Putting Weight on an Older Horse

Q. My 25-year-old Thoroughbred gelding has come out of the winter a little on the lean side. I can see a clear outline of ribs. He lives in a group pasture with free-choice access to a round bale. Normally at this time of year we are able to put the horses back on spring pasture, which would likely take care of the weight issue. However, this spring the grass is coming in later than usual. He has been fed soaked beet pulp and 2 pounds per day of a ration balancer all winter. Should I switch him to senior feed that would also provide more fat?

A. My first choice when needing to increase calorie intake is generally to see whether feeding more forage is possible. It seems as though your horse has had access to as much hay as he wants, and so increasing his hay intake is likely not a viable solution. It’s possible the round bale hay was low-quality. Perhaps it is late-cut and rather stemmy, in which case feeding a higher-quality hay might be an option, but in a group pasture setting that is likely not very practical.

It’s also important to rule out whether he is being kept off the hay by other, more dominant horses in the pasture or whether he might be in some mild discomfort that is keeping him from making the effort to get to the hay. If other horses are keeping him off the hay, then a different social group might be more appropriate. You might want to have your veterinarian check him over to rule out any body or mouth/dental pain, and I would certainly do that if his condition doesn’t improve with increased calorie intake.

Feeding fat is certainly a great way to add more calories to the diet, and if the result is a higher total daily calorie intake, you should see some weight gain. Certainly, switching to a senior feed with a fairly high fat content is one option. Another is keeping the current diet and adding oil or another high-fat supplement to the beet pulp/ration balancer combination. If adding oil, I recommend using one that contains omega-3 fatty acids. You can slowly increase the amount of oil fed to a total of 1 to 2 cups per day over a seven- to 10-day period. Keep an eye open for loose manure, because this indicates that you’re feeding too much oil or have increased the amount too quickly.

Instead of oil (which can be messy) you might prefer to use a solid fat supplement. These come in a range of forms, including powders and extruded nuggets. You can feed fat supplements at the manufacturer’s recommended amount based on your horse’s body weight and how much weight gain is needed.

A number of high-fat senior feeds are on the market that have a crude fat content of about 10%. These tend to also include beet pulp as a fermentable fiber source. Feeding a commercial senior feed at the manufacturer’s recommended levels should ensure a horse’s vitamin and mineral needs are met, meaning he would no longer need the ration balancer. However, if you feed less than the minimum daily amount of senior feed, continue feeding the ration balancer at approximately half the normal amount.