5 Tips For Addressing Weight Loss In The Horse

by Lisa Carter on June 19, 2014

Nothing is more worrisome than watching your horse day after day slowly lose weight and not knowing the reason why.  Despite making sure they have plenty of access to good quality feed and mineral/vitamin supplements they continue to lose weight.  Here are 5 tips that may get you started on the right track to addressing unexpected weight loss in the horse. 

Veterinary Evaluation

First and foremost, ALWAYS have your horse evaluated by your veterinarian if they are encountering any kind of health challenge!  I cannot stress that enough.  There are so many things that may be affecting your horse's ability to absorbe nutrients, from parasites to cancer.  Your veterinarian can rule things out for you and make a proper diagnosis if there is a serious medical condition that's contributing to a weight loss issue in your horse.  I've seen too many times people take a wait and see attitude to the detriment of the horse. 

Intestinal Parasites

A very common reason for horses to lose weight is due to a heavy parasite load.  As parasites develop resistance to many of the commercial dewormers available on the market, you may find that your deworming protocols are no longer effective.  Your veterinary clinic can do a fecal egg count for you and let you know what kinds of intestinal parasites (if any) your horse may be harboring.  From this information, you can then make more targeted decisions as to what deworming protocols might be most effective for your situation. 

There are also alternative protocols that are becoming more and more popular among horse caretakers.  Many of these are safe to use in conjunction with traditional dewormers and may help increase the effectiveness of your deworming program. 

Some of these include:

  • Food-grade diatomaceous earth – it is thought that the diatomaceous earth works similarly as it moves through the animal's digestive tract as it does when applied externally to insects.  The microscopic silica-based diatom fossils that make up the fine powder penetrate the exoskeleton of the insects, causing them to dehydrate and die. 
  • Essential oils – Animals in the wild will hunt out and eat certain types of plants not normally in there everyday diet to help clear their bodies of parasites.  Certain medicinal-grade essential oils are thought to help rid the body of internal parasites based on the historical use of these plants by both ancient cultures and wild animals.  Whether these help by boosting the host's natural immune system or acting directly against the parasite is unclear.  Oils that may help most are – Tarragon, Ocotea, Di-Gize and Longevity.
  • Immune System Supplementation – an organism that has a compromised immune system is going to be more susceptible to all types of infection, including that of internal and external parasites.  Adding supplements that are high in antioxidants may help your horse's ability to deal with these attacks naturally. Immune support is very important for maintaining the geriatric horse. 

Equine Dentistry

I've been surprised at the number of people that I've encountered over the years that are unaware that horses need routine dentistry.  There are many factors that play into the function of the horse's jaw and how the horse's teeth erupt and wear continually.  The way a horse moves, position it eats, what it eats, etc. all contribute to whether a horse will develop dental imbalance.  If the teeth are out of balance and the horse cannot effectively masticate his food, they are less likely to be able to absorb the necessary nutrients from that food.  Older horses may have worn out the life of their teeth or have missing teeth, also contributing to problems with properly processing their food.  Having your horse checked by a reputable equine dentist at least once or twice per year may save your horse some grief down the road. 

Calorie/Supplement Needs

Your horse's weight loss may just be a simple matter of math…they are burning more calories than they are taking in.  Upping your horse's hay and/or feed may be necessary, particularly for horses in heavy training or working horses.  However, adding a high-quality high-calorie fat source may be all that is necessary to turn the corner.  Traditionally people have added corn oil to their horses feed as a top dress.  However, since corn oil is not fully digestible, you have to give large quantities for it to be effective and many horses don't find that much oil on their feed palatable.  The most popular oils that are highly digestible, palatable and provide added benefits to skin and hair coat are – flax seed, soybean, and wheat germ oils. 

Another consideration is vitamin, mineral and priobiotic supplementation.  Horse's that have access to some grazing every day get a lot of the vitamins and minerals they need from that activity.  However, every region has different mineral deficiencies in their soils, sometimes making it necessary to add these into your horse's diet.  Your county extension agent can usually give you information on mineral supplement recommendations and you can also have your hay tested for protein and mineral content.  And for horses that don't have access to quality grazing, talk with your veterinarian about recommended vitamin/mineral supplements for your particular situation.  Probiotics are sometimes needed when the horse's digestive flora become out of balance.  These beneficial microbes are necessary for proper digestive function.  You can get a good quality probiotic at your local feed store. 

Alternative Forages

When dealing with geriatric horses, the ability to chew becomes increasingly problematic, not to mention the aging digestive tract becomes less efficient and able to pull the necessary nutrients from what they can chew.  Adding some more easily chewed and digestible forages may help. You will want to make sure and consult with your veterinarian before changing your horse's diet though.  Certain conditions, like liver and kidney dysfunction, require special dietary consideration. 

Alfalfa – For all my older broodmares, we provide once daily soaked alfalfa cubes in addition to having access to free choice coastal hay and light grazing.  In the cube form, the alfalfa is already chopped and the soaking helps to soften the forage for easy chewing.  It also has a higher protein and calcium content which helps to support those aging muscles and bones. 

Beet Pulp – Soaked beet pulp is also a very popular forage alternative.  It's very high in calcium and very easily digestible.  Most horse's find it quite tasty and easy to eat, even horses with no teeth at all!

Complete Senior Feeds – There are a number of high-quality complete senior feeds available on the market these days.  Many of these can even be soaked for easy digestion for horse's that are toothless or have problems chewing.  When looking for a senior feed, I typically try and avoid those that have a lot of sugars (typically molasses).  I prefer feeds that are alfalfa meal based so I know exactly what my horse is getting.  I avoid those that have "hay byproduct" as the first ingredient listed.  The consistency of the feed cannot be guaranteed when they can pretty much use anything considered a hay.  If they list alflafa meal on the label, then I know they MUST use alfalfa, nothing else. 

Equine nutrition is one of those topics that can be very confusing and make you pull your hair out!  But hopefully these 5 tips will give you a roadmap of where to start and some things that you can research.  Knowledge is power and helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to making the important decisions for your horse's health. 

The information in this article is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any condition or illness.  Nor is it meant replace proper veterinary care. It is meant for educational purposes only.  Always consult your chosen veterinary professional before starting your horse or other animal on any therapy.  

Lisa Carter, Certified Equine Massage Therapist, with her Arabian mare Siofhice.  www.heavenlygaitsequinemassage.com.Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools.  She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork, using essential oils for animals and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses.  She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".  

Are you ready to get better results with your horse?  Put your equine health care team to work so you and your horse can be doing what you were meant to.  Click here to get started!

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