How to Keep Weight on Older Horses

December 22, 2022


Keeping weight on horses is key to keeping them healthy—and warm during these winter months. However, keeping weight on horses, especially senior horses, can be a challenge. So, here are some tips from our experts at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) to help make it easier.

1. Be proactive.

Monitor your horse’s health and weight regularly to identify any issues early. Familiarize yourself with the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system and monitor your horse’s score regularly to track any changes. Long winter hair can mask a dropping body weight, so get your hands on your horse frequently. Grooming is a great way to do this! If you blanket your horse, be sure to remove the blanket several times a week to groom, inspect their coat and body, look for any blanket rubs or minor wounds and ensure they are in good health.

2. Make an appointment with your vet.

Senior horses can be more difficult to keep weight on but don’t assume that the weight loss or lack of condition is due to old age. There are many underlying conditions that can cause a horse to lose weight and treatment for those conditions can make putting weight back on much easier. Your vet may want to check your horse for:

  • Parasites. A fecal egg count can tell you if your deworming program is effective or if you have resistance and you’re feeding the worms instead of your trusty companion. 
  • Chronic conditions can cause your horse to lose weight. Many older horses suffer from arthritis, which can make trips to the feeder or walking around the pasture uncomfortable. Treatment for arthritis is often multimodal and may consist of medications, therapy and moving hay racks and nets to shoulder height.
  • Chronic infections, gastric ulcers, metabolic disease, kidney or liver disease or other diseases can make it difficult to keep weight on a senior. Be sure to observe your horse closely to see if you can pick up on any abnormal behaviors prior to your vet’s visit. Your vet might want to run blood work or do other diagnostic testing to rule out any of these conditions. 
  • Dental issues can be a big issue for any horse, but especially older horses. Dropping food, bad breath or unchewed grain in fecal piles can be signs that your horse needs dental attention. A good oral examination can spot any issues and issues can be corrected to decrease pain and help your horse eat like they should.

3. Look at what you are feeding your horse.

Now that any underlying conditions have been ruled out and corrected or long-term therapies have been started, it’s time to focus on the food. Make your vet and nutritionist a part of this conversation. Each senior horse is different and will have different needs. Work with your professionals and tailor a plan that is perfect for your senior.

  • A high-quality forage is important for most horses. Make sure that you are buying the best hay for them. A nutritional analysis of the hay will show that your geriatric horse is getting the best nutrition possible. 
  • Fat! Seniors are all about the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Senior feeds are often rich in fat to help boost calories. Rice bran, vegetable oil and flax seed can be other good sources of fatty acids and help keep the weight on. Introduction of a fat source should be done slowly to give your horse time to adjust and prevent any unwanted side effects (such as greasy diarrhea). 
  • Salt and minerals: free access to a block or a loose mix will ensure your horse can consume adequate salt and minerals to support body function and encourage them to drink water.

4. Look at how you are feeding your horse.

How you are feeding your horse can be almost as important as what you are feeding your horse. 

  • Feed multiple small meals. For many older horses, they will consume more feed if it is broken up into six small meals per day.
  • If you are soaking the feed, be sure to not feed more soaked feed than what they can consume in one meal.
  • Is there competition at the feeders? As horses age, their position in the herd may change. Is your horse being crowded out when they go to have a snack?
  • Depending on there you live, insects can be an issue as well. Are flies annoying your horse when they go to eat or graze? A comprehensive fly control program or providing a physical barrier (such as sheets or fly masks) may help your horse focus more on eating and less on annoying pests.
  • Is there always fresh, clean water? Free access to clean water is important for body functions and to maintain a normal appetite and digestion. Special attention should be paid in the winter to make sure that the water is not only ice free, but also maintained at a warm temperature. Horses will drink less water in the winter if it is cold. 

Keep your senior horses happy, healthy and safe this season—and every season—with these tips!


If you suspect your pet has been exposed to any poisonous substances, please contact your veterinarian or call Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) at (888) 426-4435 immediately.