How to Choose the Right Calories for Your Horse

Feeding your horse good-quality feed and forage can help him gain weight in a safe way.

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thin horse eating hay in stall
A high-quality diet can help a horse gain weight and improve their coat. | Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Q: I’ve got a recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse. He’s rangy and could use some more weight and bloom on his coat, but it’s winter. How can I get him going in the right direction without overdoing it or shoveling too many of the wrong type of calories his way?

A:  Off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) can require special attention to their diet as they make the big transition from track life to farm life. Because it’s winter, you won’t be able to rely on fresh pasture to provide calories to his daily ration. Therefore, focus on finding the best-quality hay you can source, and feed plenty of it. Grass-alfalfa hay blends work well, or you can supplement grass hay with straight alfalfa hay. Feeding alfalfa hay is an excellent way to increase the caloric density of the forage component of the diet, and it provides gastric buffering and high-quality digestible fiber. Start by offering at least 2% of their body weight per day in forage (free choice is better) at a 50:50 grass:alfalfa ratio. Adjust the ratio according to his calorie needs. Don’t be afraid to feed more alfalfa if he tolerates it well.

To fill in the nutritional gaps of the forage and to provide additional calories, choose a well-fortified, high calorie (≥1.6 Mcal/lb), fat- and fiber-added concentrate feed with a good-quality amino acid profile (look for lysine to be guaranteed on the tag). Feed according to the manufacture’s feeding directions based on workload and body weight, and feed on the higher end of the range or a workload above what he is currently at to induce weight gain. You will need to split the daily ration into two or meals per day. A good rule of thumb is to keep meal size at or below 0.5% of their body weight. This should provide the necessary nutrients to help put a nice bloom on his coat, even in the winter. You can also supplement with 30 ml/day of an oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as Ahiflower oil) for extra coat shine.

There’s really no “wrong type” of calories because horses need calories from all sources (soluble carbohydrates, fats, and digestible fiber) at some level. But when horses need to gain weight, focusing on adding calories from fat and digestible fiber to maximize the caloric density of the diet is a safe and effective strategy.

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Written by:

Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD, is a senior nutritionist in equine technical solutions with Purina Animal Nutrition. She consults with veterinarians, professional riders, and horse owners across the United States and is directly involved with new product innovation, research, and technical support at Purina. Vineyard earned her BS in animal and dairy sciences from Auburn University and her MS and PhD in animal sciences from the University of Florida. Her doctorate research focused on the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on immune function in horses. Vineyard is a frequent lecturer on equine nutrition topics, with expertise in omega-3 fatty acids, immune function, and performance horse nutrition. She is an avid dressage rider and is proud to have earned her USDF bronze and silver medals on an off-track Thoroughbred.

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