The first thing you need to ask yourself is whether or not your horse really needs a weight-gain product. Lately, especially with young sales horses and show horses, the bodyweight many horsemen seem to consider ideal is actually too fat.
This trend is compounded by the fact that many recreational horses, especially ponies and easy-keeper breeds, are overweight due to a lack of regular work and/or overfeeding. We’ve ended up in a situation where the ideal body image of what a horse is supposed to look like is distorted in many people’s minds. A horse who’s actually a bit overweight begins to appear normal. The worst part is that our horses pay for it in terms of their health.
Any horse carrying around a body condition of over 5 (see sidebar) is at increased risk of tendon, ligament and muscle injury from the excess weight, arthritis, foot problems, decreased exercise tolerance and more significant metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and consequent laminitis. Reproductive health might also be affected.
Before you put your horse on a weight-gain product, be sure you compare him to genuinely fit horses to see what a truly healthy weight looks like. Cartoon Thelwell ponies are cute, but real ponies aren’t supposed to look that roly-poly.
You should be able to feel your horse’s ribs. Note we said feel your horse’s ribs; you shouldn’t be able to see them, however.
Remember that there’s a difference in roundness from muscling and roundness from fat. Fat feels soft to the touch, while muscle feels more like touching a steak. Fit horses can have flat muscling, such as racehorses and endurances horses. Fit horses can also have a more round look, as you see in dressage horses, working Quarter Horses and draft horses. While it’s easy to note when a racehorse looks fat, it can be tougher with a breed that’s naturally more round. Note where the excesses appear to be on the horse. A round gut, bulging flanks or thick crest is likely fat. A truly fit horse has evenly distributed muscling.
If your horse truly is too thin, he may indeed need a weight-gain product, which is a better solution than throwing him a ton of concentrates. Too much grain can cause ulcers, colic and excess energy. However, before we increase our horse’s calorie intake, we’d also be certain to:
• Check teeth for floating and any other necessary dental work, to ensure you’re not really dealing with a chewing problem.
• Be certain the horse consumes at least 2% of his body weight in feed per day, as in 20 lbs. per 1,000 lbs. of bodyweight. This is the minimum amount you should be feeding before considering a weight-gain product. If you’re not feeding him this amount, you’re definitely underfeeding him. We recommend you feed this as all hay for inactive horses, skipping grain, while 30% of that 20 lbs. can come from grain for horses in work.
• Feed hay free-choice. Allowing horses to gain needed weight by consuming additional hay is your first-line strategy.
• If his appetite for grain is poor, consider whether he could be battling ulcers. A horse with ulcers tends to go for his hay before his grain or may pick at his grain.
• Do a fecal-egg count check regardless of your current deworming program and consider treating for tapeworms, as these are difficult to find on a fecal. Do a larvicidal deworming with five-day double-dose fenbendazole for immature, non-egg laying parasites.
• If undigested grain is present in the manure, try a pelleted feed instead of whole grains.
As many readers will recall, we’re not keen on overdoing a horse’s fat intake (see “Take A Good Look At The Fat Fad” November 2002). Fat is not a quick-energy fuel. Horses don’t use recently ingested fat as an energy source. The fats that muscle cells use during exercise are tryglycerides that are released from body stores. However, fat is good for weight gain.
We define a high-fat diet as one that contains more than 10% fat. However, some horses need added calories, and fat is an understandable way to pack the most punch per ounce in calories.
Before reaching for more grain and adding fat to the horse’s diet, however, try optimizing the efficiency of fiber digestion. Too much grain or fat can be detrimental to fiber digestion, meaning you lose some of the benefit of the horse’s natural calorie source, grass/hay. In addition, because fat can affect protein absorption, be sure your horse’s overall protein level in the diet does not fall below 12%.
The addition of beet pulp, a readily fermented fiber that supports fiber fermenters (a prebiotic), can help the horse get more out of the fiber he’s ingesting. A pound of dry beet pulp has about the same calories as a pound of oats. Feeding a 50:50 blend of beet pulp and plain oats gives you the best of both worlds (fiber and concentrate) with no sacrifice in calories and is also naturally mineral balanced for major minerals.
We also find the regular use of 1.5 to 2 oz. of psyllium (3 to 4 oz. if you’re using a volume scoop) is also a good way to support fiber-fermenting bacteria and protozoa.
We have a detailed article on probiotics and intestinal organisms coming up soon, but basically, less-than-optimal microorganism numbers in the large colon will rob your horse of valuable calories.
A good place to start in ensuring adequate “gut bugs” is Ration Plus (www.cytozyme.com 801-533-9208), a liquid probiotic product that provides the growth factors these organisms need to thrive. This will help ensure your horse maximizes everything he consumes.
Oils For Fat
Focusing on a healthy weight and implementing our management suggestions should cure weight issues for most horses. However, a few horses are genuine hard keepers. Others can’t eat enough grain or hay to maintain their weight and need special help. Gradually introduce any fat product to your horse. Sudden, large amounts of fat can cause bloating and flatulence.
The route chosen by most people, at least initially, is to add oil to the diet. Calories in the form of oils are readily absorbed and processed, and may be more likely to end up as body fat. The classic choice is corn oil.
Corn oil off your grocery-store shelf definitely packs a significant calorie punch, to the tune of at least three times the calories of grains on a weight basis. It’s readily available and will get the job done, but you can get added nutritional benefits by using unprocessed oils.
Store oils are heavily processed to remove much of the natural flavor and all “solids,” including some beneficial antioxidant compounds found in natural oils. Stabilization, which is done to ensure a long shelf life, may also alter the structure of the fats and essentially destroys fragile essential fatty acids like the anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
Cold-pressed, unfiltered and unbleaching oils have many health benefits and are far more likely to be well-accepted. All oils contain about the same number of calories. To achieve weight gain from added oil, you will need to feed a minimum of 2 oz./day, usually more. Start low and allow at least a week to gauge the effects. If you try to fee d over 8 oz. of oil a day, you may cause the horse to back off feeding.
Uckele’s Cocosoya is a palatable blend of unprocessed coconut and soy oils with an aroma and color reminiscent of caramel. It’s a good source of omega-6 fatty acids, triglycerides for energy, vitamin E and other natural antioxidants. Fatty acids will benefit your horse’s coat, skin and hooves. They also help enhance his immune function (see “Flaxseed To The Rescue” June 2000).
Farnam’s Weight Builder Liquid is an excellent blend of canola, soybean and flaxseed oils, is guaranteed to contain 10% omega-3 and 30% omega-6 fatty acids, is stabilized by vitamin C and vitamin E (meaning no preservatives), and provides a generous 800 IU of vitamin E/oz.
Wheat-germ oil is generally well-accepted and a good source of vitamin E. It also contains some omega-6 fatty acids. Select The Best’s Wheat Germ Oil is cold-pressed, but they don’t guarantee the levels of essential fatty acids and it includes a chemical preservative.
Unprocessed soy and rice-bran oils are also available for horses, with high omega-6 fatty acids and vitamin E content. They’re a fine choice, if your horse finds them palatable.
Solid Fat Sources
Solid weight-gain products usually have a base of stabilized rice bran and/or flaxseed. Plain rice bran alone has little to offer over grain in terms of calorie density, but the weight-gain products based on rice bran contain added fat to boost calorie content. Again, we prefer to stay as unprocessed as possible to get maximum health and nutrition benefits. Remember, processing leaves the calories but destroys some of the other potential beneficial nutrients.
We found many powdered and pelleted weight-gain products, with prices being highly competitive. However, we prefer products that are free of animal fat, as the long-term health effects on horses are still unknown. This narrows the choices down to Gleam & Gain, Farnam Weight Builder, Fat-Cat and LinPro.
We like formulation of LinPro, plus the natural preservatives, but its calorie density is about the same as plain oats. It’s really more suitable as a protein/mineral/fatty acid supplement than a weight-gain product.
With Fat-Cat, the overall amount of fat is less than what we want to add calories.
Your choice of a liquid or solid largely depends upon your horse’s current diet and tastes. Liquids can be sprinkled on hay, while solids require a mixer, like a little grain or, better yet, beet pulp. In addition, some horses don’t find oils palatable and most have a limit as to how much they like. However, oils do pack the biggest calorie punch for your dollar. If you go with a dry product, the calorie density will be proportional to the percentage of fat.
In the liquids, if you’re hooked on grocery-store corn oil because of its convenience and price, it will get the job done in terms of calories. Just know you’re sacrificing other benefits. We think Cocosoya, our Best Buy, and Farnam’s Weight Builder Liquid are better choices.
In the solids, we’re torn between Gleam & Gain and Farnam’s Weight Builder Granules. They’re nearly the same in price, analysis and ingredients. Both are excellent choices. Let convenience and your horse’s taste be your guide.