What is a poor doer?
The term ‘poor doer’ is often used to describe horses and ponies that lose weight easily and struggle to maintain it. Although certain breeds such as Thoroughbreds are renowned for being poor doers, every horse or pony is an individual – some ponies and natives can struggle to maintain weight too.
Energy = Calories
Energy and calories are two different terms for the same thing. Calories are simply a measurement of energy although in equine diets, energy is measured in 'megajoules of digestible energy' which is often written on feed bags or labels as 'MJ DE/ kg'. Feeds containing 7-10 MJ DE/ kg can be described as 'low calorie', whilst those containing 12-13MJ DE/ kg are 'high calorie’ (and those in between can be considered as 'medium'). Body condition is the best indicator of whether a horse's energy requirements are being met with underweight horses needing more energy to build and maintain their bodyweight.
General feed & management tips
- Monitor your horse or pony's body condition regularly - this will help you to keep track of gradual changes and assess whether any dietary adjustment may be necessary
- Feed good quality, ad-lib forage (as much as they can eat)
- All balancers (except stud balancers) contain a negligible level of calories when fed at the recommended amount - if your horse/ pony is unable to maintain weight on forage alone, the addition of a balancer alone will not promote weight gain
- Check whether you are feeding the recommended ration of your current feed - if not a simple increase may be all that is required initially
- Be prepared that the most suitable feed may not always say 'conditioning' on the bag, it’s the energy level you need to be more concerned with - speak to a nutritionist for more advice
- Whilst traditional high starch/ cereal-based feeds might produce quick results, they should be avoided for ponies, natives and those prone to excitability. High starch feeds are also unsuitable for horses and ponies prone to clinical conditions such as laminitis, Cushing's (PPID), colic, tying up and gastric ulcers
- Oil contains 2.5 times the energy of cereals whilst being starch free providing a sympathetic alternative to mixes and other cereal based feeds. However, simply adding oil on top of the horse's current ration may unbalance the diet so you may wish to consider choosing a feed that already contains a higher level of oil and is suitably balanced with vitamin E
- Don't be tempted to keep increasing the size of your horse's meals to provide more calories. Large meals are more difficult to digest and increase the risk of colic. Feed a maximum of 2kg per meal (dry weight) for horses, less for ponies
- Make sure your horse/ pony is appropriately rugged to help to ensure he is not wasting valuable energy keeping warm!
- Remove rugs and body condition your horse/ pony regularly - rugs and thick winter coats can hide a multitude of sins!
- Ensure your horse/ pony's teeth are checked regularly by a vet or equine dental technician - difficulty chewing can lead to weight loss
- Seek veterinary advice if your horse's weight loss is sudden, severe or unexpected, particularly if there have been no noticeable changes in his diet
- Try to provide ad-lib hay/ haylage in the field as well as the stable if grazing is limited or of poor quality
- Haylage is not automatically higher in energy (calories), protein or sugar as commonly thought. The only way to assess the nutritional value of any forage is to have it analysed
- Forage provides the largest source of calories in the horse's diet - look for hay/ forage replacers for those no longer able to graze or chew long fibre. You can find out more about feeding hay replacers here
Tips for feeding oil
- Soya, vegetable, rapeseed and corn oil all contain similar levels of digestible energy (calories) and can fed at up to 100mls per 100kg of bodyweight per day
- Always ensure oil is fresh - it can easily go rancid
- Add any additional oil gradually at a rate of approximately 100mls per week (less for ponies)
- Ensure the diet provides an additional 100iu of vitamin E for every 100mls of oil fed - ask a nutritionist for more advice
- It may take up to 12 weeks for horses to adapt to utilising a high oil diet, so allow suitable time before assessing improvements to your horse's condition
The facts about feeding sugar beet
Sugar beet is high in calories, low in starch and provides an excellent source of highly digestible fibre. Having said this, the increase in volume after soaking makes it easy to underestimate how much you are actually feeding. In fact, sugar beet contains approximately 80% water once soaked which means a scoop of 'horse and pony cubes' could be 5 times higher in calories than a scoop of soaked sugar beet! Always weigh sugar beet before soaking; a 500kg horse would need to consume a minimum of 1kg of sugar beet per day to contribute a significant level of calories to the diet.
Tips for feeding fussy horses
- Ad-lib forage is only beneficial if it is consumed in sufficient quantities - where possible consider monitoring how much hay/ haylage your horse is 'choosing' to eat. You may need to consider offering a hay replacer too
- Although potentially more appealing to the human eye, feeding mixes can encourage some horses to be more selective and pick out the bits they find most appetising!
- Try feeding smaller meals to avoid 'over-facing' your horse/ pony
- Cubes are denser than mixes thus helping to reduce the volume of feed in the bowl
- If using more than one feed, try feeding them in separate buckets
- Remember some horses may be happier eating in the company of others and unphased by a busy yard, while others may prefer a quieter environment
- Changes in routine or being separated from companions may make some senior horses reluctant to tuck into their feed or forage
- Adding warm water, grated apple or carrot, sugar beet, mint, fruit juice or fenugreek (which smells of curry!) can help to tempt fussy feeders. In fact, in one study, fenugreek was ranked as the number one flavour preferred by horses closely followed by banana and cherry (though be aware that fresh cherries are poisonous to horses)!
- Only use flavourings/ supplements approved by BETA® NOPS if competing under FEI rules
Horses in poor condition often appear to lack topline, however it’s important to establish if this is a lack of true topline or a lack of fat covering. The rounded topline seen in natives, cobs and warmbloods is often fat not muscle, on the other hand lean fit Thoroughbreds could have a well-developed topline but will appear less ‘rounded’.
True topline describes the group of muscles that run along a horse's spine from the top of the neck to the wither area, down the back and loin, over the top of the hip and into the hindquarters. Once you have established if your horse has a lack of condition/fat covering or is lacking in muscle development and tone or both you can start to address the issue.
If lack of condition is the problem you need to feed more calories to build more overall condition which will also help develop a more rounded appearance. If its lack of muscle development, you need to ensure you are feeding a diet with appropriate calorie/energy supply and good quality protein which provides the building blocks in the form of amino acids to support muscle development.
Muscle tone and development can only be achieved with appropriate work which exercises the muscles along the neck, back and abdomen in the correct way. Feeding alone can’t build muscle, think of a bodybuilder he/she must go to the gym to lift weights alongside eating a protein rich diet, drinking no amount of protein shakes alone is going to make you look like Popeye!
Preparing for winter
Being proactive is undoubtedly the best strategy for managing the poor doer and the aim should be to prevent weight loss before it starts. Introduce a higher energy feed in the autumn before your horse begins to lose weight and increase as necessary as the weather and grazing deteriorates. Always add a balancer if feeding less than the recommended ration of feed. Provided they are not laminitic, allowing poor doers to enter winter at a body condition score of 6 out of 9 may help buffer excess weight loss.