As horses age, maintaining a healthy weight becomes a significant concern for many owners. Senior horses, in particular, are prone to weight loss due to various factors such as deteriorating dental conditions, competition for food, diseases, and metabolic issues. However, horses of any age can be considered “easy keepers” or "hard keepers,” with “hard keepers” and may require additional calories to maintain or gain weight, depending on their activity level. Ensuring your horse is at a healthy weight and identifying why they may be losing weight can help you pick up on any health concerns that may need to be addressed or reevaluate their diet. In this guide on the best tips and tricks for managing weight gain for horses, we'll explore how to assess your horse's body condition, identify common causes of weight loss, and discuss practical feeding solutions to help your equine companion regain weight and thrive well into their golden years.

How to Know if Your Horse is Gaining Weight

Assessing your horse's body condition is crucial for gauging weight gain progress. Look for visual cues such as rib visibility, the appearance of the withers, and the overall muscle tone. The use of a body condition scoring system, ranging from 1 to 9, with 4-6 being an ideal healthy range for most horses, can help you quantify your horse's condition more accurately. Regularly take pictures from the same angle to monitor changes over time that you may not notice on a daily basis. Another easy way to monitor weight gain or loss if you ride your horse is noticing when the girth seems easier or harder to tighten or if you find yourself needing to go up or down a hole or two than usual. You can learn more about How to Measure Your Horse's Weight here.

How long does it take to notice weight gain in horses

If a medical concern has been ruled out, then you will typically be able to notice if your horse is gaining weight as soon as within the first 1-2 weeks after increasing their calories or changes in diet. Regularly check for changes in muscle definition, fat deposition, and overall body shape.

Where do horses gain weight first?

The first place you may notice weight gain is in the ribs or belly area and over the back along the spine. The area may start to “fill in” with fat and muscle, while their ribs and hip bones will start to be less noticeable.

Evaluating Your Horse's Diet and Nutrition

Every horse requires a personalized diet that can depend on their breed, size, health conditions such as metabolic conditions or gastric ulcers, lifestyle, and workload. A young Thoroughbred in heavy work will require more calories per day than, say, an adult Quarter Horse that is trail-ridden a few times per year. Knowing what nutrition your horse requires is the first step in evaluating their dietary needs.

Balancing Their Diet

A balanced diet is crucial for weight gain. Focus on the role of forage and pasture, ensuring adequate access to high-quality hay and/or grass to meet the important role that forage plays in their diet. Alfalfa pellets or cubes can be effective in providing additional calories and protein, especially for hard keepers or senior horses that may have trouble chewing hay. Tailor the diet to your horse's needs and consider senior feeds if dealing with an older or underweight horse. Hay quality can change each time you or your boarding barn buys hay, often depending on the weather and the harvest time. You may find that your horse drops or gains weight after a new load of hay is being fed.

Will Alfalfa pellets or cubes help my horse gain weight?

Yes, adding soaked alfalfa pellets or alfalfa cubes to your horse’s diet, even if just once a day for a mid-day or evening snack, can add additional calories and forage all at once. It is recommended to soak these products to help prevent the risk of choke, but many horses really enjoy this warm tasty meal as well! Senior horses do well on this as the soaked Alfalfa is easy for them to eat even with dental loss.

Understand the Role of Concentrates

Traditional pelleted, extruded, or textured grains are referred to as, “concentrates”. These are feeds that contain a mix of grains, forage, and necessary vitamins and minerals that a horse needs, even if their hay or pasture is limited. Concentrates formulated for senior horses play a vital role in meeting nutritional requirements in an easy-to-consume pelleted feed. Senior horses typically have dental problems as they age, so a concentrated complete feed designed for seniors will ensure they receive their necessary calories, vitamins, minerals, and forage, whether they can eat the pellets dry or as soaked mashes. Consider feed options with pre- and probiotics to support a healthy gut.

What can I give my horse to gain weight fast?

Increasing the number of calories in their daily intake, whether a combination of additional feed, adding in a lunch meal, increasing their hay, or adding “fat supplements” to their feed, are all ways to help your horse gain weight faster. For a horse to gain weight, they need more calories coming in than they are burning. There isn’t always a right or wrong way for quick results, it just depends on which option works best for you and your horse. In boarding situations, you may not be able to increase their meals or additional hay. Adding a fat supplement and soaked Alfalfa pellets or cubes can be an easy way to quickly increase their weight.

What is the best oil to feed horses for weight gain?

Adding oil to your horse’s meal is an affordable and easy way to increase calories. Many of these you can buy right from the grocery store. Adding soybean or canola oil, flax seed oil, or rice bran oil to their meals is recommended over corn or other oils for better-balanced omega ratios. There are also equine-specific oil supplements designed for horses that contain a combination of various oils to meet a perfect omega ratio for added health benefits. You can safely add up to two cups of oil per day to their meals, starting with a small amount and gradually increasing over a week to prevent any digestive upset.

Monitoring Portion Sizes and Calorie Intake

Knowing how many calories your horse consumes each day is a great baseline for knowing how much to increase or decrease depending on their weight. Your hay's nutrition will vary depending on the type, when it was baled, and the quality. Testing your hay is a great way to monitor the quality of your hay and know how many calories a horse is eating. If you feed in flakes, you can weigh flakes from different bales to come up with an average, then calculate how many lbs of hay they consume daily. The idea is similar to feeds and grains. Every feed company has a different formulation for their feeds. You can read the labeling on the grain bags, and then weigh the scoop used to determine the calories from concentrates.

Adjusting Feeding Practices

Establish a consistent feeding schedule, with additional meals, such as adding in a lunch or evening feeding if needed to increase calories, when feeding any horse. You can then add or subtract the quantity of their meals or add in weight gain supplements where needed. Horses should be foraging as often as possible, having hay or pasture in front of them throughout the day. Utilize slow feeders and muzzles to manage calorie intake if your horse is an easy keeper of has a metabolic condition. Implementing these practices helps prevent weight gain if your horse tends to put on weight too easily, while monitoring their consumption.

5 of the Best Horse Weight Gain Supplements

Many horse owners will ask, what can you give your horse to gain weight. We’ve covered the basics on increasing feed and hay, but sometimes adding in a nutritional supplement designed to help horses gain weight is an easier way to manage your weight gain goals. We came up with our top five best horse weight gain supplements!

    dac Oil

  1. dac® Oil
  2. This oil uses a balanced blend of vegetable oils, flaxseed, and fish oil, all rich in essential Omega fatty acids that work together to improve skin and coat condition. This also has 2.5 times the energy of most daily grain to provide the necessary calories to support your horse's weight management.

    Uckele Cocosoya Oil

  3. Uckele® Cocosoya Oil
  4. With a blend of coconut and soybean oils providing a natural source of Omega 3, 6, 9, and Vitamin E, Cocosoya Oil will increase calories while being 20% more digestible than corn oil.

    Equine Mega Gain

  5. Equine Mega Gain
  6. Good fats, calm calories, specially formulated not to make horses 'hot.' Organic soybean oil and a combination of beneficial Omega 3's, 6's and 9's to help horses gain weight and maintain a beautiful coat.

    dac Bloom

  7. dac® Bloom
  8. Effectively supports weight gain while enhancing skin and coat with the perfect balance of essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Features: Bio-available Minerals, Cool Calories 100®, Essential Amino Acids, Biotin, and Flax.

    Buckeye Nutrition Ultimate Finish 100

  9. Buckeye™ Nutrition Ultimate Finish 100
  10. A unique 100% dry vegetable fat for today's active horses using a dense source of calories to increase the percentage of fat calories in the diet. Very digestible and replaces the messiness of oil supplements.

The Role of Exercise in Weight Managemen

Tailor exercise routines to your horse's condition. Gradually introduce or modify exercise to support your weight management goals. A balanced approach to exercise contributes to muscle development and overall health. Horses with excess weight or metabolic issues benefit from regular exercise to help their bodies regulate insulin and burn calories, while it can also help underweight horses add muscle.

Rule Out Health and Medical Concerns

Consulting with a veterinarian is crucial for developing a comprehensive weight management plan. Identify and address underlying health issues, considering supplements or medications if necessary. A horse that is overweight or a very “easy keeper” could have a metabolic condition that should be monitored to prevent issues like laminitis or founder. An underweight horse could have various health concerns, from intestinal parasites, gastric ulcers, or other concerns. Regular veterinary check-ups are essential for long-term health, even if your horse appears to be at an ideal weight.

Implement Lifestyle Changes

Consider pasture management to create a conducive environment for weight management. If your horse is overweight, reducing or eliminating their access to grass may be beneficial if you can provide adequate hay as forage. A horse that needs to gain weight will benefit from having access to more forage and grazing. If your fields get eaten down quickly, rotating pastures or having “sacrifice areas” can help you maintain grass throughout the year for longer periods of time. Social interactions and mental well-being also play a role in your horse's overall health and can benefit their overall condition. Having adequate shelter and a relaxed environment for your horse is key to their turnout.

Special Considerations for Senior Horses

Understanding age-related weight issues is essential when dealing with senior horses. Common things to look for with senior horses are metabolic conditions such as PPID (Cushing’s disease) or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), dental health, to overall arthritis or body pain as they age. Tailor their diet and exercise routine to accommodate their changing needs. Regular check-ups with a veterinarian ensure the proactive management of potential health issues. Regularly checking their teeth will also help them consume enough hay and grain to maintain a healthy weight.

In conclusion, helping your horse lose or gain weight requires a hands-on approach encompassing diet, exercise, veterinary care, and lifestyle adjustments. Understanding your horse's needs and consistently monitoring their progress can ensure a healthy and gradual weight management plan!