Maintaining Ideal Body Condition in Athletic Horses

Life Stage : Mature - Performance

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Purina Animal Nutrition

The outside appearance of a horse can be an indicator of overall health and wellbeing on the inside. A shiny hair coat, strong muscle tone, good quality hooves and ideal body condition reflect a strong, healthy horse that should be ready to work.

Health and nutrition both come into play in supporting a horse to consistently perform at his best. This becomes especially evident in events that require repeated runs in a single day or working hard several days in a row. 

Top performance cannot be sustained by horses in less than top condition. A really good horse will compensate and manage for a while but at some point, he may become irritable when being saddled, begin acting nervous or anxious when ridden and eventually may stop performing well at competitions. The most noticeable visual sign of a horse in less than ideal body condition is when ribs begin to show. If the problem continues beyond what body fat stores can cover, muscle tissue will be broken down to generate the calories needed to work. This loss of muscle tissue usually first occurs over the back and loin, or topline, and will eventually affect the neck and larger muscle mass of the hindquarters and shoulders. Sometimes what is mistaken for muscle creases or definition is really lack of fat cover and muscle mass beginning to diminish. When horses are in thin condition, where ribs can be easily seen, their back isn’t likely to be at optimal strength. 

These issues may well be helped by improving the diet but sometimes there are other issues at play that nutrition alone may not be able to overcome. There are times when a horse is being fed a high-quality feed in what should be an adequate amount along with good quality hay and they still just don’t look or feel right.  Maybe their hair is dull, hooves aren’t growing well or they’ve lost weight despite being well fed. Then, sometimes horses on a good diet just quit eating well. When they won’t eat, it becomes quite a challenge to maintain or improve condition.

The first step in determining why your horse is not eating well, is losing weight or failing to thrive would be to examine his nutritional program since this is the easiest thing to fix. Here are some basic questions to ask:

1. Is my horse properly taking in, chewing and swallowing both forage and feed? 

By observing your horse while eating hay, grass and feed, you may find that while he is taking in food he may not be actually chewing and/or swallowing it – this is especially common in older horses with poor dentition that may be quidding forages or dropping feed. The horse appears to be eating well, but the forage or feed is actually balling up in the cheeks and then being dropped on the ground. Any indication of dental problems should be evaluated by your veterinarian.

Is the forage high quality and available in sufficient quantities? 

It is not uncommon to find hay and pasture that appears to be of good quality but is actually poorly digestible or low in certain nutrients. By having your hay and pasture grass tested you can assess the nutrient content and digestibility of your forage source.  Horses themselves can often tell you about your hay quality though.  When the quality and digestibility of hay goes down, the amount a horse eats will also go down. If your horses are not eating all their hay, you are either feeding too much or the hay isn’t great quality.  Additionally, most people feed hay by the flake and do not weigh it. There is a lot of variability in the weight of a flake of hay that can be dependent on hay type and the way it was baled. Weighing hay is a good way of determining that you are feeding enough. While it is not possible to weigh the grass your horse is taking in while grazing, careful inspection of pastures to ensure that there is an adequate quantity of edible grass present is a good idea.

Am I feeding the right type of concentrate for my horses’ lifestyle? 

Horses in different stages of life and with different levels of activity will have different nutrient and caloric requirements. Choosing a high-quality feed that fits your horses’ age and activity level will help ensure that those requirements are being met.

Am I feeding my horse enough of the right type of feed? 

Since most people feed by the “scoop” rather than by weight, if is often easy to overestimate the amount of feed you are providing. Weighing your feed with a scale will help. Additionally, be sure to consult the feeding directions on the feed bag or tag. Most feeds are formulated to be fed at a very minimum rate of 3 to 4 lb./day to an adult 1100 lb. horse in light work in order to provide the basic nutrients and calories a horse of that description requires. If you are feeding less than that amount, you won’t meet all the protein, vitamin and minerals needs of the horse even if they were maintaining adequate body condition. In those cases, a more concentrated ration balancer feed is the best choice. However, if they’re a little thin you may just need to increase the volume fed. Sometimes you are feeding the right feed and just need to adjust the amount to support the level of work or to compensate for lesser-quality hay. 

If the nutritional program is adequate but your horse just doesn’t look good, the next step is determining if your parasite control program is effective. New discoveries of parasite resistance and the high prevalence of parasites not routinely detected in fecal examinations (tapeworms, encysted small strongyles) have now made it important to consult with your veterinarian to determine if the measures you are taking to control parasites in your horse are appropriate and effective.

Once you have ruled out nutritional deficiencies and parasite issues, it is time to begin exploring the possibility that a medical issue may be the source of your horses’ poor body condition or performance. One of the most common manifestations of health problems in horses is poor feed consumption and weight loss. Trying to discover the ultimate cause for this can be a long and costly endeavor for horse owners, and very frustrating for veterinarians.

Common Medical Causes of Poor Intake and Weight Loss

The following outline covers some of the more common medical causes of poor intake and weight loss. This outline is by no means all-encompassing, and you should always consult with your own personal veterinarian for help diagnosing, but it at least can offer a place to start.

1. Medication:
Many medications, particularly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and antibiotics can induce adverse effects on the gastrointestinal tract and other organ systems.

NSAID’s – drugs in this category include: bute (phenylbutazone), flunixin megulmine (Banamine), ketoprofen (Ketofen), naproxen (Equiproxen), firocoxib (Equioxx). These drugs are often used in combination, particularly in athletic horses, for musculoskeletal inflammation and pain. Problems encountered when using these drugs include: overdosing, chronic usage, multi-drug interactions, and hypersensitivity in certain horses (especially to bute).  These drugs can produce oral, esophageal, gastric and colonic ulcers. They can also produce kidney damage and liver toxicity – all of which can manifest in poor appetite and weight loss.

Clinical signs associated with adverse effects to these drugs include: weight loss, diarrhea, inappetance, colic, poor hair coat/hoof quality, anemia, low protein (hypoproteinemia).

​​Antibiotic therapy – antibiotics are used to treat a wide range of bacterial infections. Commonly used antibiotics in adult horses include:  penicillin, trimethoprim/sulfa, metronidazole, ceftiofur (Naxcel, Excede), enrofloxacin (Baytril), gentamicin.

Adverse effects can include allergic reactions, diarrhea, renal damage and liver toxicity – all of these reactions can result in poor appetite and weight loss.

Certain antibiotics, including trimethoprim/sulfa and penicillin, have been more commonly associated with diarrhea in horses. However, it should be noted that any antibiotic has the potential to induce an adverse effect. 

2.  Medical Conditions

There are numerous medical conditions that can result in poor feed intake and utilization. Below are some of the more commonly seen conditions.

Oral/dental conditions – oral ulcers, oral defects (parrot mouth, missing incisors), jaw injuries, wave mouth, dental hooks and points, retained caps and missing molars can all affect chewing and grinding which is essential to proper feed utilization in the gut. Additionally, injuries or neurological conditions can affect the lips, tongue and cheeks making it difficult for the horse to pick up feed and chew adequately.

Esophageal abnormalities – tumors, ulcers, erosions, strictures (particularly those associated with prior episodes of choke) and neurological abnormalities affecting swallowing and peristalsis (passage of feed down the esophagus and into the stomach) can all affect feed consumption.

Gastric issues – ulcers, cancer, and delayed gastric emptying can greatly affect appetite and intake amounts leading to weight loss.

Small intestinal abnormalities – can lead to maldigestion and malabsorption of nutrients preventing the horse from effectively utilizing what he is eating. These conditions may be infectious or inflammatory in origin, or due to cancers such as lymphoma. Many of these conditions are chronic.

Colitis – this is a very broad term for inflammation of the large intestine. Colitis can be caused by many different things, and usually results in at least some degree of diarrhea and protein loss into the gut. This category can be broken down into different classes of causes:  infectious – Salmonella, Clostridium sp., Lawsonia intracellularis, Neorickettsia risticii (Potomac Horse Fever); parasitic – Strongylosis, bots, cyathostomiasis (encysted small strongyles); toxic- NSAID’s, antibiotics, cantharidin (blister beetle) toxicosis, arsenic poisoning; miscellaneous – carbohydrate overload, sand enteropathy.

Colic – horses who have undergone severe episodes of colic and/or colic surgery commonly experience restricted access to feed, inappetance (sometimes prolonged), poor gut motility, poor absorption, and fragile bowel tissues all while faced with an increased energy demand due to the healing process. Lack of intake in the presence of increased energy demand can result in very rapid and often profound weight loss.

Age – aging horses can experience many problems that can result in poor intake and weight loss including (but not limited to): Cushing’s syndrome (PPID), diarrhea due to poor water absorption in the large colon, dental issues such as tooth loss and wave mouth, decreased saliva production leading to difficulty swallowing and poor digestion of feed, pain associated with arthritis, chronic diseases of the kidneys and liver, and loss of nutrient absorptive capacity in the small and large intestine.

Respiratory diseases – long-term respiratory diseases such as pleuropneumonia and recurrent airway obstruction (RAO, heaves) greatly increase a horse’s calorie needs (due to increased work of breathing and high inflammatory states) while at the same time often suppressing appetite. Additionally with RAO, dietary restrictions with regard to hay and dusty grains may be in place, and many of these horses must be kept outdoors where they may be exposed to inclement weather (further increasing caloric demand). The end result may be significant loss of body condition.

Chronic diseases – virtually every chronic disease will result in poor feed efficiency and some loss of body condition. Specifically, melanoma, lymphoma, liver and kidney disease can affect horses of all ages but are most prevalent in senior horses, and can lead to ill thrift, poor body condition and hair coat.

Chronic pain – the negative effect that pain can have on the appetite and calorie needs of horses cannot be underestimated. Laminitis, osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease, fractures, tendon and ligament injuries or degeneration and Navicular syndrome are just a few examples of musculoskeletal disorders that can result in sustained pain in horses and lead to dramatic weight loss. There are also other common causes of chronic discomfort and pain including improperly adjusted bits and curb chains, saddles that don’t fit properly or are improperly padded and hoof and leg soreness from poor farrier work. Pain can also contribute to anxious or high-strung behavior issues in many horses or the total opposite in other horses, becoming lethargic and dull. Horses that hurt are often harder keepers than sound, comfortable horses doing the same level and type of work. Regardless of the source of the pain, the detrimental impact on the horses’ appetite and body condition will be significant. 

One important consideration is that horses in less than ideal condition may not feel very good and may have been pretty quiet to ride. A horse that has been sick, hurt or too thin is often a bit lethargic, especially if they’ve been on a low plane of nutrition. When they get healthy, stop hurting and are fed properly, they may start feeling much better and you may initially feel like there is more energy there than you want. It’s important to realize that a horse that feels manageable won’t perform to their best ability and is more likely to hurt themselves trying to do the job because they don’t feel good. Most often, a horse that begins to feel better will level out within 30 to 45 days; they’ll still feel good but if they’re sound and healthy, the nervous energy should subside.

Weight gain and bloom are achieved not only through calories but also from providing a diet complete with essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. All these nutrients play a role in hair coat, muscle tone, hoof quality, immune function and over-all appearance and health. Calories replace body fat but regenerating lost muscle and improving hair coat and hoof quality requires complete and balanced nutrition. Purina® premium horse feeds formulated to support the calorie and nutritional demands of performance, include Strategy® Professional Formula GX, Omolene #200®, Omolene #400®Omolene #500®, and Ultium® Competition formula horse feeds. Whether you prefer sweet feeds or pelleted rations, these products are designed to provide the calorie and nutrient level needed to support weight gain and bloom. For horses with slightly lower work levels that don’t need to gain a great deal of body fat but do need improved topline and bloom, Strategy Healthy Edge® feed is a great option.Purina® Amplify® horse supplement, is a nutritionally balanced, high-fat supplement that provides very efficient calories for weight gain and bloom when a supplement is needed. Amplify® supplement supplies a blend of vegetable oils, flax seed and rice bran to provide an exceptional fatty acid profile in addition to quality protein and a balance of vitamins and minerals. 

You can certainly feed oats or lower quality feed along with good quality hay to accomplish weight gain, provided you have enough time and feed enough quantity. However, the end result can be a soft, fat horse that doesn’t have the muscle tone and “gleam from within” that can be achieved with a more complete balance of nutrition. Remember, this isn’t just about appearance on the outside but more about what is going on inside the horse that is reflected by keeping him in ideal condition.

Every horse is unique and so is their nutrition. Finding the right horse feeding program is paramount to helping your horse perform and feel the best. Find the right feed for your horse with our Feed Finder Tool.