Q: I'm unhappy with my 14-year-old Thoroughbred gelding's weight. Shuster is 16.3 hands (170 cm) and ribby. In the year that I've owned him, he's gained a lot of weight, but he's still not close to where I need him to be, even though he's consuming this daily: 8 lb (3.6 kg) grass hay, 3 lb (1.4 kg) alfalfa-timothy hay pellets, 5 lb (2.3 kg) all-purpose commercial grain, 4 lb (1.8 kg) ration balancer, 1.5 lb (0.7 kg) rice bran, 1 cup safflower oil, 1 cup aloe juice, 6 oz flax, and multiple supplements (electrolytes, amino acids, psyllium, and probiotics). No grass is available to graze where I live, so he is turned out daily but meal-fed. I ride him four or five days a week, low- to –medium intensity work (low-level dressage). I'm just not sure why he hasn't gained weight more quickly, and I feel like we are missing something crucial in his diet. I don't like all the extra grain and would prefer to keep his diet mostly hay with supplemental pellets, oil, topline builder, and a multivitamin. My thoughts include gastric ulcers, hindgut disturbances, and PSSM. Should I involve a vet? Any ideas?
A: If you haven't already done so, I suggest you work with your vet to rule out conditions that can cause weight loss, including dental problems and parasite loads. For example, you may find that the recent environment changes exposed Shuster to parasites he was not otherwise in contact with, which could warrant a modification to your deworming protocol.
Based on the information you provided, I have several recommendations to ensure Shuster is getting the proper nutrients for optimal health, performance, and weight gain. Right now, it is best to feed him based on his current condition. You may find that you can resume the diet you prefer once weight gain is achieved.
The current diet doesn't appear to be providing enough calories for weight gain. This may be directly related to the lack of pasture. If Shuster is out with other horses and only offered hay twice a day, he may not be consuming enough hay to meet his forage requirements. Maximizing forage intake for weight gain with free-choice, high-quality hay is ideal. The addition of alfalfa-timothy hay pellets, as you have done, is a good idea to contribute more forage to the diet. I suggest feeding those at a separate time and not adding it to his concentrate meals since the goal is to maximize the calories and nutrients in each meal.
Because Shuster is already consuming a significant amount of fat, and his current diet is not improving body condition, it may be best to take a different approach. The most efficient way to increase caloric intake and deliver nutrients is by feeding proper levels of a high-calorie concentrate. Supplying the recommended amount of feed should provide better results in body condition and it will simplify the diet significantly.
Although balancer pellets are great for nutrient delivery when faced with easy keepers, a balancer isn't needed in Shuster's current diet. I recommend transitioning him to a calorie-rich performance feed. Many performance feeds are high in fat, which would allow you to discontinue one or both of the additional fat sources in his diet (safflower oil and rice bran). I suggest removing safflower oil due to it poor omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Safflower oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory in the body, versus the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s. Ideally, the omega-3s should outweigh the omega-6s in the diet. To add omega-3s back into the diet, I recommend supplementing with a marine-derived source, such as EO-3.
While very uncommon in Thoroughbreds, if you suspect your horse could have PSSM, I would seek out a high-quality low-starch feed that supplies energy from fat and fiber to improve body condition while reducing the risk of hindgut acidosis and excitable behavior that can be related to high-NSC feeds. It also contains necessary levels of protein that will exceed his requirement, thus removing the need for the amino acid supplement.
In order to see the benefits from this feed, it must be fed according to the manufacturer's directions. Feeding at least the minimum recommended by the manufacturer ensures the horse consumes the daily recommended requirement of many important nutrients, including several vitamins and minerals. The minimum feeding rate of most feeds for a horse his size would be 5 lb (2.3 kg) per day, not considered a lot of feed for horses with high energy requirements. I suggest gradually introducing a feed and splitting it into three meals throughout the day so as not to overwhelm the digestive tract with two large meals.
To soothe any gastrointestinal distress, either in the foregut or hindgut, I would recommend RiteTrac, a total digestive tract buffer that works to quickly neutralize excessive gastric acid, protect the stomach lining, and restore the normal gastric environment. RiteTrac also contains a unique hindgut buffer (EquiShure) that balances the pH and provides an optimal environment for fiber fermentation. EquiShure is a one-of-a-kind ingredient consisting of fat-encapsulated sodium bicarbonate designed to withstand foregut digestion and reach the hindgut to actively change the pH. An overly acidic hindgut environment disrupts normal fiber digestion and microbial populations. EquiShure balances the environment to maintaining proper pH for optimal digestion. Horse owners in Australia should check out these products.
I also suggest adding natural-source vitamin E to his diet because he doesn't have access to fresh grass and because he is struggling with muscle health and development. As an antioxidant, vitamin E supports muscle function and immune health. Kentucky Equine Research designed a nanodispersed, water-soluble natural-source vitamin E proven to be highly absorbable and effective at raising vitamin E blood serum levels. Nano-E is commonly recommended for PSSM horses and any case involving muscle development problems. I suggest dosing 5,000 IU (20 ml) in combination with the other diet recommendations.
Lastly, depending upon his workload, he may require additional electrolyte supplementation. Kentucky Equine Research offers a slow-release electrolyte, Restore SR, which provides a time-released source of sodium that allows sustained absorption for maximum replenishment. Classic electrolyte therapy spikes blood electrolyte levels, stimulating increased excretion. This means that the horse excretes most of the electrolytes prior to absorption in the large intestine. Kentucky Equine Research found a way to provide a slow-release electrolyte for sustained maximum absorption in the hindgut. Australian horse owners should look for Restore and Restore Paste.
Not all horses follow the same path to increased body condition. Hard keepers generally take longer to reach goal weights than easy keepers, and horses of certain breeds, like Thoroughbreds, sometimes take longer, too. In addition to diet and metabolic rate, other factors in weight gain include temperament and work intensity. Once weight gain is achieved, many horses can maintain optimal body weight on diets composed primarily of plentiful forage and balancer pellets; others, however, will always require the calories afforded by concentrated energy sources in addition to forage to retain ideal weight.
Article reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit equinews.com for the latest in equine nutrition and management, and subscribe to The Weekly Feed to receive these articles directly (equinews.com/newsletters).
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