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All Calories Are Not Equal

(post by Jason) Back in the fall I completed a ration analysis for a client located in one of the warmer parts of the southeastern US. One of her horses presented as more than a little perplexing. The client told me that in spite of everything she was doing the horse simply would not gain weight; not a normal condition for a fifteen year old well adjusted but semi-retired gelding. His environmental situation was pretty good too. He spent roughly eight hours a day in his stall and was turned out with three friends in a generous, well maintained and safe pasture of a few acres in size overnight. No matter how much grain he was getting, and no matter how good the forage put in front of him, he just would not gain weight. His body condition score was about a four if I was inclined to be generous. He weigh taped at 1075 lbs.

Given that my last nutrition post in this blog was all about unhappy, stressed out horses it would be correct to assume that when I do farm visits I spent quite a lot of time observing the horse sans owner to check for stall or paddock induced stressors. Frankly this horse did not seem to have any; he was very easy going and laid back andafter a thorough observation I really didn’t detect any significant signs of environmental stress in his life. He had it good, he just would not gain weight.

Next I asked about his worming schedule and about vet records, surgeries, etc. The horse was de-wormed twice a year at the spring and fall equinox with an appropriate de-wormer. He also had his fecal counts tested at the summer and winter solstice to check and make sure everything was as it should be. There were no surgeries or other obvious health problems. His feet carried a good bare foot trim. There was nothing obviously wrong with the conditions in which he was kept nor was there anything obviously wrong with him physically or mentally save for the hock arthritis that was the cause of his semi-retired state.

According to the ration analysis that I ran his diet was pretty good too. The pasture tested a little better than I thought it might and it was plentiful. The horse got access to plenty of good quality hay in his stall overnight. Based on my figures the horse was getting upwards of 15,000 kcal of energy from hay and pasture. The horse was fed four grain meals per day with each meal consisting of three pounds of Triple Crown Senior . This feed has a high caloric density…roughly 1500 kcal/lb with most of the calories coming from fat so the horse was getting another 17,000 kcal energy from his grain. That’s 32,000 calories per day which is slightly more than 10,000 kcal in excess of what a semi-retired horse of his size should require to maintain his condition in a warm temperate climate. He should have been fat as a tick on this ration and yet he would not gain a pound. He wasn’t sick and I couldn’t find anything much else wrong. I even thought long and hard about whether the client was telling me the truth, but what I was seeing certainly was in line with the story she was telling me. What to do !

Fortunately Melissa and I have run across this sort of situation a few times while transitioning horses here at Paradigm Farms. One day when we were both frustrated with trying to get weight on a horse of this type Melissa decided to replace some of the grain in his diet with alfalfa pellets. I’ll admit that I said I thought the idea was a waste of time. In spite of that she tried it for awhile and in spite of my negative attitude it worked. We have tried it a few times since and it has worked almost every time we have tried it.

With this information at my disposal I told the client that I’d like her to start replacing some of her grain with alfalfa pellets and to prevent chokes I’d like her to soak everything…grain and pellets both…. thoroughly before each feeding. She agreed to try. A few months later it looks like we’ve enjoyed some success. In total the horse has been getting eight pounds of grain and four pounds of alfalfa pellets (so still 12 pounds total) for the last few months. Last week he weigh taped at 1120 lbs and his body condition score is between 5 and 6. Success !

However the question that remains unanswered is why would the horse start to gain weight only when we replaced a third of the horses grain with alfalfa pellets ? There is no easy answer to this question. Alfalfa pellets are much lower in calories per pound than the grain it replaced. I surmise that it has something to do with the alfalfa pellets creating a forage mat in the stomach and hindgut. This forage mat would help to slow down grain digestion and thus increase nutrient absorption of the grain meal. But this is simply my theory and at the end of the day I don’t really know why this tends to work well. What I do know is that sometimes simply throwing calories at a weight problem or removing calories from an overweight horse doesn’t do the trick. Sometimes it seems that the type of calorie is at least as important as the number of calories in the overall diet. At the end of the day I was able to help the horse and sometimes that has to be good enough !


Lotus, Romeo, Lofty and Flyer made a perfect picture this afternoon

Maisie and Lily making a valiant effort to groom each other despite having blankets on


Leo, Levendi and Ritchie


Chance and Jason hanging out while waiting for the farrier

Timbit and Sparky were being wild things again

Thomas, Moe, Homer and Tony

Sam and Johnny

B-Rad, Murphy and Wiz

Leo and Baby

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