Occasionally I peruse equine forums on the Internet to see what horse health and care topics people are talking about. Recently, I feel like I've seen an influx in discussions seeking advice on how or what to feed a horse (or, more specifically, an eventer or jumper or OTTB or pony or senior horse or…you get the picture) that needs to either gain or lose weight, improve coat condition, needs more or less energy, or has some type of nutrition-related issue. (After all, no one asks for advice when their feeding program is working and their horse is at an ideal weight, right?) And, generally, following said question are dozens of answers from well-meaning people ranging from very suitable feeding advice, to tips I know, but might have forgotten, to suggestions that make me cringe and vow never to trust anything I read on the Internet ever again (unless it's the veterinarian-approved content we run on TheHorse.com, of course!).
I bring this up not because I'm encouraging you to swear off Internet horse care articles and advice—let's face it, I'd be out of a job if that happened!—but because I think there are benefits to discussing horse care problems one might be having, such as feeding issues, with other owners who've experienced something similar. And something I've been seeing and hearing a lot of in recent weeks is that senior horses finished winter with a little less weight than they began it with.
This has happened to Dorado. We struggled with his weight for the first couple winters we had him because, regardless of how much hay we put in front of him or how meticulously we blanketed him to keep him from expending calories trying to stay warm, he just wasn't maintaining his weight through the colder months.
The past two winters, I've been able to help Dorado maintain the vast majority of his weight (it only took three years to figure out, but at least we made progress!). Last spring, I decided to consult a friend experienced in helping horses maintain body condition and ultimately learned the value of getting advice, be it from a friend, an equine nutritionist, or a veterinarian.
My friend—who happens to be an equine nutritionist—took a look at Dorado's diet. We weren't far off from where we needed to be, but she suggested a few diet tweaks to increase the amount calories he was consuming without filling him with so much starch and sugar that he'd go wild on me.
To pack pounds on Dorado, we:
- We tried to increase the amount of hay Dorado ate in his stall each night. Unfortunately, he typically hits a wall, so to speak, around four to five flakes and ends up pulling the rest out of his hay rack, trampling it, and then refusing to eat it.
- Instead, we increased the amount of beet pulp—a highly digestible fiber source—he consumed each day since he wasn't eating the extra hay we were offering him. This was much more successful than our failed attempt and boosting his hay intake.
- We also switched his concentrate to a higher-quality product with low starch and sugar levels.
- Finally, we added a pelleted fat supplement to his grain when he was at his lightest. Once he started gaining his weight back, we backed off the fat supplement to see if he could maintain without it. Lo and behold, we haven't needed the supplement since then.
Thanks to seeking advice from a friend, Dorado didn't drop weight this winter. In fact, during his spring check up, his veterinarian actually said, "Man, did he hold his weight well this winter!" I think that means we succeeded.
One quick caveat: Before you implement suggestions from friends or acquaintances—regardless of whether the advice came from a person two stalls away or over the Internet—consider discussing the changes with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist (depending on what the advice is on) to ensure they won't be detrimental to your horse's health. Your horse is an individual, and what worked for another horse might not be indicated for all animals.
So in the spirit of sharing experiences with other horse owners: How did your older horse weather the winter, and what are your post-winter weight gain tips for senior horses?