Caring for the underweight horse
It’s rare to see a healthy horse that’s too thin since thin horses may be at higher risk for health problems. Before setting up a feeding and management plan for a thin horse, determine why the horse is thin by working with an equine veterinarian and nutritionist.
Determining if your horse is underweight
The two most common ways to assess your horse’s body condition and body weight are body condition scoring and ideal body weight equations.
Body condition score
Body condition scoring (BCS) evaluates the fat deposit under the horse’s skin in six areas.
- Behind the shoulder
- Along the back
- Rib area
- Tail head
BCS uses the Henneke scale: 1=poor; 9= extremely fat. The ideal BCS for most breeds and disciplines is 5, but ranges from 4 to 6.
A horse with a score of 4 is considered healthy, but it’s important to look at the overall picture. Has this horse lost body weight and dropped from a score of a 5 or 6 to a 4? Is it an older horse or one without a good hair coat going into winter? These may be reasons to put body weight on a horse.
Horses scoring 3 or lower are underweight or thin. In situations of extreme neglect or poor health with a horse that scores 1 or 2, we recommend working with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to create a re-feeding plan.
Ideal body weight equations
Researchers at the University of Minnesota developed ideal body weight equations to help determine your horse’s ideal body weight based on his or her overall frame.
To calculate your horse’s ideal body weight you need the following measurements:
- Height, from the top of the withers
- Body length, from the point of the shoulder to a line perpendicular to the point of the buttock. Don’t wrap the tape measure around the buttock.
|Horse breed type||Ideal weight equation|
|Arabian||((Length × 23.52) + (Height × 15.58)) − 1,344|
|Draft||((Length × 27.55) + (Height × 25.98)) − 2,092|
|Miniature (3+ years)||23.25 × (Length 0.79 × Height 1.74) /868|
|Miniature (<3 years)||33.92 × (Length 1.92 × Height 1.26) /18,209|
|Pony||((Length × 23.52) + (Height × 15.58)) − 1,333|
|Saddle-type||20.34 × (Length 1.37 × Height 1.01) /359|
|Stock||((Length × 23.52) + (Height × 15.58)) − 1,269|
|Thoroughbred||((Length × 10.69) + (Height × 23.76)) − 1073|
|Warmblood||((Length × 27.55) + (Height × 25.98)) − 2,235|
Causes and possible solutions
Not enough calories
The horse’s digestive system makes forages their ideal source of energy. Thus, you should minimize or avoid feeding large amounts of grain if possible.
If your horse is thin without any underlying health issues, and simply needs more calories, you can fix the problem by:
- Allowing 24/7 access to pasture or hay (or as much forage as possible).
- If increased amounts of hay aren’t enough, try offering a higher quality hay such as alfalfa or an immature grass hay.
- Alfalfa tends to be higher in energy and protein and lower in sugar.
- Alfalfa can be fed as hay or as cubes/pellets.
- These grains will contain higher levels of protein and fat that will aid in body weight gain.
- Using fat to increase the energy in a ration can help reduce temperament changes seen in some horses eating large amounts of starch or carbohydrates.
- Rice bran
- Flax seed
- Vegetable oil
- Dried granular fats
More information on feeding horses for weight gain can be found on the Purina nutrition site.
Make gradual changes in feed
Make all feed changes gradually over a two-week period to allow enough time for the gut to adjust to the change. Feed for a weight gain of 0.5 to 0.75 pounds daily. Three to four pounds of an additional grain product can meet this gain if the horse's body weight is stable. Use the table below as a guideline.
Horses take about three weeks to adapt to a high fat diet. Introducing a high-fat diet too quickly can cause greasy feces or diarrhea.
|Maintenance||Light work||Moderate work||Heavy work|
|Grass hay||20 lbs||20 lbs||21 lbs||22 lbs|
|Grain ration||4 lbs||6 lbs||9 lbs||12 lbs|
Table adapted from 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses.
Other reasons your horse might be underweight
Health problems are common causes for underweight. Consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to find the exact cause, which may include:
Many older horses have worn or missing teeth, which can make chewing forage hard. In addition, as horses age, their digestive tracts change. These changes make it harder to digest and absorb nutrients from their food, especially hay. As a result, older horses may need a type of feed known as a “complete feed”.
- Contain 100 percent of a horse’s daily fiber needs
- Are fed at higher amounts than typical grain products
- Are ideal for horses that can no longer chew hay effectively
Older horses often also need more time to eat and drink, and may need periods of rest between meals. You may need to separate older horses from the herd to make sure they’re eating and drinking enough. You should also have an equine dentist examine your senior horse twice a year to check for and correct any tooth problems that might interfere with chewing.
Horses low in the pecking order may not have adequate access to hay, other feed products and water. If you can’t separate the horse from the herd for meals, try using a feed bag that attaches like a halter. A feed bag will give them time to eat their ration without getting pushed away from it.
Poor water intake
If a horse’s water intake is lower than usual, their feed intake will also slow down. Provide fresh, clean water between 45 and 65 F to encourage horses to drink. Place water sources near the horse, as horses often limit how far they are willing to walk for water. The average adult idle horse in a mild climate will consume about 10 gallons of water each day.
Stall walking, weaving, cribbing, and fence pacing all burn calories. Trying to address these unwanted behaviors or feeding hay in a hay net may distract the horse from performing the unwanted behavior.
Insects and pests
In the summer, horses may not get enough grazing or eating time due to bothersome insects. Insecticides and protective sheets will help limit the impact of these pests.
Feed intake will often decrease as air temperature and humidity increase. Digestion creates body heat from fiber in hay and pastures. Because forages contain more fiber than grains, forages produce more heat. As a result, it’s natural for horses to eat less forage during hot periods. Offering hay during cooler parts of the day can help. You may need to feed additional grain products during hot periods to meet the caloric needs of an underweight horse if they refuse hay.
Horses need more hay in the winter to keep warm. Horses may also need extra grain during more severe winters.
The lower critical temperature (LCT) is the temperature below which a horse needs additional energy to keep warm. All horses have a LCT threshold, which is about 18 F. This threshold can differ between horses, based on the climate a horse is used to.
For each 1 F drop below the LCT, a horse requires a 1 percent increase in energy or about two pounds of hay. Some horses may require up to 50 percent more calories in extreme cold. Whenever possible, additional calories should first be met by feeding more hay. Forages are higher in fiber, producing more heat than grains. Thus, forages will aid in maintaining body temperature and weight.
Wind, rain and snow greatly affect the horse’s body temperature. Keep your horse’s blanket and hair coat dry. In the presence of wind, wet horses will have trouble keeping warm and may lose body weight.
Several factors that can lessen these affects include:
- A body condition score of 6 to 7 going into late fall if there’s limited or no shelter in northern climates
Some horses may be underweight due to more serious health problems. These horses should be treated by a veterinarian, farrier or equine dentist, depending on the health issue.
Health problems that may result in an underweight horse include:
- Metabolic issues (PPID or Equine Cushing’s disease)
- Infectious diseases
- Laminitis or founder
- Stomach ulcers
- Dental issues
- Digestive tract problems
- Chronic pain
Check your horse weekly for body condition, health issues and injuries.