Muscle, Body Weight, or both? How to Know What Your Horse Needs

Horses don’t perform at their best when overweight or thin. But there’s a world of difference between gaining body weight and building muscles. Deciding if your horse needs one or the two, however, isn’t an easy task because the animal’s health is generally categorized as healthy according to these most reliable indicators—muscle development, weight, and body condition.

Is your horse looking gaunt, with pitiably visible ribs and less muscles to support its frame (i.e. hindquarters, neck and spine)? If the animal’s top line also looks emaciated, fragile and less attractive, it might be time to build up some muscles, gain weight, or achieve both through changes in its dietary plan. Here’s how.

What you should know about dietary energy

There’s no better alternative to amassing body weight and building muscles except through proper dieting. You should therefore understand the importance of dietary energy in the horse’s food chain.

Fundamentally, energy is equal to calories and horse’s food intake is measured in kilocalories. Energy requirements are also calculated in Megacalories (Mcal) because the animals consume several thousands of kilocalories every day. Generally, the different types of energy are digestible energy (DE), gross energy (GE), metabolizable energy (ME), and lastly, net energy (NE). In the context of this article, we will concentrate of the most relevant type of energy—digestible energy (DE)—which refers to the common type of energy found on horse feed labels and is often recommended by nutritionists. This form of energy is easily digested from forage to make up for the vigour lost in faecal disposal. Due to disagreements among nutritionists on how equine nutrition should be calculated, the real value of DE from feedstuffs are widely accepted as approximates.

A horse consumes carbohydrates, protein and fat to maintain its energy requirement. Carbohydrates provide only 4.15 kilocalories per gram while proteins offer 5.70 kcals/gram. Horses get most of their calories from fatty foods which makes up nearly 10kcal/gram of GE (i.e. the capacity of heat produced by the animals after feedstuffs are digested and oxidized).

Food sources:

Carbohydrates (such as sugars, fibre, and starches) are the main nutrients from forages. This class of food is considered a good source of energy. Horses require carbohydrates because they improve digestive health and help regulate stomach acid.

Protein is not a reliable source of energy for horses but is necessary for building muscles. According to Russell Mueller, who works at Cargill Animal Nutrition, Minneapolis, Minnesota, horses consume less protein because they exhaust more energy in digesting proteinaceous feedstuffs than they can extract from it.

How to know if your horse needs muscles, weight or both

Basically, if your horse lacks adequate calories in its body, there’s a high probability that it will have depleted muscles. The first thing you should do—at this point—is to evaluate the animal body condition, using a Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS) Chart. According to Mueller, an ideal equine body condition should weigh between 4 and 6. This result indicates that there are visible signs of malnutrition and low muscle mass on its shoulder, wither and neck areas. There may also appear a crease around the animal’s back although that may not be noticeable just as some fat covers its tailhead, hip bones and backbone.

What you should do

If the horse is skinny and an analysis from your vet identifies no underlying cause of weight loss and less muscle, you should consider “bulking up” the animal with more calories in its forage, Mueller said.

Building muscles would be the other challenge if the horse looks angular around its top line (i.e. the back, withers, loin, croup area, and top of the hip). This is also necessary if the animal’s neck region is sunken, especially because muscles enhance performance—and is crucial for you to enjoy horse rides.

To achieve best results from weight and muscle, ensure that:

  1. The quantity of amino acids and protein (such as alfalfa, soy oils and omega-3 fatty acids) in your horse’s feedstuffs are adjusted. This is easily achieved by using concentrate feeds that are more calorically dense than most hays.
  2. Maintain the same weight by strictly providing your horse with the minimum DE every day. Findings show that a horse needs to consume about 20 Mcals of DE above maintenance quantity in order to add one more kilogram (2.2 pounds). But this depends on the nutrient makeup of grain and energy sources. Similarly, the animal needs to gain between 15 to 20 kilograms (34 – 44 pounds) to move up the Henneke scale by one score. This also depends on the horse’s weight. For example, if your horse needs 10 kilograms to move up the scale, you need to feed it with approximately 200 Mcals above maintenance requirements.
  3. Balance the activity level with adequate dietary values as stipulated by the National Research Council’s (NRC). You may also contact your nutritionist or veterinarian for professional advice.

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