The term “hard keeper” refers to horses who struggle to maintain enough fat cover and/or healthy muscle tone. These horses can benefit from extra care and support year-round, but winter can be an especially challenging season for them. While there are some common reasons horses might struggle to maintain a healthy body condition, there are ways you can help to support a healthier, happier hard keeper horse this winter.
If you’re concerned about your horse’s weight, your first step should be to call your veterinarian. Ask your vet to perform a complete physical examination to ensure there isn’t an underlying medical cause for your horse’s weight troubles. Some of the health reasons that your veterinarian may check for include dental issues, gastric ulcers or other digestive problems, a chronic infection, or parasites.
Next, take a look at your horse’s diet. Whether it’s from fresh pasture, hay, or a combination of the two, your horse should be eating 1–2% of his body weight in roughage every day. When evaluating your horse’s daily serving of hay, keep in mind that horses burn more calories in the winter staying warm. Even if he’s getting 1–2% of his body weight in forage already, an increase in hay may be warranted to make up for what he’s using to maintain his core temperature.
It’s also important to look at your horse’s grain ration. While many horses don’t need a full serving of grain to maintain their ideal weight, every horse is an individual. Hard keepers or horses in heavy work may need the full recommended serving of grain to get the calories they need.
Once you have your horse’s diet squared away, take a look at where he spends his time. His living environment can play an important role in how well and how much he eats. For example, if he spends most of his time in a stall where he can’t see any other horses, he may be stressed about being alone. On the other hand, if he’s at the bottom of the herd pecking order, he may be using up valuable energy scrounging for food. If your horse sounds like one of these examples, think about whether you can help eliminate the stress in his life. If providing more turnout isn’t possible, see if you can use a stall guard so your horse can look out his door and check out his neighbors. If your horse can’t get his share of food in his herd, consider bringing him inside for meals or moving him to a different turnout group.
If your horse still needs extra support after you’ve ruled out health issues, checked his hay and grain ration, and eliminated environmental stress, you may want to try a weight gain supplement. For a comprehensive approach to weight gain, consider SmartGain. This formula provides a “cool” source of calories from healthy fats, which provide energy without causing a spike in blood sugar, as sugars and starches can. It also provides amino acids for lean muscle development, and prebiotics, probiotics, and enzymes for digestive health of the horse, two areas where a hard keeper can benefit from extra help.