Have you ever struggled with a horse who has a difficult time maintaining their body condition? For horse owners, the term “hard keeper” is more than just a casual phrase, it’s a familiar and often perplexing challenge.

Hard keepers often struggle to maintain a healthy weight, despite being given what seems like ample food. Caring for these horses is often physically and emotionally demanding for horse owners and handlers alike.

The good news is that a holistic feeding strategy focused on a balanced, forage-based diet can make all the difference in improving health, performance, and overall well-being of hard keepers.

Read on to learn more about selecting the best forages and feeds for hard keepers, and providing dietary support to horses struggling to maintain their weight.

What is a Hard Keeper?

A hard keeper, poor doer or unthrifty horse is one that requires a higher than average caloric intake to maintain their body condition. These horses may have an accelerated metabolism, be engaged in heavy work, or have other characteristics that make then less efficient at extracting nutrients from their diet.

While any horse, regardless of breed, can be a hard keeper, certain breeds or types of horses are more inclined to difficulty maintaining weight. Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds and hot-blooded horses are generally prone to being hard keepers due to a higher metabolic rate.

Performance horses may also struggle to maintain their weight because of increased energy expenditure in training and competition, in addition to travel-related stress.

Horses often become hard keepers with advancing age, as their ability to extract calories from the diet may be hindered by dental issues or decreased digestive efficiency. [2] Horses who have experienced neglect or malnutrition in the past are often prone to being hard keepers.

Equine Keeper Status Score

The Equine Keeper Status Score is a standard scale developed to categorize horses based on their ability to maintain body weight. This score takes into account body condition, digestible energy requirements, and digestible energy intake.

Using this scoring system, horse owners and equine professionals can determine if their horse is a hard keeper to accurately inform diet and management decisions. [1]

The score should be considered in conjunction with measurable data such as body weight and overall health to guide management decisions.

What Causes Low Body Weight in Horses?

The first step in managing the hard keeper horse is identifying any dietary, health, or environmental factors contributing to difficulty maintaining body weight. Some of the most common factors include: [3]

It’s important to have a full picture of your horse’s health and why they are not maintaining condition before making major changes to your management routine.

Medical Conditions and Body Weight

If you’re unsure how to address weight concerns in your horse, consult an equine nutritionist and your veterinarian. These qualified professionals can help you identify nutritional deficiencies, discuss changes in management and create a feeding plan that supports healthy weight gain for your hard keeper.

Consulting with your veterinarian is essential for diagnosing and addressing underlying health issues that may be contributing to weight issues.

Once you have a treatment plan in place, staying up to date with regular veterinary check-ups is key so you can monitor your horse’s progress and ensure they are responding appropriately to dietary adjustments.

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The Paradox of Grains

A common strategy to encourage weight gain in hard keepers is to increase intake of concentrate feeds. Concentrates are high-energy feedstuffs like grains and commercial feeds.

Increasing a hard keeper’s concentrate intake can indeed boost calorie consumption, which might seem like a straightforward way to promote weight gain. However, diets that contain a large proportion of grain are high in hydrolyzable carbohydrate content, which can increase the risk of digestive problems such as gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis. [4][5] These conditions can make it even more difficult to manage a hard keeper’s body weight.

Rather than increasing grain intake, consider other weight gain feeding strategies such as maximizing forage intake and providing fat and fiber-based feeds with low hydrolyzable carbohydrate content.

8 Easy Steps for Feeding a Hard Keeper

When designing a diet for hard keepers, the primary goal is to ensure balanced protein, vitamin, and mineral intake, while also supplying a higher number of calories from low-hydrolyzable carbohydrate sources.

For long-term success with dietary adjustments, all feeding and management choices should be made while considering the horse’s initial weight, body condition, and workload.

1) Assess Body Condition and Weight

An effective feed plan starts with assessment of your horse’s current condition. It’s important to determine if your horse is currently at an appropriate weight or needs to gain weight before making changes to their feed.

The Henneke body condition scoring system outlines a nine-point scale to classify fat accumulation in the horse: [6]

  • Poor
  • Very Thin
  • Thin
  • Moderately Thin
  • Moderate
  • Moderately Fleshy
  • Fleshy
  • Fat
  • Extremely Fat

The optimal condition score is between 4 and 6 on the Henneke scale. Horses that easily maintain a BCS of 4 are generally considered hard keepers. [1]

In addition to assessing body condition, it’s also recommended to monitor your hard keeper’s body weight because it has a large impact on their nutritional and caloric requirements. While using a scale or weigh bridge provides the most precise measurement of your horse’s weight, these tools are not always readily accessible to horse owners.

In such cases, weight tapes or estimation formulas based on body measurements can offer a practical alternative for keeping track of weight changes over time.

2) Determine Workload

The amount of exercise your horse performs impacts not only their energy requirements, but also their protein, vitamin, and mineral needs.

The National Research Council’s (NRC) Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007) classifies the amount of work a horse performs into five categories based on exercise frequency, duration, and intensity: [7]

  • Light Exercise: 1 – 3 hours of work per week, mostly at the walk and trot. Horses used for recreational riding, those at the beginning of training programs, and horses that show occasionally often fall into this category.
  • Moderate Exercise: 3 – 5 hours of work per week, mostly at the trot. Some horses used for recreational riding, school horses, some horses beginning training, frequent show horses, and some polo and ranch horses may fall into this category.
  • Heavy Exercise: 4 – 5 hours of work per week, mostly at the trot and canter and may include galloping, jumping, or other skill work. Some ranch and polo horses, show horses that perform in frequent strenuous events, low to mid-level eventing, and horses in the middle stages of race training may fall into this category.
  • Very Heavy Exercise: More variable in its time constraints, ranging from 1 hour per week of speed work to 6 – 12 hours of lower intensity work. Racehorses and elite 3-day eventing horses typically fall into this category.

Weight loss is common for all horses during winter or at the beginning of training programs due to increased caloric demands under these conditions. Hard keepers at a body condition score of 4 at the start of periods of increased caloric demand require an individualized feeding plan to compensate.

By making proactive changes to your hard keeper’s feeding routine, you can ensure they maintain or improve body condition and avoid becoming significantly underweight (BCS of 3 or less).

3) Assess Nutritional Needs

A horse’s physiological status also impacts their energy, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements.

Horses that are pregnant, lactating, growing, or working as breeding stallions have higher nutritional requirements than horses at maintenance. [7]

Other factors like dental health may impact the optimal amount and type of hay that horses can consume. If your horse has dental issues contributing to weight loss, consider supplying chopped hay or soaked hay cubes or pellets to supplement their forage intake.

Chopped and processed hay are typically consumed faster than long-stem hay, so feeding several smaller meals can prevent your horse from going long periods without access to forage. For most horses, long-stemmed forage is still recommended as the primary food source to provide the best support for digestive and mental health. [8][9]

Soaking hay is also beneficial for feeding horses with dental issues. The softened texture and increased moisture content makes it easier for horses with missing or worn teeth to chew and swallow. The improved texture may also encourage them to eat more forage. [10]

4) Feed a Forage-First Diet

Free access to forage at all times, also known as free-choice forage is an effective feeding strategy for hard keepers. Ensuring your horse has uninterrupted access to forage offers a continuous supply of calories and fiber, making it easier to meet the increased intake needed for weight gain.

Free-choice forage also supports digestive health, behavioral needs and mental well-being. [11][14][15]

Allowing horses to engage in natural foraging behaviors increases time spent chewing, which supports saliva production. [12] Saliva helps maintain a healthy pH in the stomach and prevent the development of gastric ulcers. [12][13]


Forage is the foundation of a horse’s diet, so offering palatable options is crucial to ensure they consume enough forage to support weight maintenance.

Depending on the availability at your facility, the most palatable forage options likely include a blend of pasture and soft grass or legume hay, such as a alfalfa. Leveraging these palatable options helps maximize your hard keeper’s calorie intake from forages to support healthy weight management.

Pasture Grass

Many horses naturally prefer grazing fresh pasture grass, which is palatable and a rich source of energy and protein. Grazing on pasture also allows horses to express natural foraging behaviors, and promotes a stable hindgut environment due to the continuous intake of small quantities of forage. [16]

Depending on availability in your region, pasture can also be more cost-effective as it reduces the need for supplemental hay or concentrates.

Unfortunately, pasture availability is often seasonal or limited by environmental constraints. In particular, cold winters and arid conditions contribute to scarcity of vegetation for many horse farms.

The quality of pasture can also vary widely. For example, fields of apparently lush grasses may actually have significant patches of overgrazed plants and inedible weeds. [17]

Without a well-maintained pasture, it’s challenging to provide a consistent diet for any horse. Caretakers and owners may consider having their pasture analyzed to assess its overall quality as a feed option.

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Grass Hay

Most horses at maintenance or in moderate work can adequately meet their energy and protein requirements with grass hay. For hard keepers, maximizing grass hay intake is one of the safest and most effective ways to encourage weight gain.

If your horse is on a hay-only diet, aim to feed at least 2% of your hard keeper’s body weight in long-stem grass forage. For example, a horse weighing 1100lb (500kg) should be fed at least 24lb (11kg) of hay daily on a dry matter basis. [7]

Legume Hay

Legume hays, such as alfalfa, have a higher calorie and protein content compared to grass hays. [18]

For hard keepers, the extra calories and protein can support weight gain and maintain muscle mass. Immature alfalfa hay is also highly digestible and palatable. [7] Supplementing diets with alfalfa also helps promote gut health by maintaining the integrity of the mucosal lining in the stomach. [19]

For most horses, alfalfa should make up no more than 20% of their total forage intake as it is high in calcium. Excess calcium can lead to an imbalanced calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. Work with a nutritionist to ensure your horse’s overall diet is appropriately balanced.

Purchasing Hay

When buying good quality hay for horses, take the following into consideration: [20]

  • Contamination: Hay should be free of mold, dust, weeds, foreign objects, etc.
  • Storage: Suppliers should store hay in a clean, dry, well-ventilated environment
  • Leaf-to-stem ratio: Younger, leafier hay is usually higher in nutritional value than mature, stemmy hay
  • Processing: Consider a second or third cutting of hay which tends to be finer in texture and more palatable

Ideally, hay should be tested to verify its nutritional content and ensure protein, fiber, and energy levels are appropriate for your horse. While hay may appear high quality, it’s difficult to determine what is needed to balance a horse’s diet without a nutrient analysis of the forage.

Hay Nets

Hay nets are a great tool to help provide access to free-choice forage and minimize hay waste.

Providing hay in slow feeder hay nets extends the time it takes for a horse to consume their ration. This can be beneficial for hard keepers as they remain occupied and engaged for longer periods, reducing boredom and stress. [21][22]

Slower consumption also facilitates trickle feeding, which promotes better digestive health and ensures your horse receives a steady supply of energy and nutrients to maintain or gain weight. [13]

In group settings, providing hay in multiple nets can reduce competition for resources and avoid dominant horses monopolizing feed sources. [23] Hay nets also help keep hay off the ground, reducing contamination from dirt and feces. This not only reduces hay waste but also lowers the risk of health issues such as sand colic. Additionally, it encourages hard keepers to consume their entire portion of forage.

Hay nets also make it easier to monitor your horse’s intake and adjust their daily ration as needed. Select a hay net with a hole size suited to your horse’s needs. Holes that are too small can frustrate your horse and limit consumption, while large holes may result in more hay waste.

In all cases, hay nets should be hung at chest height or lower to support a natural posture when feeding. [24] Positioning the hay net lower also supports drainage of the upper respiratory tract to maintain respiratory health. [25]

Hay Toppers and Palatability

For horses who are particularly picky when it comes to forage, consider adding a hay topper to improve palatability. Hay toppers provide additional flavor to make forage more appealing. Popular flavors include anise, apple, and peppermint.

Common options for toppers include a handful of sweet feed, oils, fenugreek, peppermint leaves, or commercially available hay topper products. Hay toppers may not be appropriate for all horses, but if tolerated they are a valuable tool to optimize forage consumption of a hard keeper. [26][27]

5) Meet Vitamin and Mineral Requirements

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies in your horse’s diet can affect every aspect of your horse’s health, including weight management. These essential nutrients are vital for almost all physiological processes in the horse’s body.

Deficiencies in nutrients including zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamin E can exacerbate the challenge of maintaining a healthy weight in hard keepers. [28][29]

Feeding a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement addresses nutrient deficiencies, resulting in benefits for metabolic function, immune and muscle function, and bone health. [7]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement designed to balance forage-based diets. It is suitable for hard keepers because it does not contain grain-based fillers and provides digestive enzymes and yeast to support improved feed efficiency.

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6) Manage Hydration Status

Horses need constant access to fresh, clean water to maintain proper hydration. Adequate water intake is essential for appetite regulation, gut health, feed digestion, and nutrient absorption.

Some horses are sensitive to water temperature, especially during cold seasons, so it’s a good practice to insulate or heat your horse’s water supply in winter. [30]

In addition to providing plenty of accessible water, it’s important to include plain salt with your horse’s meals and provide loose free-choice salt alongside forage. Supplementation with salt is important because it stimulates thirst and ensures your horse’s sodium requirements are met.

Horses in heavy exercise or in hot, humid climates also benefit from electrolyte supplementation to replenish electrolytes lost in sweat.

Mad Barn’s Performance XL: Electrolytes offers a convenient and effective way to replace electrolytes and prevent dehydration.

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7) Add Supplemental Feed as Needed

For hard keepers that need extra calories to maintain weight, adding energy-dense feeds can increase their daily caloric intake. Choose supplemental feeds with low sugar and starch to avoid oversupplying hydrolysable carbohydrates.

Beet Pulp

Unmolassed beet pulp is low in hydrolyzable carbohydrates and contains highly digestible fiber, which provide a slow release of energy during digestion.

Beet pulp should be soaked before feeding. This increases its moisture content and helps improve the horse’s overall hydration status. Soaking also makes beet pulp easier to consume, providing a good option to increase both fiber and calorie intake for horses who have difficulty chewing. [31][32]

Fat Supplements

Another effective way to increase calorie intake for a hard keeper is to add fat sources such as oil, to the diet. Oils are calorie-dense and highly digestible, offering an efficient source of energy at a much lower feeding rate compared to grains or concentrates.

Oils also provide a slow-release of energy, aiding in maintaining stable blood sugar levels and supporting gut health without contributing to ‘hot’ behavior. [33][34]

Plant-based oils like canola, rice bran, and ground flax are all convenient options for adding fat to the diet.

You can also look for fat supplements enriched with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, such as Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil with added DHA and natural vitamin E.

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Commercial Feeds

Commercial feeds tend to be highly palatable and contain a variety of ingredients including grains, molasses, added sugars, protein sources, fats, vitamins and minerals, and flavorings.

The specific formulation and feeding rate of commercial feeds varies widely across brands and products. It’s particularly important to evaluate the sugar and starch content before feeding, as overfeeding these nutrients can adversely affect digestive health.

Some commercial feed tags provide estimates of starch and sugar content. You can also review the label to look for ingredients high in hydrolyzable carbohydrates such as corn, barley, or molasses.

Keep in mind that your horse’s total diet should supply less than 10% starch and sugar.

8) Consider Digestive Supplements

Certain digestive supplements can benefit hard keepers by supporting hindgut function and gastric health, improving your horse’s ability to absorb nutrients from their diet.

Some ingredients in digestive supplements that have been shown to benefit horses include:

Yeast and probiotics are microorganisms that support hindgut fermentation by facilitating fiber digestion in horses. Research also shows that yeast supplementation can mitigate the negative effects of feeding a high-starch diet. [35]

Yeast also benefits hard keepers on a high-fiber diet by improving digestibility of forage, which enhances the efficiency of nutrient absorption from the gut. Improved digestibility helps horses extract more energy from the same amount of feed, supporting weight gain and maintenance efforts. [36]

Prebiotics are supplemental fibers that serve as a food source for the beneficial microbes in the hindgut. Research indicates that horses supplemented with prebiotics, like fructo-oligosaccharides, have improved fiber digestion and increased production of volatile fatty acids (VFAs) in the hindgut.

VFAs are a major energy source for horses, so this finding suggests prebiotic supplementation could increase calorie supply for hard keepers. [37][38]

Research has also shown benefits from supplementing horses with a pectin-lecithin complex to promote gastric health, which is critical for weight maintenance. Pectin is a type of prebiotic found in beet pulp while lecithin is a phospholipid found in various plants. [39][40]

Mad Barn’s Visceral+ is a comprehensive gut health supplement formulated with several different ingredients that help maintain stomach and hindgut health and support the immune system. Feeding Visceral+ is recommended for hard keepers who may benefit from enhanced digestive support to improve nutrient absorption and overall health.


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Management Strategies

In addition to dietary interventions to increase calorie intake, you can implement several management practices to give your hard keeper the best chance of maintaining a healthy weight.

Implementing strategies such as offering several smaller meals throughout the day, minimizing stress, providing shelter from harsh weather, and supporting dental health can significantly contribute to maintaining a healthy weight in horses.

When left to their natural habits, horses tend to graze and forage continuously throughout the day. Consuming large quantities of feed in a single meal can hinder efficient digestion. Feeding smaller meals more frequently enhances digestibility and improves the metabolic response to feeding. [41][42][43]

Stress Reduction

Managing stress in hard keepers is essential, as stress can lead to weight loss in horses. [2][44] You can reduce your horse’s stress level by turning them out as much as possible to allow them to move freely and engage in natural behaviors.

Horses, being highly social creatures, benefit from engaging in social interactions, which offer mental enrichment and physical stimulation. [45]

Establishing and maintaining a consistent daily routine for feeding, turnout, grooming and exercise can also help reduce anxiety and alleviate stress.

Protection from Inclement Weather

Horses need to be adequately protected from extreme weather, whether by providing shade and water in the heat and shelter or blankets during the winter.

Hard keepers typically require extra support to sustain a healthy body weight during cold weather. Shivering, a natural response to cold, causes horses to burn extra energy to stay warm, which can counteract efforts to achieve weight gain. [46]

Schedule Regular Dental Exams

Dental issues, such as sharp points, hooks, or uneven wear on teeth can interfere with your horse’s ability to effectively chew food. This can contribute to poor digestion and lower nutrient absorption from feed and forage.

Routine dental care is important to identify and address dental conditions early, preventing the development of more severe dental diseases. Proper tooth floating ensures that horses can eat without pain or discomfort, helping maintain or gain weight as needed.

Track Progress with Pictures

Since owners and caretakers spend so much time with their horses, it can be difficult to assess weight management progress in hard keepers. Taking pictures of your horse every two weeks is a simple way to track changes in their body condition score.


Hard keeper horses need a customized diet and careful management to help them reach and maintain a healthy body condition.

  • Work with a veterinarian and equine nutritionist to determine the underlying cause of your horse’s low body weight
  • Leverage feeding strategies to maximize calorie intake and optimize hindgut health in your horse
  • Digestive supplements and energy-dense supplemental feeds may help hard keepers maintain body weight
  • Management strategies to improve weight maintenance include feeding small, frequent meals, reducing stress, and protecting horses from extreme weather
  • Track your horse’s progress using pictures and reassess body condition frequently to guide changes

Have questions about your hard keeper’s feeding program? Submit their diet online for a free consultation with our qualified equine nutritionists to help you implement a weight management plan.

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