Avoiding winter weight loss

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Autumn can a dangerous time of the year for horse’s weight as the lack of grass, colder temperatures, and the fact that owners only briefly see their horses at close quarters in between rug changes, can lead to weight loss going unnoticed.

Owners will be well advised to stand back and take a long hard look at their horses, unrugged, at least once a week – even totally clipped out horses will survive without their rugs for a few minutes. A combination of condition scoring and using a weigh-tape will enable an owner to stay on top of their horse’s condition.

Once you have accessed your horse’s weight and current condition, its total daily feed should be based around 2.5% of its body weight. Ad-lib hay or haylage can play a major role in maintaining body weight as the nutritional value of grass drops away.

To deliver weight gain the energy level being supplied by feed must be increased. Starch is traditionally the preferred form of increased energy, although oil is extremely rich in energy and is a more concentrated source.

Conditioning feeds are designed to put weight on and are very effective. They are generally high in protein, which supplies the amino acids that are necessary for muscle development. Any excess protein will also be used as an energy source. These feeds can either be fed on their own or on a 50:50 basis with the horse’s usual hard feed.

Traditional conditioning feeds include boiled barley and linseed. The energy from barley is more efficiently converted into body fat than the energy from oats, and boiling cooks the starch within the grain to make it more digestible. Linseed is dense in energy and protein, but has to be carefully prepared to ensure its poisonous constituents are removed during the boiling process.

Weight loss

Before amending any feeding practices, check the following non-nutritional causes of weight loss.

  • Teeth: sharp edges may be causing pain and discomfort and reducing intake

  • Worms: in unwormed horses, feed often provides nutrition for the worms rather than the horse
  • Pain: horses in pain, especially with chronic back or muscle problems, do not thrive
  • Disease: discuss the problem with your vet if the weight loss has happened quickly
  • Don’t miss this week’s Feed Forum (30 October) in Horse & Hound, which focuses on the special needs of donkeys.


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  • Originally published on horseandhound.co.uk