Hard Keepers, Why?

Posted on May 30, 2016

By Win Wolcott, Willows, California

For horse owners, the term "hard keeper" signifies an animal which has difficulty maintaining its weight and/or condition. A much more common condition than many people realize, hard keepers are the result of one or more factors. In a nutritionist's day to day work of designing feed programs, helping horse owners with hard-keeper problems frequently occurs. Often the condition can be traced directly to a management problem.


Experience shows that over half of the horses labeled as hard keepers have a severe parasite problem. A regular deworming program is the basis for a good start toward a horse with the ability to carry the proper weight and bloom. Parasites, however, are not the only problem associated with hard keepers.


For a horse to properly digest feed, it must first be capable of adequately chewing it. Chewing breaks down the outer layer of roughage and grain. This action is critical to increase the surface area of diet components. Digestive enzymes can work more efficiently on well-masticated feedstuffs. A horse's ability to masticate (chew) is dependent upon the condition of its teeth and proper conformation of the mouth.

As a horse chews, its molars grind against each other. Since the upper teeth are set slightly wider than the lower teeth, a wear pat-tern develops. This action can cause the teeth to form sharp edges. These sharp edges can cause damage to the soft cheek tissue and tongue. This condition can become painful enough to affect the horse's desire to eat. Once again, management is the key to prevention.

A horse's teeth should be checked at least once yearly. To do this, slide your thumb into the corner of the horse's mouth, back to the molars. If teeth have developed sharp edges, they will be very evident. A veterinarian, with the use of a specialized tool which looks like a flat file on a long handle, can remove the sharp edges. "Floating" is the term used to refer to this simple treatment. Many hard keepers have never had their teeth examined for this common problem.

A horse may have mouth conformation problems that affect its ability to eat. One of the most common faulty conformation conditions is parrot mouth. This condition is characterized by the horse's upper incisors protruding beyond the lower incisors, often to the point of interfering with its ability to graze or pick up concentrates from a feeder. The opposite condition, the lower incisors protruding, is called sow mouth different condition, yet similar result. These conformation problems can be managed predominately by providing feed products that are easy for the horse to pick up with the teeth and tongue. Horses with parrot or sow mouth should not be used for breeding purposes as these conformation defects can be passed to the offspring.

Less common than the previously mentioned factors is the horse that simply is physically incapable of metabolizing enough of the nutrients it consumes. This can be traced to genetics and/or a number of physical problems, most of which have few effective solutions without veterinary intervention. In the case of the horse that exhibits a metabolic inefficiency, one course of action is to increase the energy density of the feed program. This can be done by providing a diet containing a higher level of fat and paying particular attention to vitamin and mineral levels.

Some horse owners have been known to feed horses a concoction of numerous supplement products in an attempt to cure a hard keeper's problem. A concoction of this nature may act in the horses system exactly the opposite way it was intended, as products not formulated to be used together may interfere with one another within the horse's system. This incompatibility may be inefficient, costly and could easily do more harm than good.


Now, let's look at solutions and a prevention program. Start with updating the horse's deworming and inoculation schedule along with checking the teeth. Doing this establishes a good base from which to start a feeding program designed to bring the horse up to the proper weight for its frame size.

Bringing a hard keeper up to the proper weight and maintaining weight and level of fitness requires an appropriate feeding program. Start with a program which provides the proper level of digestible energy for weight gain. After the horse reaches the appropriate weight, adjust the feed program to maintain its weight while considering the energy requirements needed based on activity level.

For weight gain in a mature, healthy horse, digestible energy levels can be raised 10% to 15% by the use of a high-fat supplement in the concentrate portion of the horse's diet. If the animal has a tendency to be nervous/anxious, try reducing the grain level in the diet. For many horses, a reduction of the carbohydrate (grain) load, if the individual is intolerant to high grain levels, has a calming effect that allows more available energy for maintenance of body condition. Since calm horses appear to use energy more efficiently, more energy may be available for maintenance of body condition.

Because fat produces 2.25 times the energy of carbohydrates or protein, an increased level of digestible fat in the diet can be very effective in replacing the energy lost when reducing the amount of grain ration fed. A stabilized form of rice bran has proven very effective in providing additional dietary fat. Stabilized rice bran contains a high level of vegetable fat and significant levels of vitamin E without any chemical preservatives.

Once a horse has reached its proper weight, it can usually be maintained with a ration formulated using the National Research Council's (NRC) recommendations for digestible energy levels. The NRC values are based on the maturity, weight and work load of the horse and provide a good guide to nutritional needs over a fairly wide variety of conditions. A simple, straight-forward pro-gram including high-quality roughage, fresh clean water, a high-quality vitamin/mineral package and a good fat source in the concentrate portion of the ration should meet NRC recommendations without the confusion of mixing a cabinet full of potentially incompatible supplements.

It is not unusual for horse owners, who have wrestled with the problem of hard keepers for many years, to solve the problem by using the simple management practices discussed here. In most situations, given the opportunity, a hard-keeping horse will readily respond to needed changes in management and diet.