Feeding the hard keeper

If your horse is a hard keeper, he’ll likely require special attention during the winter months. These tips will help keep him healthy.

Hard keepers are horses that have difficulty putting on weight and are prone to losing it quickly. They are heavily affected by cold weather and experience the greatest weight loss in the winter. Not only is it crucial to know how to maintain the hard keeper’s body mass as best you can, it’s important to start the season off right! The following suggestions will help you get off on the right foot.

Caring for the hard keeper

Before addressing diets, horse caretakers should take the following steps to stave off wintertime weight loss.

1. De-worm

Horses are known to harbor intestinal parasites. Most horses are on some kind of regimen to prevent parasite buildup, but many on a “preventative” program are still infested with intestinal parasites. In fact, some horses on daily prevention programs will actually develop parasite infections that are resistant to the de-wormers. Similarly, horses on a routine de-worming regimen, regardless of whether it’s the same de-wormer or a rotational program, can also have parasite loads. It’s much more common than you might think.

The trouble with intestinal parasites in the equine species is that they’re usually microscopic. Fecal floatation is required to find evidence of parasites, which means no worms will be seen in or on the stool. It’s only when the unsightly tapeworm passes through the stool that we see occult evidence of parasitism. For peace of mind, it’s an excellent idea to have both a fecal parasite evaluation, and an egg count, done before the end of fall. Most intestinal parasites are aware of the changes in day length and will hibernate (encyst) in the horse’s intestines through the winter. These encysted larvae will decrease the horse’s ability to utilize his food.

2. Float teeth

In addition to checking for a hidden intestinal parasite infection, it’s important to evaluate your horse’s teeth. For some horses, floating the teeth once a year is sufficient. For others, especially older horses that may have imbalances in the mouth, twice a year may be beneficial, especially for hard keepers. A well-trained equine dental professional will use a light and speculum to open the horse’s mouth so that, using her eyes and fingers, she can evaluate all the way to the back of the horse’s mouth. All hooks and points need to be removed to prevent pain. A horse’s jaw moves freely in a figure eight pattern, but not so aggressively that the teeth are smooth of grinding surfaces. Ramps and waves should be adjusted so the mouth is balanced. A balanced mouth has grind on either side of the cheek teeth as well as contact with the incisors, rather than being floated smooth. In the aged horse, balance may be a difficult goal to achieve.

3. Check for ulcers

The third thing to address before looking at how to feed a hard keeper is potential stomach ulcers. It’s possible to take your horse to an equine referral center and have him “’scoped” via an endoscopy. However, for those who don’t have the service or funds available, or if the horse is unable to travel, there are a few other indicators that can suggest the presence of gastric ulcers – for example, being “cinchy” when the girth strap is tightened. Two acupressure points can also help you indicate any potential issues (see below).

Methods for addressing ulcers range from conventional treatment with omeprazole, to alternative treatment with aloe, marshmallow root, slippery elm and Chinese herbal formulas such as Happy Earth. Some horses do best with ongoing herbal support to prevent recurrence.

Feeding the hard keeper for winter

Once you’ve addressed the above points, you’re ready to look at feeding your hard keeper for winter.

From a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) perspective, a balanced diet starts with ample grass/hay and a mixture of rice bran, freshly ground flaxseed and beet pulp. A great starting point is to use two cups of rice bran, two tablespoons of flaxseed powder and two cups of beet pulp at each meal. For some horses, this is enough to maintain good body weight through the winter. For others, the amount of beet pulp will need to be gradually increased. Keep in mind that beet pulp should be soaked for 30 minutes before feeding. Ideally, flaxseeds should be freshly ground to take advantage of the Omega fatty acids they contain.

A mash or complete pelleted feed (preferably sourced from whole grains) may be required for the elderly horse whose cheek teeth do not meet to grind, or who is missing most of his teeth. This is where the importance of semi-annual dental evaluations comes in! The mash can be made with rice bran and flaxseed, as mentioned above. You can also try a warm oatmeal mixture, which can include other whole ingredients such as barley, squash, pumpkin and fruits. Apples, carrots, peaches, eggplants and tomatoes can also be added to a mash, and a few sprinkles of cinnamon can add flavor and help stimulate appetite and digestion.

Using acupressure points to look for ulcers

When reactive, acupressure points Stomach-7 (ST-7) and Conception Vessel-12 (CV-12) are excellent indicators that gastric ulcers may be present. Reactive means the horse pulls away or “flinches” when the points are evaluated. If the horse is only reactive at ST-7, or on only one side, it suggests a possible Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) issue and indicates a good reason to consult an equine dentist. But if the horse is also reactive on CV-12, ulcers might be the culprit.

To test for reactivity on these three spots, apply as much pressure as possible with your thumb, as you would to scratch an itch on your leg through your jeans. The following signs might indicate the presence of an ulcer:

  • At ST-7, the horse pulls his head away.
  • At CV-12, he draws his abdomen up, moves away from your scratch, and possibly even grunts.

If the results of this acupressure session are unclear, try applying pressure to BL-20 and 21. Reactivity at these points will cause the horse to ripple his back under and away from your thumb. If these points are reactive along with ST-7 and CV-12, it’s a very good idea to proceed with ulcer treatment.

For the most accurate results, a TCVM-trained veterinarian should perform these tests.

Feeding the hard keeper over winter is primarily about ensuring the horse’s basic systems are functioning optimally so that food is well absorbed and digested. With good teeth to grind the food, and healthy intestines free of ulcers and parasites to digest and absorb nutrients, your hard keeper is set up as well as possible for the cold weather months. Provide him with quality whole foods and he’ll be ready to take on the long winter that lies ahead.