By: Phil Dilts, DVM
It’s now officially fall, which is my favorite time of year. The only bad thing about fall is it means winter is getting close. Winter is when horses that have difficulty holding their weight typically lose their body condition. This happens for a variety of reasons. Pasture is gone or nearly gone, and horses use more energy maintaining their body temperature. The purpose of this article is to lay out a systematic troubleshooting guide to help owners manage the unthrifty horse.
The first, and often overlooked treatment, is to feed the horse more. I know you’re thinking “Of course you would feed them more. Who wouldn’t do that.” But, it’s not quite that simple. When you have four horses of basically the same type and you are feeding them all the same and three are getting fat and one is losing weight, it’s rational to think feed is not the issue. Different horses have different nutritional requirements for different reasons, from increased metabolism to decreased efficiency of absorption of nutrients. So, once again, if your horse is dropping weight, the first thing you should do is feed it more.
The second thing to check is parasites. This is less of a problem since the introduction of ivermectin, but it doesn’t work if you don’t use it. And, even ivermectin doesn’t get every parasite, most notably tapeworms. Horses generally tolerate tapeworms without much ill effect, but in the unthrifty horse every little bit counts. My personal favorite strategy is to use Ivermectin Gold or another product with both ivermectin and praziquantel (which kills tapeworms) after the first hard freeze so my horses aren’t likely to get re-infested with intestinal parasites until spring.
The third thing to check is your horse’s teeth. A horse’s upper jaw is wider than its lower jaw. As their teeth grind across each other, the upper teeth tend to wear more on the inside and the lower teeth wear more on the outside. A horse’s teeth erupt constantly throughout their life, and this uneven wear can leave long sharp points on the outside of their upper teeth and the inside of their lower teeth. In addition, if their upper and lower jaws aren’t exactly the same length, the rear portion of the back teeth on the longer jaw don’t get any wear and can grow into long, sharply pointed spikes. These points or spikes can cut into a horse’s cheeks causing painful sores that make them understandably reluctant to chew their food. A horse’s teeth extend back to about their eyeballs, so you need either a very experienced horseman or a veterinarian to properly check their teeth. Most people should not stick their arm that far into a horse’s mouth for obvious reasons. A horse’s teeth can wear unevenly in other ways also, but a veterinarian or equine dentist can fix most problems by grinding off (floating) the irregularities.
If none of the first three troubleshooting areas solve the problem and your horse is still losing weight, number four is “call the vet.” Your horse could have a metabolic imbalance, an endocrine disorder or some sort of intestinal disease.
Now, what do you do if your horse is perfectly healthy and still just can’t hold its weight? If your horse is geriatric you might have to use a high energy, easy to chew and easily digested senior feed and just do the best you can. With younger horses it might be the way you feed. When you put out hay you need to put hay in more places than you have horses and spread them out over a larger area. A dominant horse may be able to keep more than one hay pile for themselves with threat behavior.
You may need to find a way to get more calories into a horse that already has access to as much good quality hay as it wants and is already being supplemented with grain (which most horses don’t need if they are not being worked). Horses don’t handle excess carbohydrates very well (think founder) so adding more corn or sweet feed isn’t the best solution. Surprisingly, horses metabolize fats without difficulty, so top dressing their grain with corn oil or a similar vegetable oil can give them the extra calories they need to maintain their body condition through the winter with the added benefit of a glossy hair coat.
Enjoy the fall. Get out and ride your horses through the woods and enjoy the fall colors without the spring mud or the summer insects.