Feeding for Weight Gain

7 Simple steps for putting weight on your horse

While many of us struggle to keep weight off our horses (and ourselves!) it seems a large number of horse owners have equal trouble when it comes to putting weight on their horses. Putting weight on, and keeping weight on a horse that is a “hard keeper” can sometimes be a frustrating task for the horse’s owner. But, it needn’t be a difficult thing to do. This article will walk you through the most important things to consider, including the best horse feed for weight gain.

Here are 7 simple steps you should take on the journey to putting weight on your horse:

Step 1: Worms

Make sure your horse is wormed with an effective wormer. If you are not sure which wormer to use ask your veterinarian and make sure that you are worming for Bots as well as Tapeworms at the appropriate times of year.

Step 2: Teeth

Have a qualified dentist correct any issues with your horse’s teeth. If it is painful or difficult for your horse to chew he/she just physically won’t be able to consume the amount of feed needed to gain weight.

Step 3: Health

Ask your veterinarian to carry out a full health check to make sure there is no underlying disease like gastric ulcers (which will be common in off the track or spelling thoroughbreds) that are going to prevent the horse from eating and gaining weight. If you do discover your horse has a problem with ulcers have them treated with appropriate medications. Likewise if any other disease conditions are found work with your veterinarian to resolve them.

Please note that if your horse is emaciated and has come from a starvation situation you should follow the guidelines published by the American Association of Equine Practitioners for caring for starved/emaciated horses. Introducing feeds too quickly into the diets of these horses can result in ‘refeeding syndrome’ and death. The guidelines can be found here: http://www.aaep.org/pdfs/rescue_retirement_guidelines.pdf.

Step 4: Free choice forage

Weight gain occurs when the amount of calories provided in the horse’s diet exceeds the amount of calories the horse ‘needs’ on a daily basis – the excess calories are stored by the horse and thus contribute to weight gain. Many horses have problems gaining weight simply because they aren’t being fed enough to gain weight.

After addressing worms, teeth and health, the most important feeding step when you want a horse to gain weight is to provide as much pasture or grass/meadow hay as the horse can eat. You can do this by either giving your horse 24 hour access to pasture or by feeding just enough hay that a little is left over each day. If you can devise a way to feed the hay at ground level without the horse walking all over it will mean the left over hay isn’t wasted. If you can’t find grass/meadow hay, oaten hay is a suitable substitute.

Step 5: Lucerne (alfalfa)

Feed lucerne hay. Lucerne (known as alfalfa in North America) is a high energy forage and makes a valuable contribution to raising a horse’s calorie intake above their daily requirement to encourage weight gain. Lucerne will also provide your horse with good quality protein which will facilitate muscle development. This is particularly important if your horse suffered muscle wastage at the time that weight loss occurred.

It is difficult to make a recommendation as to exactly how much lucerne should be fed as each horse’s requirement will vary depending on the degree of weight gain required, their temperament (as occasionally lucerne hay will cause behavioural changes in some horses) and the quality of grass/meadow hay being fed. Between 0.5 kg and 1 kg of lucerne hay per 100 kg body weight per day is a good place to start.

Step 6: High energy feeds

Add high energy feedstuffs to your horse’s diet. If the desired rate of weight gain is not achieved after implementing the steps above, your horse still requires additional calories over and above that provided by the pasture and hay being fed. To increase your horse’s calorie intake even further you now have three high energy feed options to consider adding to your horse’s diet. These are:

  1. High energy fibres—including soybean hulls, copra meal and sugarbeet pulp. These feedstuffs are similar to pasture and hay, however the fibre they contain is more readily digested by the bacteria in the hindgut meaning they contain a similar amount of calories as cereal grains. These feeds are particularly well suited to horses that become excitable and hyperactive when fed grain based feeds.
  2. Cereal grains and grain based feeds—cereal grains are well known as being high energy feeds and are useful in the diet of horses that need to gain weight. However some grains and grain based feeds are more suitable than others from a weight gain perspective. When selecting grains to feed to encourage weight gain it is critical that the starch within the grain (which is the high energy component) is digested in the small intestine.Grains that are digested in the small intestine will provide your horse with more calories (and therefore more weight gain). Grains will also ensure your horse avoids problems with hindgut acidosis which can cause laminitis and will also reduce the amount of energy your horse can extract from its pasture and hay. To ensure the starch is digested in the small intestine, select grains or grain based feeds that have been cooked (such as via extrusion process Pryde’s use). Cereal grains should not be used in the diets of horses with Cushing’s disease or those susceptible to laminitis.
  3. High fat feeds or oils—high fat feeds and oils are the highest energy feedstuffs you can give a horse. Fats and oils hold two major advantages over high energy fibrous feeds and cereal grains. The first is they are energy dense – for example 1 cup of vegetable oil contains as many calories as 1.2 kg of oaten chaff. This has obvious advantages for finicky or small horses that won’t eat large meals. The second advantage of high fat feeds and oils is they don’t tend to make a horse as hyperactive as the same quantity of energy supplied in the form of cereal grains. In addition they do not carry the risks of digestive upsets that accompany cereal grains. High fat feeds include rice bran and rice bran based feeds, copra meal, and any of the full fat oilseeds such as soybean and sunflower.

The ‘correct’ balance of these feeds is going to depend on your individual horse. (Hint: that’s where FeedXL comes in!)

Step 7: Balanced diet

Make sure the diet is balanced—if your horse’s diet is unbalanced from a protein, vitamin and mineral perspective it is likely that this will prevent your horse from gaining weight, regardless of how much you are feeding it. Using the FeedXL nutrition software will make sure your horse’s diet is balanced and that there are no deficiencies which may be preventing weight gain. If you’re not already a member, click here to learn more about our plans.

A warning about “Weight Gain” diets

Unfortunately when we start feeding our horses a well balanced diet with calories in excess of their requirements, they tend to try and find gainful employment for all their new found energy which often results in unruly, undisciplined and at times dangerous behaviour when we ride them.

The question then is, how do you feed your horse for weight gain without having them trying to kill you when you ride them? The answer to this million dollar question is … you can’t, unless your horse is well disciplined to begin with. If you own a horse that you can only just control when it is not being fed for weight gain, then you should not expect that you will be able to feed it gross amounts of feed to encourage weight gain AND still ride it safely, because it is just not going to happen. The golden rule is education first, feeding for weight gain second. The exception to this rule is when you have an emaciated horse that needs to be fed to gain weight before you can begin riding it.

You may still find that a well educated horse becomes a little more difficult to handle when being fed a high energy weight gain diet. In this case, altering the types of feeds you are using may help. The high energy fibrous feeds and high fat feeds and oils tend to have the ability to promote weight gain without having as much effect on their behaviour. But this isn’t always the case so you still need to be careful.

When will your horse start gaining weight?

You should not expect that your horse will instantly begin to gain weight once you have placed him on a ‘weight gain diet’. Some horses and particularly those who have come from an emaciated state will have internal damage caused by weight loss that they must repair before visible weight gain will occur. Even if this is not the case visible weight gain may take weeks to appear. In short, make sure your horse is healthy, develop and feed a well balanced diet using your preferred ingredients, don’t skimp on feeding hay and be patient.


Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.


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