How To Feed A Hard Keeper On A Budget

We all want the best for our horses and would love to give them the best of everything all day everyday but this isn’t always possible and with many of us making sacrifices just to keep our horses, being able to feed a hard keeper properly is curial. There are plenty of options out there for both easy and hard keepers but there’s very little help or advice for people wanting to feed their hard keeper on a budget which is why I thought I’d write this article – to pass on some of the things I’ve learnt over the years.

What is a hard keeper?

A horse is described as a being a hard keeper (or poor doer in some countries) when they have a tendency to lose weight and do so easily and without you changing their diet. Both ponies and donkeys are rarely classed as hard keepers or poor doers some breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and American Saddlebreds, are more likely to be hard keepers. As horses get older (usually over 20/25) though they are more prone to being hard keepers due to the natural muscle wastage all horses get with age. As with people horses are all different and while some don’t have any trouble putting weight on and keeping it others can have a great deal of difficulty.

A quick checklist to feeding a hard keeper on a budget

  • Buy hay direct from a local farm if you can. This will greatly reduce the cost of it because you’re not buying from somebody who has to worry about distributing or storing the hay.
  • Divide your paddock up if you can. Even if you don’t have a large paddock you can still do this, it’ll mean that your horse will have access to better quality grass.
  • Put food lower down, anything forcing a horse to eat above chest height interferes with their normal digestion which means the food isn’t being digested properly and the horse therefore isn’t getting the nutrition it needs.
  • Mix your own food. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds and when I first started out along the horsey path we did it all the time. Mix things such as oats, barley, maize, chaff and sugar beet to get the right balance for your horse.

How should I be feeding my hard keeper?

If you have a hard keeper you may be surprised to find out just how much food they really need to help them gain and keep the weight. Yes you certainly can buy a whole range of off the shelves products to help your horse but if you’re on a tight budget that’s not always a possible option. So what can you give your horse that won’t hurt your pocket too much?

  • Hay – Along with their normal feeds hard keepers should have access to plenty of hay. Whether it’s good quality hay, hay replacer or alfalfa you’ll need to add at least 8 to 9 pounds of it to their normal diet. This will increase their intake of calories and help them to increase their weight. If you can try and purchase the hay directly from a local farm.
  • High-fat foods – While too much fat isn’t good, with the right balance it can greatly boost your horse’s ability to put the weight on and keep it on. Fat, on average, contains over 200% more calories than the same amount of protein and carbohydrates. Another benefit of a high-fat diet is that it reduces the amount of grain you need to feed your horse (which is high in sugar) and therefore lowering the risk of colic and laminitis. Foods high is fat are things like sugar beet.
  • Don’t over feed – That might sound like a silly thing to say but I’m talking more about not over feeding certain foods. For example, while grains and hay are great at helping your horse increase his weight it’s not a good idea to just increase the amount you feed them. Horses need a balanced diet and can only eat around 2.5% of their body weight a day so instead of just increasing the amount of hay you give why not use a high-fat food as well as the hay.
  • Introduce changes gradually – If you make sudden changes to your horse’s diet then it can be a shock to them and their digestive system. This can actually cause them to lose weight, not over the long term but you don’t really want your horse to lose any weight at all. Ten days to a fortnight is about the right time frame to change their diet.

How much should I feed my horse?

As a rule of thumb horses need around 2.5% of their body weight in feed each day. The ratio of concentrate (their normal feed) to forage (hay, grass etc) however can, and should be, altered depending on how much of a hard keeper they are. A good starting point though is 20% concentrate to 80% forage. Before you can work out how much to feed your horse though you’ll need to know what he weighs and the best way to find do this is to a weigh tape. Once you’ve got your horse’s weight the table below may help as a starting guide to knowing how much you should be feeding him.

Horse’s weight in Kg
(approximate hands)
Concentrate (Kg) Roughage (Kg) Total (Kg)
200 (8) 1 4 5
300 (11) 1.5 6 7.5
400 (14) 2 8 10
500 (15) 2.5 10 12.5
600 (16) 3 12 15
700 (17) 3.5 14 17.5
800 (18) 4 16 20

How do I use a weigh tape?

Weigh tapes are generally very cheap and one of the best ways of measuring your horse’s weight. To get your horse’s weight make sure he’s standing squarely and start by holding the ‘zero’ end of the tape in your hand. The rest of the tape should go over your horse’s back, using your other hand grab the other end of the tape from under his belly and make sure it’s wrapped around his girth where the roller would go. Check that the tape is snug but not too tight then what ever number the zero matches up to is your horse’s weight. It’s important though to measure him at the same time whenever you do though, it’ll give you the most reliable reading for his weight.

Weigh tapes are about 90% accurate, if you want a 100% accurate way of measuring your horse then you can take him to specialist equine weighbridge. This will give you his exact weight but you do need to be able to travel to the weighbridge so it’s not always a viable option.

Can I just feed my horse more sugar?

Horses do need a certain amount of sugar in their diet, although there’s no definitive answer to how much. You’ll find there’s plenty of natural sugar (known as non saturated carbohydrates) in foods such grass, cereals and most horse feeds. Topping his diet up with pure sugar though isn’t a good idea for lots of reasons. 1) Horse’s have a delicate digestive system when it comes to sugar and too much can led to a fermentation process which decreases the gut’s pH balance and can ultimately lead to colic or laminitis. 2) Too much sugar can alter your horse’s blood sugar levels which can effect his ability to deal with insulin 3) Obviously horses can’t clean their teeth so too much pure sugar can result in problems with their teeth.

How can you tell if a horse is just a hard keeper or underweight?

You might think that there’s no difference between the two and for a horse that is ‘just’ underweight that is certainly true. It, however, is no longer true when the horse is very underweight. There have been a number a of cases around the world where people accused of animal cruelty have claimed that the horse is just a hard keeper. There’s actually a very real difference between the two, the distribution of weight around areas like the neck and hindquarters is totally different in horses that are very underweight. Horses that are hard keepers, although on the leaner side, have an even muscle distribution. Back in the early 1980’s Dr. Henneke, from Texas A&M University devised the Henneke horse body condition scoring system to standardised how this was measured.

I hope you found this article helpful, if you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.