My horse is a hard keeper.  What are some reasons for this? 


A hard keeper is a horse that is typically “skinny”.  You will see ribs, and perhaps hip bones and also prominent withers.  It’s often hard to classify a horse as a hard keeper based on his weight, as many athletic horses are lean.  But, if your horse has a hard time adding weight, or loses weight with stress, travel, cold weather, or any other situation, you may have a hard keeper.  Your mission is to determine if he’s just that hard keeper for a medical or environmental reason, or if that’s just who he is and it’s totally fine.  If your horse suddenly becomes a hard keeper, it’s time for some major investigation!


There's also a lot of research that tells us a horse that loses weight in winter is actually doing the best thing for his health. BUT - it's up to you and your Veterinarian to determine if any winter weight loss is totally normal or something to be concerned about.


Your horse may be a hard keeper because he has: 


  • Dental issues.  Horse teeth are continually growing and wearing down.  They can form waves, hooks, have abscesses, and have all sorts of issues that make chewing and digesting food difficult and sometimes painful.   



This horse had some tough times with tooth issues - you can see the holes in the bones, indicating some sort of infection and/or trauma. 



  • Parasite issues.  Worms will interfere with his digestion, steal nutrients and create blocks, even to the point of colic.  A simple fecal exam from your Veterinarian can test for worms that are actively shedding.  Your Veterinarian can also advise you on worming schedules for your climate and area.  


  • Metabolic issues.  There are loads of conditions related to metabolism (like Cushing’s) which can be addressed by your Veterinarian.  


  • Other diseases.  Cancers and other diseases can contribute to “hard keeping”.  Your Veterinarian may want to run some blood work to check organ functions and look for signs of disease and/or infections.   


  • Ulcers.  These bad boys are gastric or handgut (location dependent).  Many of us are familiar with endoscopy looking for gastric ulcers, don’t overlook hindgut ulcers which can also be treated.  Your Veterinarian will be able to help you determine if your horse may have ulcers or not and then put a plan into place for healing and future prevention. 


  • Malnutrition.  Your horse’s diet may be lacking calories, minerals, vitamins.  Simply adding calories may not do the trick.  Older horses have trouble absorbing nutrients and therefore may not be getting what they need.  Equine Nutritionists and your Veterinarian can help you and your horse!



Also look to environmental factors that may create a hard keeper: 


  • Age/breed/genetics.  Older horses and genetically leaner horses (like TB’s) are prime examples of hard keepers.  It’s just the way they are!  That doesn’t mean you want to ignore it, but you should rule out any medical issues so your guy has a chance of keeping some weight on.


  • What’s his schedule like?  Is your horse is training for an advanced cross country run?  Or is he a trail horse that gets out twice a week?  If you can’t keep weight on, work with your trainer and Nutritionist to figure out why, his job may have something to do with it. Conversely, he may need a job if he doesn’t have a job to relive stress and boredom. 


  • How are his living arrangements? Is he at the bottom of the pecking order in the field, then he’s going to get less food.  Is he stressed out because he’s inside his stall too much?  


  • Has he had any recent medical issues or traumas that have altered his lifestyle?  What about medications?  Some medications may leave him feeling puny and under the weather, and not apt to eat as much.  


  • What’s the weather like?  Is he using all of his calories, and then tapping his reserves to stay warm?  Consider upping your blanketing game to help him stay cozy.  


Once you have ruled out any issues that might make your horse a hard keeper, you will have a plan to help your guy out!  I have some ideas here to get you started, and don’t forget to talk to your Veterinarian about a plan, especially if your horse has underlying medical issues.  


Why is your horse a hard keeper? What do you do to remedy it?