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Feeding Horses
Medical Index
First Posted Aug 21, 2008
Aug 3, 2010

Thin Horse

by Debora Johnson

Horse Weight Problems

We have all seen thin horses with ribs showing, muscle wasting, sad and sickly. Often these horses are malnourished, abused or discarded. However, there can be many reasons for a horse who is thin. The following are a few of the categories that I would consider a place to start:

  • Teeth and Gums
  • Forage (Quality and nutrition)
  • Parasites
  • Pecking Order
  • Temperament
  • Breed
  • Infection
  • Pain
  • Age
  • Organ Function

Let's take a look at each one of these categories, individually.

Teeth and Gums

Have you ever noticed a horse who is eating his grain and loosing some of the grain out of either side of his mouth? This usually means that a horse's teeth need to be floated or that he is experiencing some sort of discomfort in his mouth. Teeth and Teeth Floating The horse might have broken teeth, exposed roots, loose teeth, sores in the mouth or on the gums, and/or infection. All of these need a vet to determine what is happening. Perhaps the points on the horse's teeth need floating. Visual scrutiny is necessary. With infection a blood panel is usually done.

Forage Forages for Horses

Horses are made to eat constantly during the time they are awake. They must have an adequate calorie intake. Many horses are finicky eaters. They will pick through their hay and leave stems and heads. Poor hay can cause a horse to colic as well as lead to malnutrition. The hay may contain mold, rodent parts, bailing string, wire, rocks, weeds, toxic plants, and a variety of other impurities. All this can reek havoc with your horse's digestive system and well-being and nutrition. "The physical characteristics of the hay available to the horse are very important, given they will determine to a large extent how much the horse will readily eat versus how much will be wasted. Soft lips and tongue of horses makes them prefer soft hay. Also, their lips are very mobile and allow them to pick through the hay and select which parts they want to eat." Hay Importance Having an understanding of what it means to be the first, second or third cutting can be of help in selecting hay. Hay Cuttings Our two horses are on orchard grass as well as at pasture. We monitor their weight by using a weight tape. A baseline measure was taken and recorded to help us determine fluctuations. Visual signs of coat, feet, shine, attitude, etc., all are noted, as well. Body Scoring


It is really important to worm your horses on a regular basis using the proper wormer at the proper time of year. A heavy load of parasites can sap a horse of their nutrition and cause a poor body condition. Our horses are wormed every two months Equine Worming Schedule. One of the reasons to rotate the wormers is to ensure the parasites do not get a resistance to the wormer paste. Ivermectin Resistance in Small Strangles. To really get the flavor of how disgusting parasites are read my article on Parasites. I want to also mention that we always have a fecal done in the spring so that the fecal load can be determined.

Pecking Order

Since horses live within their herd hierarchy there is an established pecking order. It may change from time to time as horses come and go or challenge to move up in the herd, but horses near the top of that order eat, drink, and boss. A horse who is losing weight may have a higher horse bullying or running/chasing him. It is the order of things in the horse world and we have to figure out ways to help the lower order horses maintain their weight and nutritional intake. One solution is to feed the horse losing weight separately. That way you know that they have gotten the correct amount of forage; no one to steel it or stress out the thin horse.


Horses are just like people--some are ill-tempered, quick to fight, dominant or submissive, flighty, afraid, etc. The breed of horse often makes a difference in the horse's temperament. For example, a thoroughbred will generally be more high strung than a quarter horse. I have seen a lean thoroughbred, but I have never seen a lean quarter horse unless it was ill. Draft horses do not usually come in a lean package! Of course, these are just examples. There are exceptions to everything.


As mentioned above, the breed of horse is genetically predisposed to certain characteristics. Also, how the horse is used makes a vast difference in the food intake, type and quantity. Some breeds tend to be "easy keepers" (Easy keeper is a term used to describe a horse who requires a minimal amount of caloric intake to maintain optimal body condition) as opposed to "hard keeper." That is, they metabolize their food in different ways. Some are more efficient; some are less efficient.


Infection will most often put a horse off his feed, therefore, there will be a weight loss. If infection is suspected, the vet will do blood work to determine the white blood count and chemistry panel, as well. After that determination, a road map to increase nutritional intake can be undertaken. The vet will most likely suggest a food regimen and perhaps supplements, too.


With any aberrant behavior or change in eating habits pain always comes to mind. Horses cannot tell us what hurts. They can only show signs which would make us suspicious that something is not right. The horse may not show lameness or other visual signs of being off, but pain can definitely cause a horse to lose weight and muscle mass. By knowing your horse you will surely pick up on pain. There might be a reluctance to give a hoof for picking, kicking, biting, ears back, etc. You will know!


As horses get up in age they tend to have trouble maintaining there weight often. This is not always the case, but it is not unusual. The body functions do not work as well and their ability to metabolize and absorb nutrients works less efficiently. Teeth--or the lack of teeth--gum problems, etc. are also contributors. I had a thoroughbred who reached 26 years of age and she had trouble keeping her weight. We used good forage, supplements and grain. We also added enzyme drops in her grain to help her metabolize her food more efficiently. She was at grass as much as possible. Beet pulp can be used because it has to be soaked which makes it easier to chew and it provides lots of sugar.

Organ Function

Kidney and liver disease, endocrine problems Cushing's Disease, intestinal problems, ongoing infection, ulcers, cancers and many other problems arise in horses just as they do in people and all living creatures. We do our best.

How Can I Increase Weight Gain In My Horse?

  • Provide good quality forage
  • Increase feedings
  • Increase turnout in the pastures
  • Add fats to diet. (corn oil, vegetable oil, rice bran)
  • Add beet pulp
  • Increase grain
  • Feed separately
  • Add enzymes to help in metabolism
  • Use good common sense

Remember that there are pitfalls when adding sugars and more carbs to your horse's diet. One has to be concerned about cresty neck and founder or Laminitis .

Feeding Stabled Horses and Horse's Diet Needs

Always work with your vet.

Feeding Horses
Medical Index