Feeding the Hard Keeper
As the grass dies off in the late fall, it can become more challenging to maintain weight on the hard keeper. Colder nights and days require more calories to maintain weight.
My go-to foods
To help put weight on a hard keeper horse, my go-to food is stabilized rice bran. Stabilized rice bran is the outer brown layer of the rice kernel. It provides an excellent fat source for horses, consisting of 20-25% fat, and is as readily digestible as corn oil. Typically, stabilized rice bran is 15% protein, but it is also high in NSC (non-structural carbohydrates) at 26%, so not a good choice for metabolic horses such as those with Cushing’s Disease. Stabilized rice bran is high in phosphorus, so it is important that it be combined with a high-calcium food like alfalfa. Timothy can also be a good source of calcium although without the levels that alfalfa has. As a matter of course, having your hay analyzed is important, so that you know how much protein, NSC, fiber, vitamin E, and macro- and micro-minerals your hay contains.
Rice bran is commonly sourced from genetically modified rice, not non-GMO, so it’s important to check with the company beforehand to know which it is. New Country Organics does have organic rice bran, which I have used for several years and the horses love. The other product I really recommend is Renew Gold, because the rice bran is non-GMO and grown in California, which has one of the lowest arsenic levels in the US. Arsenic has two chemical forms: inorganic and organic. Organic arsenic is less toxic than inorganic arsenic, the latter of which has become a world-wide problem. Surprisingly, China exports rice with some of the world’s lowest inorganic arsenic levels. In the US, the highest amounts are found in rice from Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Renew Gold combines rice bran with coconut meal, giving it a 10% fat and 15% protein content; I have found this product to be excellent for weight gain and for maintaining a healthy weight in horses that are not metabolic.
For Cushing’s horses having trouble gaining or maintaining weight, I use Cool Stance (coconut meal only) rather than rice bran for fat and protein, in combination with alfalfa or timothy cubes or pellets. Coconut meal is low in NSC, but provides the necessary protein and fat for weight maintenance and weight gain.
Healthy oils are another of my go-to foods—unrefined, cold pressed and non-solvent-extracted oils such as hempseed oil, camelina oil, and coconut oil. Flax seed oil is also a good choice but it can go rancid easily. I am not a fan of soy or rice bran oil because these oils are typically solvent-extracted. Healthy oils are beneficial for Cushing’s horses as well.
Live, active yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces boulardii) supports digestion of fiber in the hindgut. Studies on thoroughbreds showed a weight gain in 30 days on live, active yeast. Commonly it is labeled as “yeast culture” or “yeast fermentation product”. Twenty years ago, non-live, inactive yeasts were introduced into commercial horse feed for increased palatability. Today, these kinds of yeast are often still added to feeds. It isn’t that these forms of yeast are not beneficial, but they can’t colonize the hindgut. Live, active yeast is a probiotic and is measured in “colony-forming units” (CFUs) just like yogurt and kefir. The minimum CFU value required to colonize the GI tract is 100 billion, and a very thin horse may need 200-400 billion CFUs per day until a healthy weight is achieved.
Particularly with older hard keeper horses who may be struggling to maintain weight, especially in winter, feeding live, active yeast helps stimulate digestion and supports the warming action of circulation.
For horses that are thoroughbred or have a lot of thoroughbred blood, I make sure they have whole oats. The metabolisms of these horses really can utilize oats very well, and oats provide fat, fiber, protein and the non-structural carbohydrates, which these horses in general can utilize without causing metabolic problems. However, if your thoroughbred has Cushing’s, don’t feed oats.
The beet pulp conundrum
For many years beet pulp was recommended to help horses gain and maintain weight. It’s still a beneficial food to give if your horse doesn’t have access to hay 20 hours a day. Beet pulp is a great source of easily digested fiber, but is very low in fat and protein. It is safe for metabolic horses.
The source of beet pulp must be considered, as most beet pulp in the US is genetically modified. When Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready sugar beets (a GMO) , they made it possible for more of the herbicide glyphosate to be spread. Whether there is residue left on beet pulp after processing, we just don’t know. You can avoid the genetically modified sugar beet by using Speedi-Beet, which also provides a higher amount of protein than conventional beet pulp. (I checked the website of British Horse Feeds, the makers of Speedi-Beet; there’s no specific mention of it being glyphosate-free, but being non-GMO is a good sign.)
Again, however, I don’t recommend beet pulp unless the horse does not have access to hay throughout the day and night.
This is a wonderful chopped and fermented alfalfa with yeast. It is non-GMO. It has more protein than beet pulp (11% versus conventional beet pulp’s 8%). Chaffhaye contains 1.80% fat, while beet pulp provides less than 1% fat. The NSC of Chaffhaye ranges from 3.5% to 4.2%, so it’s very safe for metabolic horses.
I feed Chaffhaye in the winter to all my retired horses to supplement their hay and provide an easily digestible food. The yeast in Chaffhaye makes this food warming to the body system, and supports good digestion of fiber in the hindgut. It really helps maintain a healthy weight, particularly with the hard keeper.
In Ayurvedic medicine, this is a warming food that promotes digestion. Although it is commonly recommended for joint care and inflammation, as well as for its potent antioxidant activity, turmeric is also nourishing and supportive of the circulatory system. There is a terrific product called Turmericle from Stance Equine that provides turmeric with powered coconut oil and black pepper. One of the benefits of this particular turmeric supplement is the added powdered coconut, which provides more fat. My horses love it, and it helps keep especially the older horses warm during the winter while also helping to support a good winter weight.
Stress and the hard keeper
With some hard keeper types, no matter how much food you throw at them, no matter how much hay they’re offered, they’re still not able to gain significant weight. Sometimes this is due to ulcers, either gastric or hindgut, so that is a health condition that must be treated.
There are also the horses that start losing weight when they never had a weight issue before; after ruling out ulcers with these horses, look to the stress component.
The adrenal gland controls cortisol. The biochemistry of stress causes a higher production of cortisol from the adrenal gland, which then sets off a cascade of reactions from other body systems: brain, GI tract, liver, and circulatory system.
Holy basil and ashwaganda are my go-to’s for reducing cortisol and thus the effects of stress on the body systems. When cortisol is managed, healthy weight can be achieved. Many horses are internalizers, and don’t give clear indications of their stress. It is not unusual for owners to comment that they don’t see outward signs of stress in their horse, but curiously, if you supplement with cortisol-reducing herbs, owners start seeing an improvement in body condition and attitude.
The importance of a CBC
If your horse starts to lose weight, it is important to have your vet draw a CBC (complete blood count) so that certain health conditions can be eliminated or identified. I think it’s good equine management practice to draw blood twice per year, spring and fall, to make sure everything is in the normal range.
Managing ulcers, managing stress, feeding the right foods (with more healthy calories) and managing medications for Cushings’ horses are some of the basic keys to feeding the hard keeper.
Photo credit: Dawid Kasza/thinkstockphotos.com