Choosing the right energy source
Oftentimes horse owners see their horse’s inability to gain and/or maintain weight as a simple matter of an animal with a high metabolic rate. This can be the correct assessment but often there are underlying causes at work that can be altered. For example, gastric ulcers can be an underlying cause of inadequate weight gain in horses. Over 90% of racehorses and 70% of show horses can suffer from gastric ulcers. The symptoms range from poor hair coat to loss of appetite to weight loss or inability to maintain adequate weight. Prevention of gastric ulcers very often moves a horse from the hard keeper category to the “healthy keeper” category.
In addition to gastric ulcers, more and more veterinarians are discovering significant numbers of horses that suffer from colonic or hindgut ulcers either in addition to gastric ulcers or solely. Due to their location, colonic ulcers can be very difficult to diagnose but some tell-tale signs include decreased appetite, acute or chronic colic, poor or even aggressive behavior, and other stereotypical behaviors such as wood-chewing or stall weaving. Diagnosing colonic ulcers is usually about ruling out other, more obvious causes. Treatment is generally a change in nutrition management: the same nutrition management recommended to prevent colonic ulcers. Supplemental probiotics and hindgut aids can also contribute to the recovery of both the hindgut microbial environment as well as damaged colonic tissue.
Hard keepers that are otherwise healthy but that have a very high metabolic rate simply need more calories. But the source of calories you provide can be even more critical than the quantity you provide. Horses that are fed high quantities of grain-based concentrates are significantly more prone to GI tract disorders such as gastric ulcers, colonic ulcers, colic, and laminitis Therefore, if your horse is simply thin but otherwise healthy, you want to be careful not to create a problem by simply feeding more grains. High-quality vegetable fats are the perfect solution for these hard keepers. Whether your horse is nervous or works very hard or is getting older, quality fat supplementation is the most appropriate way to ensure your horse can get safe calories he can easily digest and absorb, while avoiding upset to his stomach and hindgut.
High-quality fat from plant sources, such as rice bran, can provide a hard-keeping horse the extra calories he needs to maintain optimal body condition. Hard keepers that consume calories from starch (grains) and fiber (forage) may not be able to safely consume sufficient calories; therefore, fat is a safe, calorie-dense alternative source of energy.
Natural vitamin E
Hard keepers suffering from ulcers can greatly benefit from natural vitamin E supplementation to aid in recovery. Significant free radicals are produced when horses suffer from gastric and colonic ulcers, so vitamin E can aid in the scavenging of these compounds and aiding with recovery.
Yeasts, fermentation metabolites, gastric buffers, gastric coating agents
These ingredients help maintain a healthy digestive tract in horses that are under stress or suffering from digestive tract disorders. When lack of appetite is a problem it can often be linked back to indigestion or discomfort. If the discomfort is removed, the horse begins to clean up his feed. If the digestive tract is out of balance, feedstuffs are not being efficiently digested and absorbed. The horse is not getting the full benefit of the nutrients in his diet and has to be fed more to maintain weight and have enough energy for work. Promoting a healthy digestive tract by supporting optimal pH levels throughout the tract, along with maintaining healthy tissues and nourishing beneficial bacteria, can help hard keepers utilize the feed they eat more efficiently so they need to eat less. Horses with a healthy GI tract will have an increased appetite and be at lower risk for digestive upsets that lead to bigger problems.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Horses evolved to exist on a diet of grasses that contained both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these fatty acids are necessary, but the ratio of one to the other is critical. Grass contains high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids; this is a healthy ratio for your horse. Modern diets, especially those fed to hard keepers, tend to include ingredients such as grains that are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids, throwing the critical 6 to 3 ratio out of whack and leading to health problems. Supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid brings that ratio back into balance. In particular, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA (found in marine sources of omega fatty acids) are nutrients that aid in decreasing inflammation. Including a broad spectrum omega-3 supplement is recommended for horses suffering from digestive disorders or those eating diets high in concentrates (grains, pelleted feeds, and sweet feed).