VETS’ DIARY: Keep a check on horse weight loss

This winter has been kind to horses so far, but there is likely to be a delay in grass growth in the spring due to the flooding and poaching of pasture, which will take a long time to recover.

Older horses are most prone to weight loss in the winter due to reliance on forage feeding, especially if they have any dental problems.

They may also be suffering from Cushing’s disease or malabsorption.

Horses will eat two to three per cent of their body weight as dry matter each day.

Good quality hay or haylage will provide this, and should meet the energy needs of a retired horse in good condition.

If weight loss is a concern, then supplementary feed will need to be given.

If the horse can’t eat long fibre, then shorter, chopped fibre will be needed.

The challenge is to increase feed intake in thin old horses without causing medical problems, for example laminitis or gastric ulceration, colic or diarrhoea.

Starch is the most available source of energy, but horses’ digestive systems do not tolerate starch very well so cereal-based mixes should never exceed 1kg to 2kg per 500kg in any horse, and if a horse is at risk of laminitis they should be avoided.

Instead, supplementary high fibre feeds should be used, for example non molassed sugar beet is high in energy, but low in starch.

If using complete pellet feeds then starch content needs to be low and fibre content high.

If additional energy is needed, vegetable oils are a safe way to increase calorie intake.

However, oil needs to be introduced gradually over two weeks – 1ml per kilogramme of body weight will provide a quarter of energy needs.

Protein requirements are important and need to be met, and it makes sense to add a high protein feed balancer.

Don’t worry too much about the high starch content in these as they are fed in small quantities.

It is important to provide vitamin supplements if these are not met by the diet, paying particular attention to vitamin C and vitamin E.

Any underlying issues, including dental issues, worming, lice treatment or Cushing’s treatment, will need to be addressed.