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Q. I'm worried about my horse who's lost weight. I noticed the weight change after he'd been in his stall for two days. I don't let him out when there's a bad wind or rain because his left back leg gets stiff in a cold rain. The two days that he was in, most of the other horses were in with him, so he didn't much care he was in. On the second day he was in, I let him have a good gallop in the arena. The third day, I let him out in the afternoon after I rode, and as soon as I got him in the field, he wanted back in. I left him out because I don't like leaving him in his stall. There was just a wind; it had stopped raining. Could he have been too cold in the wind? He has a good winter coat. I have a turnout blanket for him, but I can't put it on him because there's a horse in the field that rips it off. Plus, I'm scared he'll hurt himself on it. I've tried to turn him out in a paddock with another horse, but he got upset and had to be put back in the field. I live in southern Ontario where the temperature has been around 0ºC to -10ºC, except for the storm when it went down to -23ºC.

He's half Appaloosa/half Thoroughbred, but his attitude's full Thoroughbred. He'll be nine in March and in pretty good health. When I got him nine months ago, he was really skinny. The vet didn't look at him before I bought him, but he did when he came out for another horse and said he was fine. He gave me a wormer to give him. I forget what it's called, but you're only supposed to give it to the horse every other year. I give him a regular de-wormer about every two months, and the rest of the horses get it, too. My friend's friend who does hoofs and teeth filed my horse's teeth because they were causing him a problem, and he showed me how to check his teeth to see if they need to be done. I haven't looked at his teeth for a while; I guess I should. His teeth should be floated once a year at the most, right? He used to have a problem chewing wood in his stall (he was ripping big chunks of wood off his stall), but he stopped when I put toys and extra hay in his stall. He's not cribbing, thank goodness, but I think he gets bored easily. Now he's ripped a ball right off the wall where I hung it.

He has almost free choice hay, plus I'm giving him about six measuring cups of sweet feed (he gets hyper if I have him on a lot of sweet feed), four cups of roughage chunks, carrots (about four pounds a day), and apples. I used to have him on alfalfa, but I think he's allergic to it. I don't know what's causing the weight loss. He's not too thin, but I don't want him to lose any more. Any suggestions?

A. A few thoughts on your horse's weight loss ...

I assume the hay you are now feeding is a high quality grass hay. If that is the case, feeding free choice is a fine idea. There is no need for a horse to be fed alfalfa unless the horse is in heavy work, is being used heavily for breeding, is nursing, or is still growing. A mature horse in light to average work simply does not need the high protein values provided by alfalfa.

In the old days, we used to feed hard-keepers lots of corn to add calories to their diets, but corn had a tendency to make some horses "hot" and unruly. It was never an ideal solution. Today, equine nutritionists have turned to fats as a far more efficient and advantageous caloric alternative. Fats offer more than twice the calories per gram than do grains. A pint of corn oil added to the daily ration will significantly boost the caloric intake (3840 calories per pint) without adding bulk. By contrast, one pound of typical sweet feed will supply 1100-1600 calories and one pound of corn approximately 1600 calories.

Fats offer other benefits as well. Containing neither the fiber nor the carbohydrates of the grains, fats produce little internal heat during digestion and are not generally associated with the unruly behavior sometimes linked to feeding high carbohydrate grains like corn. There is some concern, however, that fats comprising more than fourteen percent of the ration may inhibit proper utilization of the fat-soluble vitamins. Both vegetable and animal fat products are available in either liquid or dried forms, although vegetable fats are generally more appetizing to the equine palate. There are several newer commercial grain mixes with higher fat levels now being marketed specifically for hard keepers and horses in heavy work.

If you decide to add fat to your horse's diet, be sure to incorporate it gradually. I start my horses with 1/8 cup of oil twice a day mixed with their grain. After a week, I will increase it to 1/4 cup twice a day. In another week, I will increase it to 1/2 cup twice a day, if necessary. You can give up to a total of 2 cups a day, but if you start a horse at that level, you'll be sure to give him a major case of diarrhea. His system needs time to adjust to the fat. You will also need to keep a very close eye on his weight if you start feeding fat. Horses can gain weight quickly on fat, and the risk of laminitis is high if weight is gained rapidly and in excess.

Before you make any major dietary changes, though, you might want to get the vet out to take a look at this horse. Rapid weight loss in any animal is cause for concern. He may have an undiagnosed physical problem that could be made worse by changing his diet. I know you've said you had the vet take a look at your horse, but I'm going to suggest he do so again (assuming he's an equine specialist) for the following reasons:
  • 1. Rapid weight gain and loss can be indicative of several physical problems. Of course, it's also very possible your horse's weight just fluctuates because of his nervous temperament, but a vet check would be a wise investment. Explain the weight changes to your vet and see if he recommends running any diagnostic blood tests.
  • 2. I would certainly have a vet check his teeth. If your horse has a history of chewing wood, he may also have a history of wearing his teeth down abnormally or unevenly. It's very possible he may present more significant dental problems than your friend's friend was able to correct with a little filing. Unless this friend is a certified equine dental technician, I'd recommend having the vet take a look. The frequency of teeth floating varies from horse to horse. Some horses may need to have their teeth floated every few months, while others may be able to go years between floats. It depends on a variety of factors including type of feed, alignment of the horse's jaws, missing or damaged teeth, etc. I'll also remind you to be extremely careful if you check his teeth yourself. Some horses develop "points" on his teeth which can be sharp enough to shred your fingers if you get them in the wrong spot. For more information on equine tooth care, please refer to my response at the URL below:

    Equine Teeth Floating

Seeing as your horse lost significant weight when he was in his stall for a couple of days, perhaps he was stressed out by the confinement. I know you mentioned he didn't seem bothered being stallbound as long as the other horses were in, but you also said he got upset when placed in a paddock instead of the full pasture. This seems to be a horse who demands his space. Was he eating well when confined to his stall? I have a mare who spent the first nine years of her life in a pasture before I bought and stabled her (letting her out during the day). I don't think I saw her stand still in her stall for more than ten seconds at a time the entire first year she lived here! She was a chronic stall-walker. If your horse is anxiously bored or upset in a stall, that may account for his rapid weight loss under those circumstances. Also, horses who tend to stiffen up under damp, cold conditions will tend to stiffen worse during stall confinement. It's possible your horse was feeling some significant discomfort in that hind leg during his stalled days, which may have helped diminish his appetite.

You mentioned routine deworming, but when is the last time you had a fecal exam run on this horse? The fact that you're deworming him regularly doesn't guarantee he doesn't have worms. A horse on parasite-infected pastures or in stalls which are not kept immaculately clean will likely reinfect himself immediately after a deworming. And not all deworming medicines are equally effective, either. To make sure your deworming program is keeping your horse's parasite load to a minimum, ask your vet for a fecal exam. Make sure you collect the fecal sample immediately before your horse is scheduled for his next deworming.

Most horses can easily handle cold, wet, or wind without a problem, but when these elements hit in combination, it can be more difficult for a horse to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Combine a Canadian winter with the fact that your horse carries a lot of Thoroughbred blood - a breed known for being sometimes difficult to keep weight on and for having a comparably fine coat and thin skin - and the fact that your horse is obviously not enjoying the insulating benefits of any extra fat, and you've got the picture of a horse who may indeed need some extra protection from the elements. You will probably find it easier to put weight on this horse if you keep him blanketed until the weather warms up. He may be using too many valuable calories just trying to keep himself warm right now. It sounds, though, like blanketing is only practical in your situation when you have him stalled, which you might want to consider doing on the colder days. One last thought ... there are also diseases which can compromise a horse's ability to maintain proper body temperature, but they normally affect older animals. It's a possibility worth discussing with your vet, though.

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