Weight loss

Horses usually maintain a good body condition if offered a good quality diet of hay and pasture. Young horses or horses in hard work may require additional concentrates to meet their nutritional needs and old horses often require a ‘senior’ feed because wear and tear on their teeth no longer allow them to graze sufficiently. If you notice your horse has lost weight it is important to assess your horse’s health and management.

Horses can suddenly lose weight due to an underlying health problem. The following can help to determine the cause of the weight loss and minimise potential problems:

  • Offer adequate pasture, ad lib hay, chaff or concentrates as necessary.
  • Minimise your horse’s exposure to sudden environmental changes, and slowly acclimatise your horse to other changes, such as changes in feed and companions.
  • If concentrates are needed to maintain your horse’s body condition, you can avoid problems such as gastric ulcers and colic by feeding small, frequent meals rather than one or two large meals a day.

If your horse suddenly loses weight and/or your horse’s body condition worsens, contact your vet.

Make sure your horse is being offered enough food daily; this will depend on many factors, including his age, height, workload, etc.
If you need to change feed, do it gradually over a minimum of 7 days to ensure your horse adjusts and does not develop a problem, such as colic, and make sure you are feeding good quality hay and feed.
When feeding concentrates, it is best to feed small amounts frequently rather than one or two large meals a day; this can avoid changing the stomach pH too much, which can lead to stomach ulcers.
You should also introduce your horse slowly to new situations or new herd members in the field. Moving yards for example can be very stressful which in itself can cause weight loss. It is also very important to monitor herds closely to ensure your horse is not being bullied or prevented from eating.

If your horse suddenly loses weight, even when on a good diet and appropriate management regime, you should make an appointment for your vet to perform a thorough physical examination on your horse. If your horse is left to become too thin and loses too much muscle mass, it may become unable to stand and will lie down which can lead to irreversible damage to the internal organs, such as heart, kidneys or liver failure.
Your vet may decide that additional diagnostic tests, such as blood tests, are needed to evaluate your horse’s kidney and liver function.
Other conditions such as dental problems, or diseases such as stomach ulcers, pneumonia or tumours, can also cause weight loss. All of which will need to be ruled out by your vet.

Providing adequate pasture, ad lib high quality hay, chaff and/or concentrates is imperative.
Developing and implementing a thorough worming programme with your vet, along with regular worm counts (faecal egg counts) to ensure worming efficacy, are vital to maintaining your horse’s health. Removal of manure (at least once a week) from your horse’s paddock can help minimise the number of parasites on grazing land.
If your vet performs regular physical examinations on your horse they will be able to help detect problems early on, when they are usually more treatable. Ask your vet for help; they are used to working with all sorts of horses and management systems, so will be able to advise you of the best plan of action for your horse.