Feeding and Managing the Hard Keeper

By Jessica Normand, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member

The term “hard keeper” is often used to describe those horses that have a hard time gaining or maintaining healthy weight. Your veterinarian is the best resource for evaluating the weight – more specifically, the fat and muscle cover – of the horses in your care. He/she will likely use framework such as the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. Using this method, your veterinarian will do a visual and tactile evaluation of 6 areas of your horse’s body (neck, ribs, withers, loin, behind the shoulder, and tailhead), giving each a score from 1 to 9, then average the results to get your horse’s overall body condition score. Regarding the scores, 1 is emaciated, 9 is obese, and 5 is considered ideal for most horses. You can and should learn this method so that you can keep tabs on your horse’s body condition in between visits from the veterinarian. And of course, it goes without saying that any sudden, dramatic changes in weight warrant a call to the vet right away.

Before we talk about typical hard keepers, it is important to note that feeding the truly malnourished horse is a very different situation and absolutely requires a veterinarian’s guidance. Horses with a body condition score of 3.5 or lower – especially those with body condition scores or 2 or even 1 (severely emaciated) are at risk for Refeeding Syndrome,1 which can be deadly. These horses cannot be fed like a normal, healthy horse. If you care for rescue horses or any horse that is malnourished, please work closely with your veterinarian to design an appropriate feeding program for recovery.

If you have or care for a horse whose body condition score tends to stay around 3.5-4.5 and you struggle to put weight on the horse, there are some important things to evaluate. First, the horse should have a full physical exam by your veterinarian to determine if any health problems are contributing to the weight challenges. These could include dental issues, digestive problems, parasites, infection, pain, metabolic conditions, and more. Your vet will also factor in your horse’s age and what that means for his dental condition and digestive efficiency.

In terms of nutrition, it’s important to think about the horse’s diet as a whole. Forage should be the foundation, and underweight horses should generally get at least 2% of their body weight in forage per day when you’re goal is for them to gain weight (for a 1,000 lb horse this is at least 20 lbs of forage daily). This means it’s important to have an accurate assessment of your horse’s weight, and it’s also important to weigh your hay. The SmartPak website provides this handy Equine Weight Calculator, and it’s easy to find an inexpensive hay scale to hang in the feed room. When you get a new load of hay, weigh a few different flakes from a few different bales, and take the average. For our example horse needing about 20 lbs of hay per day, this means 10 flakes per day if each flake weighs 2 lbs, but only 4 flakes per day if each flake weighs 5 lbs. And keep in mind that the horse’s total roughage requirement can be met by a mix of hay, pasture, and other options such as alfalfa cubes, forage pellets, chopped forage, beet pulp, and more.

Hard keepers often need some sort of concentrate, in addition to the forage component of their diet, in order to get the calories they require for gaining or maintaining weight. This could be a whole, unfortified grain such as oats, or it could be a commercial fortified grain or complete feed. Look for commercial feeds that are 10% or higher in crude fat, instead of the more traditional 2-5% fat formulas. Luckily, feed manufacturers now offer a plethora of lower starch/higher fat formulas. The reason to look for a higher fat feed is that, pound for pound, fat is the densest source of calories. This means that a pound of fat provides more calories than a pound of carbohydrate, so a higher fat feed is a more efficient way to help the horse gain weight. Because sudden feed changes are a proven risk factor for colic, always change hay and grain slowly, over the course of 1-2 weeks. It’s also important to go slowly when increasing fat in the horse’s diet, as introducing fat too quickly can cause loose manure. Other tactics for adding fat to the diet include feeding some stabilized, fortified rice bran, flax seed, healthy oils, or powdered fat supplements.

Once you’ve addressed the total calorie needs of your hard keeper, which will primarily help with fat cover on the body, you should also evaluate whether the horse needs to gain muscle. The most common place for hard keepers to lose muscle is along the topline. This may be a sign that the horse needs more protein in the diet – not necessarily more total (crude) protein, but rather more quality protein, which means providing essential amino acids. Research has shown that amino acid supplementation improved muscle mass in both senior and young horses,2 and there are some inexpensive, quality amino acid supplements available. Look for products that provide lysine, methionine, and threonine, specifically.

This discussion of diet is just skimming the surface. For a more thorough evaluation of your horse’s whole feeding program, consider the excellent online software, FeedXL (, which allows you to plug in all aspects of your horse’s current feeding program, creates a report to help you find the gaps, and shows you how making certain dietary adjustments will affect the results. In addition to evaluating vitamins, minerals, fats, and protein, this tool looks at total digestible energy, accounts for the horse’s workload, factors in his current body condition, and whether your goal is for him to maintain, gain, or lose weight.

Once your veterinarian has performed a physical exam and you’ve evaluated the horse’s diet relative to his workload, also think about his level of stress and overall living situation. Is the horse fed outside with a group of horses? If so, and he is low in the pecking order, he may not be able to consume adequate calories because other horses are moving him off of the hay or away from his feed dish. If this is the case, it may make more sense to separate him at feeding time, spread out hay across a larger area, or change up his turnout group. Also consider whether he’s stressed by other factors around mealtime, such as a noisy barn filled with students and parents, and consider if his feeding schedule can be adjusted.

Feeding and managing your hard keeper up to a healthy weight can be complex and a bit challenging, but you can do it! Work closely with your veterinarian, learn how to body condition score, evaluate the total diet (give FeedXL a try!) and reduce your horse’s stress around mealtime. Good luck!

1 Freeman, D.W., Gilliam, L. (ND) Refeeding the Poorly Conditioned Horse. Retrieved from

2 Graham-Thiers, P.M., Kronfeld, D.S. Amino acid supplementation improves muscle mass in aged and young horses. J Anim Sci. 2005 Dec;83(12):2783-8.



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