On the Thin Side

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This horse is severely underweight! This horse is severely underweight!

Do you sometimes see horses who are obviously much-loved but in poor condition and whose owners don’t seem to realise it. This isn’t intended to be a “how could you” criticism, Top Horse’s aim is to inform and educate, so here goes......

It’s easy to take knowledge for granted but if you’re new to horses, you’ll want to learn all you can about taking proper care of them. None of us were born knowing how to do anything...we had to learn; walking, reading and when it comes to horses...how to look after them. It’s not instant knowledge either, it’s an on-going process involving an eagerness to learn, good instruction and trial and error.

Reality check

The first thing to do is make an honest assessment of your horse’s body condition. Use the condition score guide (below) to help you. A horse in good condition will have no ribs showing, a round, a smooth rump and well-covered backbone. An underweight horse will have ribs and hip bones showing, thin neck and sunken rump. Which does your horse resemble?

A horse in good condition will have no ribs showing, a round, a smooth rump and well-covered backbone. An underweight horse will have ribs and hip bones showing, thin neck and sunken rump. Which does your horse resemble?

If you can’t decide, get an experienced horse person to make the assessment for you. We all love our horses, but it’s no substitute for care and if your horse is underweight, then he or she either has an underlying medical condition or is hungry...and suffering.

Some problems that can cause weight loss, or prevent a horse from gaining weight include:

Teeth: The way horses grind their food means their teeth wear unevenly, causing sharp ridges which can cut into the sensitive gums. Imagine the last time you tried to eat with a toothache, or a bad ulcer on your tongue...it hurts! You can suspect your horse’s teeth need attention if he drops a lot of food when eating, if there’s undigested food in his manure, bad breath, a change in eating habits, drooling or lumps along his jaw. You can give a horse abundant food but this will be wasted if he can’t eat it properly! Horses should have their teeth checked at least once a year and the sharp edges filed down. If you don’t know when your horse last had a dental check, book him in today.

Worms: Worms are parasites, they take what they need from horses to continue their life-cycle and the horses suffer for it. They feed on a horse’s insides, travel through organs and can cause blockages. Signs of a worm burden include loss of appetite and weight, dull coat, pot belly, anaemia, diarrhoea, colic and depression. There’s several types of worms horses get, all equally destructive in different ways. For example, roundworms live in the horse’s stomach and absorb nutrients from anything the horse eats, thus depriving the horse. A good worming program is vital for your horse’s well-being. Good pasture management is also important as worms depend on manure to continue their destructive life-cycle. Pick up manure regularly, harrow the paddock to spread manure, exposing eggs and larvae, don’t overstock paddocks and rest and rotate paddocks.

Get the vet: If your horse is underweight, teeth and worms are the first things to address but if you’ve taken care of these and your horse still isn’t gaining weight, have him checked by a vet for underlying conditions such as stomach ulcers, viruses or other infections. Yes, this could be costly, but your horse’s health depends on it!

If your horse doesn If your horse doesn't have access to grazing, he will need to be given hay.


A horse’s digestive system is designed to have food constantly moving through it. They graze for 16-18 hours a day so need access to enough pasture that supplies all the bulk feed, ie grass, they need. If there isn’t enough grass, horses will start to eat weeds which could cause short and long-term damage. For example, some species of dandelion weed can cause a condition known as Stringhalt, which causes an exaggerated upper flexion of one or both hind legs. Patterson’s Curse is a purple flowering weed that can cause permanent long-term liver damage, leading to death. Desperately hungry horses will eat anything, even manure and wood.

If your horse’s pasture isn’t meeting his bulk feed needs, then you will need to supply that in the form of good quality grass hay...around half to a whole bale A DAY! This should ideally be given in a hay net, hay bag or hay feeder so it doesn’t get trampled and wasted. A large tyre makes a useful hay feeder.

If your horse is being ridden regularly, then he’ll need extra feeding to provide energy. Like people, a horse’s energy intake needs to be balanced with energy ‘spent’ in the form of exercise. If he’s not getting enough to eat, yet is spending his energy during exercise, then his body will start to use stored energy which will result in a drop in body weight.

There’s lots of great pre-mixed feeds available from feed companies, who also offer free advice about your horse’s diet. Make use of them!

When preparing hard feed meals, remember the following rules of thumb to avoid digestive upsets:

• Feed little and often. If you feed a large amount of grain (more than 5kg a day for a 500kg horse), split the total amount into three meals a day rather than two.

• Limit hard feed meals to about 2.5kg per meal of grain/pellets/sweetfeed (for a 500kg horse) plus a similar volume of chaff if desired. Chaff is light and adds volume to the feed, so if your 2.5kg of grain adds up to 4 litres, an additional 4 litres of chaff is likely to weigh only around 800g, which makes the total meal weight around 3.3kg.

• For smaller or larger horses, use the rule of 500g of hard feed per 100kg body weight at each meal.

• Use long-cut chaff where possible rather than the fine steam-cut chaff. This encourages more chewing and salivation and slows the rate of intake.

• For horses that bolt their fed, consider any of the following methods to slow them down a bit:

–Add large, smooth rocks to the feed bin for them to eat around.

–Design a grille that fits over the top of the feed trough through which the horse has to pick rather than take big mouthfuls.

–Pour grain feed over fluffed-up hay so they have to rummage around for the feed.

–Feed smaller, more frequent meals with plenty of long-cut chaff.

If you If you're worried about your horse's condition, have a vet check him over.

Avoid any sudden changes in a horse’s diet as this can cause colic. Research has shown that severely underweight horses responded best to a diet of lucerne hay, which is high in protein, low in starch and supplies much-needed electrolytes.

To start building your horse’s condition, give him a small amount (about half a kilo) of lucerne hay every 3-4 hours, gradually increasing the quantity and mixing it with grass hay until the horse is eating unrestricted grass hay. Watch the horse carefully for signs of diarrhoea or colic.

If putting your horse into a new paddock, introduce him gradually by letting him graze (alone if possible so he doesn’t have to worry about establishing his place in the pecking order) for an hour morning and night, increasing this over the next 7-10 days and watching for any adverse reactions.

Once the horse is eating bulk feed, then concentrates can be introduced, again very gradually.

Make sure the horse has free access to clean water and provide a salt and mineral lick, positioned in a sheltered area of his paddock.

There’s also lots of excellent supplements you can add to his feed to help build his condition.

What if you can’t afford extra feed? If this is the case, then the reality is that you can’t afford to keep your horse...it’s not really fair to expect him or her to go hungry. Perhaps you can consider selling your horse, or even free leasing him until you are in a better position to look after him down the track? (Make sure you have a proper lease agreement drawn up and signed by both parties beforehand).

At Top Horse we understand how much readers love their horses...we see it every day but when it comes to underweight horses, the saying ‘love is blind’ could sometimes apply to a small (make that very small) minority. Hey, if you don’t know, fair enough...we all have to learn some time. But for the sake of horse welfare, we thought an article on the subject wouldn’t go astray.

This article is intended as a guide only...our main aim is to get you to step back and make a fair assessment of your horse or have an experienced horse person, perhaps your Pony Club instructor, do it for you. If you need professional advice, contact one of the companies listed...help is available!

The Condition Scoring Guide. The Condition Scoring Guide.

Condition Scoring Guide

The Condition Scoring Guide is designed to be a system of evaluating a horse's body condition based on visual examination.

1. Very poor

2. Poor

3. Moderate

4. Good

5. Fat

6. Very Fat

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