Have you ever struggled with a horse who has a difficult time maintaining their body condition? For horse owners, the term “hard keeper” is more than just a casual phrase, it’s a familiar and often perplexing challenge.

Hard keepers often struggle to maintain a healthy weight, despite being given what seems like ample food. Caring for these horses is often physically and emotionally demanding for horse owners and handlers alike.

The good news is that a holistic feeding strategy focused on a balanced, forage-based diet can make all the difference in improving health, performance, and overall well-being of hard keepers.

Read on to learn more about selecting the best forages and feeds for hard keepers, and providing dietary support to horses struggling to maintain their weight.

What is a Hard Keeper?

A hard keeper, poor doer or unthrifty horse is one that requires a higher than average caloric intake to maintain their body condition. These horses may have an accelerated metabolism, be engaged in heavy work, or have other characteristics that make then less efficient at extracting nutrients from their diet.

While any horse, regardless of breed, can be a hard keeper, certain breeds or types of horses are more inclined to difficulty maintaining weight. Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds and hot-blooded horses are generally prone to being hard keepers due to a higher metabolic rate.

Performance horses may also struggle to maintain their weight because of increased energy expenditure in training and competition, in addition to travel-related stress.

Horses often become hard keepers with advancing age, as their ability to extract calories from the diet may be hindered by dental issues or decreased digestive efficiency. [2] Horses who have experienced neglect or malnutrition in the past are often prone to being hard keepers.

Equine Keeper Status Score

The Equine Keeper Status Score is a standard scale developed to categorize horses based on their ability to maintain body weight. This score takes into account body condition, digestible energy requirements, and digestible energy intake.

Using this scoring system, horse owners and equine professionals can determine if their horse is a hard keeper to accurately inform diet and management decisions. [1]

The score should be considered in conjunction with measurable data such as body weight and overall health to guide management decisions.

What Causes Low Body Weight in Horses?

The first step in managing the hard keeper horse is identifying any dietary, health, or environmental factors contributing to difficulty maintaining body weight. Some of the most common factors include: [3]

It’s important to have a full picture of your horse’s health and why they are not maintaining condition before making major changes to your management routine.

Medical Conditions and Body Weight

If you’re unsure how to address weight concerns in your horse, consult an equine nutritionist and your veterinarian. These qualified professionals can help you identify nutritional deficiencies, discuss changes in management and create a feeding plan that supports healthy weight gain for your hard keeper.

Consulting with your veterinarian is essential for diagnosing and addressing underlying health issues that may be contributing to weight issues.

Once you have a treatment plan in place, staying up to date with regular veterinary check-ups is key so you can monitor your horse’s progress and ensure they are responding appropriately to dietary adjustments.

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