Horses eating hay

Using straw to achieve weight loss in horses

Weight loss in easy keepers can seem like an impossible task and is often the cause of frustration for owners. Despite a strict hay only diet, many easy keepers can still maintain their body condition. Owners are also faced with the dilemma of not restricting intake too much (to avoid colic) while trying not to add too much energy to the diet. A study published recently investigated the effectiveness of adding straw to ponies diets to assist with weight loss. The outcomes provide some hope of weight loss for those with easy keepers.

Does feeding horses straw help with weight loss?

This study looked at 40 native-type ponies at pasture in the UK over winter. The ponies were split into two groups; supplementary fed hay alone or a 50:50 ratio of hay and barley straw. The ponies were weighed regularly over a 4 month period. Over this period, all ponies in the straw fed group lost an average of 27kg. Only 3 of 15 ponies in the hay group lost weight, and overall the group gained weight (average +6kg).

Why add straw to your horse’s ration?

Straw is lower in energy as compared with most grass hays, therefore substituting up to 50% of grass hay in the ration with straw, creates a less energy dense ration whilst maintaining adequate forage intake. This means that intake does not need to be severely restricted to achieve weight loss. In addition, the time horses spend eating per day is extended, which keeps them satisfied and at less risk of gastric ulcers due to prolonged periods without food.

Considering the risk of colic when feeding straw

The addition of straw into diet can be problematic due to the risk of colic. However, in this study there were no reports of colic. Care needs to be taken when choosing the right type of straw, and introduction to the diet should be done gradually over 14-21 days until a 50:50 ratio is achieved with hay to straw.

What type of straw is best for horse feed?

Oaten or barley straw is generally softer (less indigestible fibre) than wheaten straw and is therefore more commonly used for feed. If you have a feed analysis performed, look for an NDF of less than 65. You can also scrunch the straw in your hand to check the coarseness (technical I know!) – you’re feeling that the straw scrunches easily (stems are soft) and the sharp ends don’t prick your palm ie. we want to avoid bedding type straw.

While most straw is low in sugar and starch, a feed analysis to confirm this is a good idea. If a feed analysis is not practical for you, visually inspect the straw to ensure it doesn’t contain intact heads of cereal grains which may make the straw high in starch. Straw will be lower in protein than grass or cereal hays. Therefore, attention should be paid to supplying a good quality protein source within the diet as well as meeting mineral and vitamin requirements.

The difference between straw and hay

Straw vs. hay – for cereal crops, hay is the name given to a crop that is cut for hay when the grain is still maturing. Straw is a by-product which is cut after the plant has matured and the grain has been harvested from the plant.


Dosi, MCM., Kirton, R., Hallsworth, S., Keen, JA., Morgan, RA. (2020) Inducing weight loss in native ponies: is straw a viable alternative to hay? Veterinary Record Published Online First: 03 May 2020. doi: 10.1136/vr.105793

Meet The Author: Samantha Potter, MSc

In 2009, Sam completed a Bachelor of Equine Studies and it was during this time she developed an interest in equine nutrition. Pursuing this passion, Sam went on to complete her Honours followed by her Masters degree in equine nutrition at The University of Melbourne. Since 2015, Sam has worked as an independent nutritionist and enjoys supporting horse owners manage their horse’s nutrition in her role with FeedXL. To learn more about Sam and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



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How Much Should You Feed Your Horse in a Day?

Sometimes feeding more gives your horse less.

When we exceed about 2.5 to 3% of a horse’s bodyweight in feed per day (so 12.5 to 15 kg for a 500 kg horse) the feed starts to move really quickly through the gut. Problem is, digestion, and particularly fiber digestion takes time. Fiber is digested via fermentation in the hindgut (more on how that works here) and fiber fermentation is a slow process. So feed needs to just have the time to hang about in the hindgut for a fair while (like 24 to 48 hours).

When we feed too much, feed gets pushed through the gut really quickly (essentially as it comes in the front end it gets shoved out the back) and it will only be partially digested… so you may be feeding a lot, but your horse doesn’t have full opportunity to digest it.

Think about it like this…

If I gave you a pool noodle, one of the ones with a hole in it, and told you to keep it perfectly flat/horizontal and then gave you a small bucket of marbles to push through the noodle… you would poke them in one end (and assuming it’s flat so they don’t just roll out) they would only start coming out the other end once the entire noodle was full and as you pushed one in, one should come out… make sense?

Now suppose I told you you had to take 10 minutes to put all of the marbles through the noodle… you would need to take your time in poking one in so they didn’t come out too fast.

Now, if I gave you a bucket of marbles 3 times the size of the original bucket and told you to also push all of these through the pool noodle in 10 minutes you would have to do it three times as fast to get them all done in time. When you feed too much this is what happens, feed goes in one end and comes out the other too fast and only partially digested.

In a lot of cases, less is more!

Feeding less gives the feed time to sit around and move slowly through the gut, allowing it to be fully digested. Not much sense making expensive manure right?!

Take a look at your feed program and feed amounts and see if this might apply… often when we try to push for weight gain we get stuck in this trap of feeding too much and it doesn’t seem logical to feed less to get more weight gain. But trust me on this one, it really does work this way!



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


How Do You Know if Your Horse is Getting Enough Feed?

Well… happily, this is one of these easiest things to assess in horse nutrition because you can actually SEE if your horse is getting enough feed!

If your horse is getting enough feed he will maintain his weight. If he is not getting enough, he will lose weight. Or if he is getting too much, he will gain weight. Simple huh!

Trick is assessing this consistently so you can adjust how much you are feeding as weight changes. To assess weight gain or loss we use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. We have detailed information on using this simple system here.

Here’s a neat (and very colorful) little cheat sheet that you might like to keep handy as well  

Get in the habit of running your hands over your horses and mentally assessing condition. You will find in a very short space of time you will start to pick up small changes in body condition that might alert you to the fact your horse may need an adjustment in his feed program.

I am sure if my horses could talk they’d tell you they are never patted, just condition scored… lucky they can’t talk huh!



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


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:

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 and start your free trial.

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.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds 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. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


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