EQUINE - Feeding the Poor Doer

16 Jan 2017

The poor doer is the subject of many a query for the equine nutritionist; keeping condition on some horses can feel like an uphill battle.

Forage First

The nutritional quality of the forage portion of your horses’ diet (grass, hay and haylage) can vary quite dramatically and, as it forms a large portion of your horse’s diet (70-100%), the quality of it can have a huge impact on your feeding regime. In the majority of cases changing the forage source to one with a higher nutritional quality is all that is required to help a horse keep condition.  Forage can be analysed if you suspect that it is of low nutritional quality. The eating quality is also important, especially in horses doing significant levels of work where lung health is important.  Hay of dubious quality may have a high nutritional value but have low intakes. Hay and haylage should pass the “sniff test”.  If it doesn’t smell sweet it probably won’t taste all that great to your horse either.  Forage should be fed ad-lib to the majority of horses and most definitely to poor doers.  Not only will this ensure that their nutritional needs are met, it will also help to prevent stress and its associated stereotypies from developing.  Gastric ulcers are a major cause of condition loss in horses and therefore it is wise to ensure that your horse always has forage in front of it.

Firstly ask why?

If your horse has a problem holding condition it is likely that the cause is due to one of a few possible scenarios;

  1. Mal-absorption issues – where something is wrong with the function of the digestive system that prevents nutrients being absorbed correctly
  2. Low intakes – some horses will have naturally lower intakes than others and this will mean a change in feeding strategy
  3. Underestimation of energy requirements – normally more common in harder working animals.

Digestive upset

This can be caused by not feeding enough forage and fibre, by feeding too much cereal and/or by feeding too large a meal size. This is usually in the mistaken attempt to get the horse to gain condition.  The owner will keep increasing the horse’s hard feed to a point where the horse can't digest it efficiently in the small intestine, and it spills over into the hindgut. This changes the population of bacteria in the hindgut, and digestion becomes less efficient. They are eating more and getting less benefit from it. The way to feed a horse more concentrate is to feed as many meals a day as you can and never to exceed 1.5kg in one feed.   Research in the States showed that when horses were fed frequent small meals throughout the day they not only were able to eat all of their concentrate portion more easily but the action of being fed a bucket feed stimulated them to nibble at their hay again, thus improving digestive health and intakes further.  Now this may not be practical for the full time, working horse person but even one extra meal a day will make all the difference. If you suspect that your horse’s digestive system is “out of balance” then judicial use of some sort of prebiotic or yeast (such as Yea-Sacc), will help to re-establish a population of “good” bugs in your horse’s gut.


Some horses have lower intakes than others, and many owners that work full-time are very restricted in the number of meals that they can feed their horse. If you are in this situation then the only way to increase your horse’s energy intake is to increase the nutritional density of his bucket feed. All that this means is that the 1.5kg of feed that you feed twice or three times a day must contain everything the horse requires and so therefore becomes very concentrated for energy and vits and mins. In human terms it would be like substituting 10 rice cakes (which you would probably struggle with) for a Mars Bar (which most of us would have no problems with), same calories but much less eating.  For the horse this can be easily achieved by feeding a high oil diet. The same amount of oil provides almost 3 times more energy than cereal and therefore is the most appropriate way to feed this type of horse.  This can be done by selecting a compound feed which contains at least 5% oil (preferably more) or by feeding a balancer and topping it up with oil as required. A good way to get oil into the horse’s feed (especially if they are a finicky eater) is to add oil to the water that is used to soak the sugar beet.  This mixes it more evenly into the feed and prevents it clogging.  It can also be poured over alfalfa pellets as these will absorb it well. Other options include using products such as Alfa-Oil or Full Fat Soya rather than liquid oil.  Sugar beet and soya hulls contain the same energy as barley and are far safer for the horse’s gut than over-feeding cereals. Whole oats would be the cereal of choice as they will provide fibre as well as starch (remember to limit the content per meal).


It goes without saying that if you increase the horse’s work, and this is sustained, then they will require more energy and, therefore, a more nutrient dense diet. Don’t be tempted to just feed more of the same bagged feed as this will probably result in too big a meal size. Move up a grade of feed instead or, if you are using the balancer route, utilise more oil or superfibres.  This will ensure good gut health. Some horses get quite stressed (whether it is obvious or not) by increased levels of exercise, which can reduce intake. It may be necessary to drop back the level of work until the horse has regained any loss of condition. This may be frustrating in the short term but better for the horse’s health and longevity in the longer term.

No miracles

Don't expect a visible change immediately when you start a weight-gain diet. A horse usually doesn't become thin overnight, and he doesn't gain it back overnight. Don’t expect an instant fix and realise that it is safer to go for a slow, steady weight gain. The faster the weight change, the more extensive the diet change must be, increasing the chance for digestive problems and upsets such as colic, ulcers etc. Try not to panic and remember, obesity is a big killer in horses through associated disease problems but to my knowledge no horse ever died from being a touch on the thin side! 

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