There are several reasons why horses can be underweight. Food alone may not be the entire issue—bad teeth can make it painful for the horse to chew, cause the horse to swallow poorly masticated food, or make it chew very slowly. Internal parasites may also be stealing nutrition from your horse as well as damaging the digestive tract.
If your horse is underweight make sure it has had a recent fecal examination for parasites and had its teeth checked by a veterinarian before simply adding more feed to its diet.
Be sure that other horses aren’t preventing your horse from getting to the food, and that external pests like biting insects aren’t causing it to burn off energy trying to get relief. Your veterinarian may also want to test your horse's blood to make sure his internal organs are functioning normally. Once you’ve eliminated all these reasons why your horse is underweight, look at the food you are giving it.
Best Feed for Underweight Horses
The best feed for an underweight horse is good quality hay or pasture grass. Give him free choice hay unless there is some medical reason (such as metabolic syndrome, founder (also known as laminitis) or Cushing’s disease) not to. Introduce horses to grass gradually to decrease the possibility of founder, colic, or diarrhea. Many horses do very well on grass or hay alone. More hay in its feeder or longer grazing time may be all it takes to see weight gain.
However, some horses, such as growing horses, horses under heavy training, pregnant or nursing mares, or old/sick horses will need more calories than grass hay or pasture can provide. Alfalfa and other legume hays are higher in protein and some minerals such as calcium. Giving these types of hays to an underweight horse may be needed. Go slowly when introducing any new feed to your horse even if it is "only hay."
Extra Feeds for Skinny Horses
Beet pulp is often fed as a supplement because it is high in fiber, which the horse can turn into energy. Some people prefer to give their horses pelleted feed because they feel this is more easily digestible. Older horses might be able to digest "cooked" grains easier than regular grains, so a specially prepared senior feed might be helpful. For horses with bad teeth, smaller pellets or grains are easier to chew than larger pellets or cubes. Rice bran and flax are also popular additions to the diets of underweight horses.
Oils such as bran, rice, corn, flax, and other grain oils are often used to boost the energy and calories of a horse’s feed. Some people feel they also help keep the horse’s skin healthy and coat shining. Go carefully when adding these oils to your horse’s diet; too much oil in the diet can cause diarrhea.
Whenever you are changing the number of concentrates, do it gradually to decrease the possibility of problems like founder or colic. Also use a weight tape to get an estimate on your horse's body weight. Repeat the weight tape two weeks after you've made a diet change. Record these numbers and measure your horse's weight regularly. If you don't see the changes you expect, talk to your veterinarian and/or equine nutritionist.