Why horses lose weight
Nutrition & Feeding

Why does your horse lose weight and what can you do about it?

If you’ve got a skinny horse that isn’t maintaining a healthy weight or isn’t putting it on as he should be, there can be several issues causing the weight loss.

If your horse is on a good diet and eating everything given to him, but still losing weight, you need to start looking at what the root cause for the weight loss is.

The herd’s pecking order can affect your horse’s weight

One of the most obvious reasons is that your horse isn’t eating enough.

If your horse is in a herd the exact amount of how much each horse eats is difficult to calculate, unless the horses are separated for feeding.

If you suspect that a more dominant or food aggressive herd member is stealing your horse’s food, separate your horse for feeding to make sure he gets enough.

You should always feed horses in a pasture with several feed points rather than just one

By spreading out the food into several points, you make sure that one food aggressive horse can’t rule all the points – your horse will also get more exercise when he has to walk around several points to get a full meal.

Horses in a paddock can quickly become very stagnant and this affects their eating as well.

Special feed should always be fed individually so that every horse gets whatever extra calories and supplements belong to them (rather than eating their pasture mate’s supplements).

Always make sure that horses have enough hay to eat, particularly on cold days and in cold weather, because that will keep your horse’s gut going – and the fastest way to keep horses warm on cold days is to feed them!

When your horse begins working

If you have a young horse that has yet to start his working life, or a horse that has been off for a long time, a diet of mainly grass and hay probably won’t be enough anymore.

A young horse should be kept healthy but lean. As young horses grow and can have growth spurts, their weight and condition may vary more often than a more mature horse.

When you run your hands along the flank you should be able to feel the ribs but not see them prominently.

Excess weight in young horses will bring other problems with it, such as problems with the function and development of the joints.

If you’re just using your horse for casual riding, he will most likely be fine without any changes, but if you’re going to start working him hard you’ll need to adjust his diet accordingly.

When you compete with your horse, ride demanding trails or use him for agricultural work (logging, ploughing etc.) and don’t adjust his diet, you may notice how he begins to lose weight.

A few extra meals or adding some concentrated feed to his diet will keep him in good shape.

Your horse can lose weight in the summer heat

It isn’t unusual for horses to lose weight during the summer months because of the heat and biting insects.

Particularly horses with sensitive skin, senior horses and broodmares need extra attention when the weather gets hot and there are a lot of insects.

A broodmare will typically lose weight while nursing a foal and this will more often than not be during the summer months.

If you have a mare and foal, it’s important that you stay on top of her energy needs as the foal grows and until it has been completely weaned.

Provide protection from the heat during the day and try to keep the flies and mosquitoes off your horses as much as possible

If you have a horse that struggles to keep the weight on during summer, some extra feed should help him cope.

You can provide hay or supplemental feed inside the barn where he can eat without constantly being accosted by bugs and can take some time to relax at the same time.

If your area suffers from a drought your horses will naturally lose weight and need more hay brought in.

Even if your horse loses a little bit of his condition during a drought or a dry spell, he’ll usually put it right back when the weather lets up.

Your horse can also lose weight in cold weather

As soon as the temperature starts dropping, your horse will need increasing amounts of energy to keep warm.

You can rug & snug your horse by putting a rug on him and keeping him indoors more (out of the wind and wet outside) but this isn’t how horses evolved to live.

The best way to keep your horse warm is to offer lots of good-quality hay

When your horse can freely eat hay whenever he wants to, he’ll naturally keep feeding his gut which works like a furnace.

As long as that furnace keeps getting fuel to burn, your horse will stay warm and have the energy he needs to grow a thick winter coat.

If you have an older horse, keep an eye on him when it gets wet or cold.

As horses age, they don’t digest food as efficiently as they used to and may have a harder time staying warm because of this.

Stiff joints, arthritis, muscle loss and other chronic pain or problems can cause your senior horse stress that results in weight loss.

Try out different solutions and see what your senior likes the best.

Problems with the teeth

Your horse will start losing weight when he as dental problems, but this is especially true if you have an old horse.

Your horse’s teeth will eventually stop growing and may eventually even fall out.

Even if your horse is young and the teeth haven’t fallen out, they may develop sharp edges and hooks that make it difficult or painful to chew food.

Issues with your horse’s dentition can easily go unnoticed or written off as something else, so regular dental appointment, as per your dentist’s instructions, are a must.

Parasite load

A parasite load that grows too big will quickly make the weight just disappear off your horse at any stage of life.

Deworming is essential to avoid too heavy internal parasite loads.

If gone unchecked, parasites don’t only cause weight loss but will also begin to damage internal organs.

External parasites, such as a virulent lice infestation, can make your horse lose condition quickly. Foals and senior horses can be especially affected by parasites.

Regularly check your horse for external parasites when grooming and handling him. Follow your vet’s or manufacturer’s instructions in deworming.

Illness and disease

Many health problems can lead to weight loss – mineral and vitamin deficiencies, cancer, kidney and liver disorders, ulcers in the mouth or gastrointestinal tract, laminitis, Cushing’s and a whole host of other illnesses will affect both your horse’s appetite and digestive function.

What to do when you discover your horse has lost weight

First you need to establish exactly how much your horse is eating and drinking.

If your horse is living in a herd, you’ll have to separate him for a while so that you can monitor his food intake.

Provide hay freely – it should be of high quality, free of debris and mould and not have too much sugar in it.

Sufficient hydration is critical, so make sure your horse has plenty of water.

Watering your horse with buckets will be more work for a while but will allow you to see exactly how much water he’s drinking.

Your vet may ask you to do this anyway, so it’s a good idea to get a head start even before your vet comes out.

Other things you can do:

  • You should make sure that you’re up to date with your worming medication and check with your vet if you need to do something differently.
  • Make sure that you’re up to date with your dental care and if it’s been a while since you’ve had the dentist out you should make an appointment.
  • Check your horse carefully all over for external parasites as well, sometimes they can crawl up into a place where you don’t typically look or touch your horse.
  • Go over your horse with a sharp eye in good light and double up on protection against insects.
  • Revisit his diet, feeding habits, food intake and lifestyle to find where the imbalance is.

If you don’t see any changes – it’s a good idea to keep a feed log and check your horse’s vitals – your vet can do some bloodwork to see if there are any underlying reasons to your horse losing weight.

Sometimes it may take a while to figure out what the issue is, but by separating him so that you can log how much he eats and drinks will already tell you a lot.

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