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 every day 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 learned over the years.

What is a hard keeper?

A horse is described as 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 directly 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 feed 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 in fat are things like sugar beet and coconut oil.
  • Don’t over feed – That might sound like a silly thing to say but I’m talking more about not overfeeding 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 whatever 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 a 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 as grass, cereals, and most horse feeds. Topping his diet up with pure sugar though isn’t a good idea for lots of reasons. 1) Horses have a delicate digestive system when it comes to sugar and too much can lead to a fermentation process that 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 affect 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 has been a number 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 standardized 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.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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