in the end.
“Some people add a couple of pounds of beet pulp and a couple of pounds of
rice brain and then they add a squirt of oil, and whoa, that’s a lot. I like to
keep it simple, because naturally the horse is supposed to eat grass and not
much else,” said Cubitt.
“We don’t use supplements [for weight gain]. The right grain and hay normally
works well for our horses whether they’re at home or on the road,” agreed