Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hardkeeper Winter Report

Harley is a hardkeeper, but I think that we may finally have found a management routine that spells success.  Just check out his rounded edges!  No more knobby points.  He is certainly not packing the extra pounds, but the collective opinion around the barn is that he is looking his best ever!

Harley: Don't interrupt me.  I am trying really hard to keep.

Please note the rounded hindquarters and filled in hips.  I always get a kick out of his stifle muscles, too.  Yeah, Harley!

He has gained meat over his back and behind the shoulders, another dippy place which can make saddle fit a challenge.  My vet says that he loses his neck muscle as soon as he starts to drop weight.  His neck is looking much better and he has retained his beautiful definition.

Sunny and warm.  This is February?  I like.

The last time that I wrote about Harley's feeding regiment, alfalfa was the topic of discussion.  However, Harley was only on alfalfa pellets for a short time.  Once alfalfa pellets were added to his meals of beet pulp and complete feed, he started to put on weight, much to my glee.  The vet came out for follow-up blood work after his virus and noticed that the alfalfa was working.  Her immediate instructions were to up his grain (complete feed).  What?!  I was really confused.  Increasing his grain has always been so far at the bottom of my trouble-shooting list that I never really went there.  When the vet saw that my horse could gain weight, if given more calories, she wanted to give him exactly what his body demonstrated that he needed.

So we doubled Harley's pelleted feed.  This increase in feed was introduced gradually over many days.  He continued to receive his beet pulp and alfalfa, but as the food quantity increased he began leaving all of the alfalfa and most of the beet pulp.  He could not finish his food, even when given several hours in front of his bucket.  The beet pulp was reduced first and then the alfalfa.  When only a quarter scoop of alfalfa remained and he refused to eat it, even when offered the left over pellets later in the day, we removed them from his menu altogether.  This is how my horse finally started packing on the pounds, and in the winter no less!

Owning a hardkeeper is not easy, hence the term.  Not only is it difficult to maintain his condition, but bystanders seem far less tactful when a horse is thin.  Obese horses may be labeled as "voluptuous" or "fat and happy", while the lightweights' owners get sideways glances that say, "Your horse needs groceries."  They are not always glances.  Sometimes people will just blurt things out, not realizing that they can be hurtful, especially when they are not informed about the lengths (financially and emotionally) that an owner may be exhausting to try and put weight on a horse with high-metabolism.

I have tried many strategies over the years based on input from my barn manager, vet, trainer, and general research to try and bring Harley up to standard, the elusive "5" body condition score:

  • Switching pelleted grains
    • The change was initiated by me years ago (three or four?) after hours of agonizing over nutrition facts and brands.  I was limited by the availability at our local feed store, but I was happy to find that Purina's Ultium was available.  I was less happy to find that it was at the top of the price-list ($20+/bag...gulp).  Don't worry, the barn owners did not absorb the expense.  Sigh.  Ultium is not ideal (what is?), but it did provide slow-burning, fat-based calories, which was a big improvement on the Senior feed.  Although both were complete pelleted feeds, Senior did not give him enough calories for all the riding we were doing.  Besides, as a ten-year old, he was not really a "senior" horse, but he is getting closer every day!  Ultium is also lower in starch than Senior and some other common choices at the store.  I like the health benefits (and hoof benefits) of putting him on a truly low-starch feed, but I think that would be like putting him on a diet.  Not a good idea for Harley!
  • More hay
    •  This is always the best way to put weight on a horse, however, the quality of the hay is a major factor and we just cannot seem to get consistently good hay around here.  It is an on-going problem.  I have upped his quantity over the years (at a per flake expense), but since he shares his food with a buddy, there is never a guarantee that he is eating his share.  Ironically, the hay that we have now is the best that I have seen in a long time, but the grass is still so coarse that my vet suspects that Harley (and another older draft-cross at our farm) is unable to get the nutrition that he needs from our hay.  Giving him more hay does not improve his condition, which is where the complete feed comes into play.  He is able to get what he needs from the complete feed and then gets his roughage and keeps warm by eating hay.
  • Beet pulp
    • I consider beet pulp a hay-stretcher of sorts.  It is very easy to digest and presents no problems regarding calcium and phosphorus levels.  I started giving him wet, beet pulp shreds, without molasses around two years ago.  This was supposed to be the fail-safe for hardkeeping racehorses.  The results for Harley were "minimal improvement", which I learned to accept as par for the course.  Harley ate them happily until the recent feed increase.  My vet says that racehorses who require an enormous caloric intake have the same problem.  At some point the horse runs out of room.  The equine stomach is small, so we have to put the best quality nutrition in the space available and then let him pass the time and manure with forage.
  • Slow-feeder/hay net 
    • Last spring, more hours behind the computer searching the "internets" led me to discover slow-feeders.  I carefully read through every variety that I could find and made a selection with great care.  My wallet was less $75, but I felt at ease knowing that my horse was eating hay all day long.  I pictured him munching from his hay net as I ate lunch at work.  Unfortunately, reality did not match my fantasy, and this turned out to be an abysmal failure.  Harley lost weight considerably and I spent all summer playing catch-up with supplements.
  • Weight-gain supplements
    • I tried a couple low-priced brands this summer with no noticeable change in his condition, although it is amazing how your mind can play tricks on you (I think he is a teeny bit rounder!).  I figured that it was worth a try and adding to Smart Paks is fun (i.e. addictive).  My wallet did not agree, but I still like Smart Pak and think that they are a great company with reasonable prices and hard-to-beat shipping rates.  Where do you think I got his cooler and winter blanket?

  • Digestive supplements 
    • My teacher is a dealer for a particular brand and raves about them.  All her horses are on them with all sorts of benefits.  The cost was reasonable, but I had Harley on these particular supplements for over two years and, again, I had to squint and tilt my head to notice any improvement.  The supplement certainly did not do him any harm and probably did benefit his gut, but I have limited funds and I want to see results.  I quietly gave up, although she does mention that she has noticed that he is not on them anymore.
  • Soaking his food (Remember he has a dental issue, too?)
    •  This is supposed to help horses that may have trouble chewing.  We soaked Harley's feed for years, because he has a nasty overbite, although his dentist tells me that his molars are balanced with good occlusion between the grinding surfaces.  He drops his food like crazy, but he always picks up the lost bits with his prehensile, nimble lips and eats them right up.  I always thought that soaking his food was kind of a food safety issue, because the bucket gets pretty disgusting and is susceptible to mildew.  We are not soaking his food presently and he seems to be very happy.
  • Alfalfa pellets
    •  They were a short-lived strategy, which started after his viral infection in December.  He did put on more weight, but quit eating them as soon as we increased his feed.
  • The blanket
    • I love it!  Harley is very happy and I secretly feel bad for his paddock mates on cold, blustery days.  This is coming from a horse owner who did not own a blanket before this winter.
Winter coat scruffiness post-ride

Did I cover everything? 
Regular vet visits. 
Regular dental check-ups and extensive procedures to correct a formerly-neglected mouth with a serious genetic flaw. 
His simplified feeding plan (two scoops of complete feed twice a day and hay).
The blanket. 
The mild winter we are having. 
They are all factors in Harley's present body condition.  I hope that we have found a recipe that can stand the test of time.  My barn owner mused, "Wouldn't it be great if he were fat by the summer?"  She was not speaking literally.  She understands the struggle of owning a hardkeeper, because she is Harley's day-to-day caregiver and understands the lengths we have gone to make him round and wonderful.

Maybe 2012 will be the year of the round horse!  The year of the "5".


  1. You've certainly done everything you can for Harley and I'm sure he appreciates it. Obviously, it's not easy to manage a hard keeper but I think you've found the prescription for success. Fingers crossed for you that 2012 is Harley's year to be a "5".

  2. Jackson was a hard keeper until recently so I feel your pain. I had well meaning people recommend products -- that they distributed -- and I tried them without noticeable results. Like you, I quietly quit using the products but still got sideways looks. I know they truly believe in the products but they didn't make much, if any, difference. It turns out, Jackson had ulcers in his colon and once treated for those, he has packed on the weight. took forever to get there though. You gotta rule everything else out. Horses! Sheesh - so much work and worry. But we couldn't live without them.

    1. That is great about Jackson. I did ask my vet about ulcers, but I guess she was more concerned about the hay. I guess since he is gaining weight now, it is likely that he was not getting enough nutrition from the hay and beet pulp. I love my horse, but I do not worrying about him.

  3. I definitely notice a difference! Looking good, Harley. :)

    I always thought Willie was a hard keeper, but when I moved him to a barn with private grassy turnout and higher quality feed, he bloomed. I was amazed at what a chunk-butt horse could exist in the right conditions!

    One of the simplest fixes I've found most people overlook (myself included, for many years) is fat content in the grain. Purina Senior is around 5%, where Ultium is 12%? -- HUGE difference! Obviously there's more to nutrition than one number, but when people tell me they have trouble keeping weight on their horses, I send them to the feed label first. Their grain is invariably around the 3% range.

    I've had really good luck with the Performance LS from Blue Seal. My boys eat it, and it's done wonders for bringing back our really tough neglect cases. It's also high in protein/fat/fiber, but the softer pellets make it easier to chew and digest. We've had a handful of horses struggle with (or even choke on) anything else, even soaked feed or beet pulp. It's harder to find, but comparable to the Ultium in price, so if you ever need to try something else it might be worth a shot!

    Hopefully, though, you've found the right solution for him and by the time summer comes around, you'll be trying to figure out how to get the extra pounds off of him instead. :)

    1. Thanks for the tip! I wonder if I can get that around here. I was definitely looking for the higher fat content when I was researching feeds.

    2. There's a dealer locator on their website: Not all shops carry a full line, though, so you might have to call around!

      If you were really interested I could send you a sample to make sure he would eat it. I've never had a horse turn up their nose yet, but you never know!

    3. Thanks for the link! I will look the into the Blue Seal brand, just in case the current plan does not last. Thank you for offering the sample, but I am sure that he will eat it. Except for the alfalfa pellets, Harley loves to eat!

  4. My gosh, that first photo of him is really terrific. He looks like a bonafide quarter horse. He doesn't know how lucky he is to have some one like you taking care of him. I can't begin to imagine the frustrations you have have gone through. I hope he keeps it on.
    I keep forgetting to to mention how much I love your header picture, it's a good one!

    1. He is practically a ranch horse, now. Hehe, well maybe not. Thanks, about the header!

  5. He is looking wonderfully plump in the top picture! I'm sorry you've gotten so much flak over your horse being a bit thin, especially since you've tried to hard to fatten him up. People have gotten so used to seeing obese horses that when you've got a horse that's slightly on the thin side they think he's a skeleton.

    1. Tell me about it! Of course, everyone who knows Harley would not say things like that, but the occasional comment does slip from a barn visitor. It doesn't help that the pony stalled next to him is an air fern!

  6. Harley can definitely have some of Apaches roundness

  7. Thank you. This post means a lot to me. I have a hard keeper too and I feel like I'm a bad owner most of the time. I don't think one can understand the stress, anxiety and guilt of having a below-weight horse unless you've struggled with one.

    Do you know how much energy is in the Ultium? I can find a full ingredients list but no figure for calories. Also, how much does a scoop weigh? If you don't mind me asking. It would be interesting to compare it to what I feed Leo :).

    I have not seen a difference from supplements either and have given up trying them.

    I have extra trouble with Leo as he isn't very food motivated, and doesn't bother with hay. I make a 'nest' or 'hay plate' and tip his hard feed on it so he ends up eating most of the hay trying to nibble up his hard feed. It also stops him throwing his bucket around too :o) But if you have any secrets or ideas I would love to hear!

    1. I do not think that I have ever seen a calorie sheet for horse feeds, but that doesn't mean that they do not exist.

      Ultium (according to Purina brochure):
      protein/fat/fiber = 12%/12%/19% (rounded to a whole percent)

      In general, fats yield three times the energy of carbohydrates. One of our scoops is about four pounds (if I am remembering correctly), so Harley get 16 pounds per day split into two feedings, plus hay (around 20 pounds). Wow, that sounds high. But like I said, we have tried a long list of alternatives. I think that the only reason this is feasible is because Ultium is a pelleted, complete feed. Horses that cannot have hay due to allergies or poor teeth can live on complete feeds, like Senior, although hay cubes can be a good complement. Harley has been eating Ultium for years, just not at the quantity he is now. Triple Crown Complete is similar and another complete feed that I would consider trying. I hope this might be helpful to you. I do understand the frustrations...

  8. This is so great and you must be very happy, he looks really good! :) Laz can be a bit of a hard keeper too. For us, bumping up his TC L/S feed helped with the fat layer (he still gets low amounts as I'm not a huge feed fan for hoof issues), lots of hay, flax, and a BP mix with Chia has him looking thick. It was a balance as I've left him mostly naked all winter, but on colder days I would throw out more hay to counter act him loosing calories keeping warm. They nibble net/slower feeders are great BUT more for slow eating, they do expel a lot of energy pulling from it vs just eating from ground so I can see how it may not have worked as great as you wanted.
    It is hard, so kudos for a great job! :)

    1. Thanks, Kristen!

      I know what you are saying about feed and feet, which is why I have waited five years trying other things before increasing the quantity. Other bloggers mention that their horses are on hay and little to no grain. I cannot relate at all! Harley would disappear, which is what started to happen with the hay net. His buddy was very good at eating from the net and Harley was not so good at it (due to his funky overbite). Harley lost weight as his buddy gained weight. It was an indirect relationship that was not in Harley's favor!

    2. Yes, total frustration. What works for some does not for all...otherwise we would have one stellar feeding regime for 'hard keepers!' I will say my Vet helped me understand (well for Laz anyway) that BP is fiber, hay is fiber and things like their feed, is fat, which is what the hard keepers need. So, it seems you have a great equation worked out for Harley. Proof is in how he looks :)

  9. Harley does look really good. You're taking great care of him, and it shows. What a relief to be towards the end of winter with a bit of surplus roundness. I believe my minimal blanketing has helped keep Val plumper this winter too. :)

    Thanks for bringing this topic up - I've been mulling over a post - in the research phase at the moment. It all started when I bought a digital scale a few weeks ago. More accurate than my scoop and very enlightening just how much pellets and shreds can vary from batch to batch.

    1. Thanks, Calm, Forward, Straight. I am happy to be able to write this post, as this is a sensitive topic for me and I usually do not have good news. I feel that this is the first time that there has been an unquestionable improvement. I have been working closely with my vet and barn owner this fall and winter to try and make it happen for Harley. Last spring, when his winter coat fell out, he looked pretty dreadful. We did not want to repeat that this year.

      We do not weigh every feeding, but the barn owner does keep track of each feed. The weights vary a bit, but one of our scoops is usually around four pounds. Obviously the beet pulp weighs much less until it is soaked. The dry alfalfa pellets were very heavy, nearly as heavy as complete feed. I guess this makes sense since they are so nutrient dense. I am still surprised the Harley turned his nose up at them. He seemed to really like them in the beginning.

  10. You have certainly done your research! You've got me thinking...and I am going to be inspecting my feed labels in the morning. I need a little weight on Dottie, and have been just 'hoping' that spring comes soon, because they do fantastic during the spring/summer/fall, with their 'pasture' supplement :-)

    But, depending on my my feed tags...I might be able to make some improvements, before the grass grows!

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you like the post, Theresa. I have read about top dressings with a high fat content. You might want to research those if all you need to do is supplement rather than completely switch feeds. I am not talking about oils, but pelleted top dressings that look like regular feed, but are fed in small quantities.

  11. Very informative post, Val! Both my boys have finally fleshed out and seem to be on a good program. I have had hard keepers and it is very frustrating.

    When I was still competing in endurance, I simply couldn't find high enough calorie feed for my mare, Montoya. When we were REALLY competing hard, as in three hundred milers in a single year, her hips protruded no matter what I did. Endurance horses are like marathon runners, they simply burn more than they have the time to replace. After a race, she would get up to several weeks of rest just so she could gain the weight back.

    I got lots of raised eyebrows and sideways glances from people, too. I am glad that you've found Harley's formula. He looks great! :0)

    1. Three 100-mile races in a year is amazing! I just had to say it! I can see why keeping weight on a horse working that hard would be a challenge. I would also guess that her metabolism was high to begin with, since she loved to work and compete. I ride Harley quite a lot and we definitely work hard with lots of cantering these days. He seems to maintain his fitness easily, which I believe goes along with the hardkeeper bodytype.

  12. I have the opposite problem ....careful weightwatches programs in place for all horses .But having had hard keepers in the past I appreciate the problems they create in maintaining condition. Harley looks great. It's a good thing he has such a dedicated Mum

    1. Thank you, Sally. There are a couple easykeepers on the property, too, although there is nothing easy about keeping them trim!


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