Building Condition Without Fizz

Building Condition Without Fizz

There are a great number of horse owners who find it difficult to maintain condition of their horses and ponies particularly when they are working and during winter months where pasture is scarce. Horses such as these will mostly need higher calorie feeds which will not make them fizzy. Pregnant and lactating mares may lose condition and need to be built up before the next breeding season.

There are many reasons why some horses lose weight and it is important to check with the vet that there are no underlying health problems, such as poor appetite from ill health, worms, poor dentition and/old age, liver/kidney disease or intestinal malabsorption. These conditions require specific veterinary attention. Wormer resistance on a stud for example may lead to permanent damage, malabsorption of nutrients and general unthriftiness.

More commonly, otherwise healthy horses are often underweight because they are simply not meeting their energy needs due to one or more of the following reasons;

-Inappropriate choice of feed

-Forage is of poor nutritional quality

-Quantity of feed is not enough for the workload/breeding status

-Quantity of feed is not enough for their size

-Excitable or fizzy temperament

For example, horses in hard work need 100% more energy or calories than comparable horses at rest.

It is important to keep an eye on condition especially when horses are outdoors 24/7 and rugged up. Monitor bodyweight with a portable weighbridge or a weigh tape. When too few calories are supplied horses will take the extra calories they need from their fat stores first and they will lose condition sometimes quite rapidly. When fat stores are depleted energy will then be drawn from muscle tissue. This process is known as catabolism.

Forage first

Ideally forage should be really good nutritional quality and if possible, it should be fed ad lib. This means good levels of digestible fibre and very low levels of indigestible fibre which sits in the horses’ hind gut and reduces the natural appetite. Good quality forage is a natural feed providing fibre that is broken down to volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) by hind-gut microbes in the gut. Many of these VFA’s are converted to energy sources in the body i.e. fibre is a vital source of calories for horses.

Hay has a higher dry matter (less moisture) than haylage, so if feeding haylage a greater quantity should be fed than if feeding hay to achieve the same dry matter intake. If possible, the forage should have been tested by the seller before purchase, so the better forage can be chosen.

Feeding poor nutritional quality forage (e.g. late cut hay) which contains higher levels of indigestible fibre results in characteristic “hay bellies”. This makes horses appear fat when actually the top line shows horses are underweight. Feeding poor quality forage also reduces voluntary intake of feed.

The bigger the horse the more feed is required, some owners call their bigger horses “summer horses” as they do well in the summer on good grazing. Once the summer grass has gone they tend to drop off condition very quickly. These horses need significantly more calories to replace those missing from good pasture.



Horses in poor condition will need more calories from hard feed, choosing a nutritionally balanced conditioning compound feed to provide the additional calories required. Often increased amounts of low energy feeds such as cool mix/cubes are fed but conditioning feeds are a far better choice, supplying more appropriate calorie levels, vitamins, minerals and quality amino acids to help build lost muscle and general condition. Ideally feed a concentrate feed with a Digestible Energy (D.E.) of 12MJ/kg or more but don’t feed more than 2.5kg of concentrate feed in any one feed.

Some horses waste energy through over excitable or “hot” behaviour and are less able to maintain weight. This can be natural i.e. a genetic tendency or highly-strung types or it may be the environment including feed.

Excitable horses should be turned out as much as possible and fed a high calorie but low starch, high fibre/oil concentrate feed such as GAIN Freedom Cubes or mix containing 12.5MJ/kg to help maintain a calm temperament.  Some conditioning feeds are high in starch (as much as 26%) and this can make horses overly temperamental without owners realising it so choose a high calorie feed containing a maximum of 10-15% starch.

Stabilised rice bran such as GAIN Infinity contains 19MJ/Kg of Digestible Energy and supplies only 8% starch, and this may be fed additionally to the diet to supply extra calories to help build condition without fizz.

Other high calorie fat sources, such as linseed or soya oil can be fed to increase the energy density of the diet, but extra vitamin E may be required if not feeding a nutritionally balanced formulated feed. Vegetable oils contain three times the energy of oats; one cup of oil has the same number of calories as around 0.7 kg of oats. Unmolassed beet pulp provides readily digestible fibre, soothing pectins and mucilages contributing to the energy supply and is an excellent mixing feed if extra supplements are being fed.

Feeding a yeast and/or prebiotic supplement will help ensure optimal fibre digestion in the hindgut, thereby increasing VFA’s for energy and helping to nutritionally stabilise the hindgut. The feed ranges from Gain contain added yeast to support digestive function.

If horses are poor feeders and in bad condition, feeding a B-complex vitamin supplement may help horses with reduced appetites. B vitamins are essential for efficient energy metabolism and are often low following illness, stress, injury and antibiotic treatment.

Zoe Davies MSc.Eq.S.,R.Nutr.