Feeding your horse for weight gain

Article last updated: 2nd February 2021

Whilst at certain times of the year weight loss in horses can be common and perhaps even encouraged, some horses simply don’t maintain their weight to the point where it is a problem and may be compromising health and/or their ability to perform.

In the first instance it is important to establish if there is an underlying reason for your horse to be losing weight. Poor dentition, worm burden and even gastric ulcers are common culprits. Vets report a sharp increase in the incidence of ulcers during the winter months which is a time when weight loss in horses is common, especially for horses whose routine changes from summer grazing to individual winter stabling. This can also be an issue in the competition season when horses travel away from home.

If your horse has a clean bill of health then it may just mean that your horse requires a higher level of energy (calories) in their diet to maintain weight, perhaps because they are more naturally active or ‘busy’ compared to other individuals. To answer the question ‘What should I feed my horse to gain weight? You first need to start by evaluating your horse’s current diet, including grazing and conserved forage, as well as bucket feed.

Start with forage

Forage makes up the largest part of your horse’s diet. When grazing becomes sparse, or if the nutritional quality of conserved forage is poor, then your horse can quickly lose weight. If your horse’s grass is in short supply, either due to colder weather in winter or a summer drought has resulted in sparse grazing, check if there is actually enough grass in the paddock for them to graze? If not, you will need to supplement with additional forage in the field to make up for the lack of grazing.

For horses that are stabled, how much conserved forage are they consuming; are they eating enough? Horses will typically eat 2-2.5% of their bodyweight in 24 hours on a dry matter basis. For a 600kg horse this equates to 12-15kg dry matter. If the horse is consuming hay then this will equate to 13-17kg as fed, assuming the hay is around 90% dry matter. If the horse is consuming haylage then this will be around 20-25kg as fed, assuming it is around 60% dry matter. Haylage contains more moisture than hay so a larger amount needs to be fed to provide the same amount of dry matter. The dry matter portion is where the nutrients including fibre are found so it is important to ensure that enough forage is consumed.

In some cases an alternative to conserved forage will be required, for example for horses with poor dentition, fussy feeders, or in years when forage is in short supply. Forage replacers for horses should be high in fibre, low in starch and suitable for feeding in large amounts. Dengie Pure Grass is pure, precision-dried chopped grass with nothing else added, and can be fed as a complete forage replacer for horses that struggle to maintain weight. For horses with poor dentition, Dengie Pure Grass Pellets can be soaked to a mash as an alternative.

What about the bucket feed – what is the Best horse feed for weight gain?

Feeding for weight gain can be tricky if you have a horse that is fussy, has a limited appetite, or becomes easily over-excitable. When looking for the best horse feed for weight gain without the fizz, start with fibre and oil as research has shown that providing slow-release energy is much less likely to promote over-exuberant behaviour. In trials, horses fed alfalfa and oil compared to cereals of the same energy level, were less reactive to novel stimuli and had lower resting heart rates.

Alfa-A Oil is Dengie’s highest calorie fibre feed at 12.5MJ/kg digestible energy. Whilst having a calorie level comparable to a conditioning mix/cube, Alfa-A Oil is based on entirely slow-release energy sources for condition without the fizz. Dengie Alfa-Beet, which combines alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet, can be fed alongside for an additional source of calories from highly digestible fibre. Combine with a vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer according to workload for a balanced diet.

For those that prefer the all-in-one weight gain horse feed option Dengie Healthy Tummy is an excellent choice. Combining chopped and pelleted alfalfa with a rapeseed oil coating, herbal blend, vitamins, minerals and ADM Protexin in-feed formula which combines live yeast and prebiotic. Healthy Tummy is a nutritionally complete fibre feed and so when fed at the recommended quantity no additional vitamin and mineral supplementation is required.

Fussiness and limited appetite can be a problem for some horses. For these individuals look for weight gain horse feeds that are highly palatable and pelleted fibres to reduce the volume of feed that’s required. Dengie Cool, Condition and Shine is a nutritionally balanced, high-fibre fusion of soft chopped and pelleted fibre with a high oil content to promote condition without excitability. With a light molasses coating and added spearmint oil, Dengie Cool, Condition and Shine is a highly palatable fibre feed for fussy feeders. For those that are working hard Performance Fibre is another tasty weight gain horse feed option combining precision dried grasses and alfalfa with a light molasses and oil coating with added spearmint.

When volume is an issue using pelleted fibre sources means that lots of calories can be provided in a smaller volume of feed. Dengie Alfalfa Pellets are pure pelleted alfalfa with nothing else added. Providing 10MJ/kg digestible energy, but with only 5% sugar and 3% starch, Alfalfa Pellets can be fed alongside a chopped fibre feed for chew time, or soaked to a mash for horses with poor dentition.

Digestive disturbance can result from diet change and cause digestive discomfort for the horse. This can make them appear fussier or limit their appetites which could result in weight loss. When making any dietary change, including from summer grazing to winter stabling, try to do so gradually over the period of at least a couple of weeks. For the horse that has been living out all summer try to start introducing hay or haylage into their diet again before they have to be stabled. Using feeds or supplements that contain a prebiotic and live yeast can offer extra support to the digestive system at this time.

For friendly feeding advice call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188, complete the Feed Advice Form or Live Chat.