Feeding the Easy Keeper

by Dr. Martin Adams, PAS, Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Some people can eat whatever they like, even in large amounts and remain lean. Other folks must be careful in the amount and type of foods they eat, and may even need to add an exercise program to maintain a desirable body weight.

Just like people, some horses gain weight even under conditions where other horses will lose weight.

A horse is considered an easy keeper when it is able to maintain an optimal body condition on less than average amounts of feedstuffs. Such horses are less demanding on the budget than a hard keeper that requires a more substantial diet, but feeding an easy keeper presents a different nutritional challenge. The challenge of maintaining easy keepers is to meet their nutritional requirements (besides calories) while managing to avoid obesity.

Easy Keeper Grazing

The tendency to become obese is likely the most common problem among easy keepers. Obesity is detrimental to horses for many reasons. The biggest problem facing the athletic obese horse is decreased performance due to heat stress. Excessive fat acts as insulation and decreases the horse’s ability to cool quickly, which causes Increased sweating and reduction in physical performance. Additional body fat will also increase oxygen needs due to the extra weight, but the ability to take in oxygen is more restricted in obese horses.

Extra weight may also induce joint problems in horses, which could shorten the career of a horse involved in a performance activity. Insulin resistance and excess weight are thought to cause a higher incidence of laminitis in overweight horses. Obese horses are also more prone to lipomas, which are fatty tumors that can develop in the abdominal cavity. The intestines can become entangled with a lipoma, resulting in strangulation colic. Strangulation colic is a serious, life-threatening condition requiring surgical correction.

Weight reduction will only occur if the horse’s energy expenditure is greater than its energy intake. Weight loss can only be accomplished by reducing the number of calories going in and increasing the number of calories expended. So a combination of diet and exercise is in order to shed extra weight from the easy keeper. Especially if turnout space is limited or unavailable, the horse should be exercised regularly, provided it is sound and healthy. This is one of the best options for weight loss, especially if the horse is usually sedentary.

If possible, exercise the horse more often than it had been before dieting, to increase the rate of weight loss. If an exercise or dry lot paddock is available, where there is no pasture available for grazing, regular turnout will allow for increased activity and weight loss.

To start a weight reduction program for an overweight horse, provide moderate to good quality grass hay at 1.5% of the horse’s target weight, not its current weight. Provide a low-calorie, low starch, vitamin and mineral fortified supplement at the rate of 1 pound per 500 pounds of the horse’s present body weight. Also have water and a salt block available on a constant basis. Once the horse has reached the desired weight or body condition, increase the amount of grass hay to the point where the horse is no longer losing weight. Also adjust the amount of feed to the horse’s current body weight.

Easy keepers can be a joy and a challenge. Keep their dietary requirements simple with grass hay and a low-calorie/low-starch feed. Remember that diet and exercise are the keys to weight management. Keeping excess weight off your horse will allow your easy keeper to avoid heat stress, perform better, and have a longer, healthier life for you to enjoy him.

Tips on Feeding an Easy Keeper

1. Limit pasture grazing time. This is especially true in spring and early summer, when pasture growth is most rapid. If this is not possible, fit the horse with a grazing muzzle, a device that reduces the amount of forage the horse can ingest. Remember to remove the muzzle when the horse is stalled or in an exercise paddock.

2. Don’t feed high-fat supplements. Corn oil, flaxseed and rice bran are high in fat and so are high in calories. Eliminate these supplements from your horse’s diet and you can cut out a large number of calories and prevent excessive weight gain.

3. Eliminate high-calorie concentrates. Most concentrates or grain-based feeds are formulated for a minimum feeding rate of 0.5% of body weight (5 pounds daily for a 1,000 pound horse) to provide the proper amount of required vitamins and minerals. This amount of feed usually provides an excessive amount of calories for an easy keeper.

4. Start an exercise program. If your horse is not involved in a performance activity, the best type of exercise for any type of horse is of low intensity and long duration. The main purpose of exercise is to increase energy expenditure or calorie loss. Other benefits of daily exercise include an increase in metabolic rate, a possible reduction in appetite, and prevention of bone and mineral losses that may occur during calorie restriction.

5. Replace legume hay with grass hay. Legume hay, such as alfalfa and clover, contain more calories per pound than grass hays. Instead of alfalfa, feed a high-fiber, good quality grass hay free of dust, mold and weeds.

6. Limit the amount of hay fed and divide hay into several daily feedings. Horses are continuous grazers by nature because the capacity of the stomach is limited. This behavior also ensures that stomach acid is buffered by saliva and ingested plant material. Infrequent meals can result in gastric ulceration due to constant exposure of the stomach wall to acid. Divide the amount of hay fed into 3 or 4 daily meals to increase meal frequency along with salivation and stomach fill to prevent ulcer formation. Limit the amount of hay fed to 1.5% of body weight, this is enough to insure maintenance and proper digestive function. If the horse’s body condition is still excessive after weight loss has stabilized, then decrease the feeding rate of hay to 1.25% of body weight and continue to manage for weight loss.


About Southern States

Since its beginning as Virginia Seed Service in 1923, Southern States has been at the forefront of agricultural advances throughout its 80 years in business. As a result of its leadership role in agriculture, Southern States has continued to expand and today encompasses some 1,200 retail locations in 23 states. Owned by more than 300,000 farmers, the cooperative purchases, manufactures or processes feed, seed, fertilizer, farm supplies and fuel. Visit them online at http://www.southernstates.com