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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Caring for a Thin Horse

    Horses can suddenly lose weight due to an underlying health problem. The following can help to determine the cause of the weight loss and to minimize potential problems:

    • Offer adequate pasture and/or free-choice hay and grain.
    • Minimize your horse’s exposure to sudden environmental changes and slowly acclimate your horse to other changes, such as changes in feed and companions.
    • If grain is needed to maintain your horse’s body condition, you can avoid problems such as gastric ulcers by feeding small, frequent meals of grain rather than one or two large meals of grain daily.
    • If your horse suddenly loses weight and/or your horse’s body condition worsens, contact your veterinarian.

    The Basics

    Many horses maintain a good body condition if offered a sufficient quality and quantity of pasture and free-choice hay (as needed). Younger horses or horses in work require additional food, such as grain, to meet their nutritional needs; older horses often require a senior or complete feed because they lack adequate teeth. If your horse suddenly loses weight, it is important to assess your horse’s health and any changes in how your horse is managed.

    What to Do: Management

    Reevaluate your feeding program to ensure that your horse is being offered enough food daily. Has the quality of pasture or hay changed? If you need to change feed, do it gradually over a few weeks to ensure that your horse adjusts and does not develop a problem, such as colic. When feeding grain, it is best to feed small amounts frequently rather than one or two large meals daily; this can avoid changing the stomach pH too much, which can cause stomach ulcers.

    To avoid agitating your horse, slowly introduce him or her to new situations or new herd members in pasture. Horses in a herd have a hierarchy (“pecking order”), so introducing a new horse can change herd dynamics. If a new horse is introduced, it is very important to monitor the herd closely to ensure that the new horse is not being bullied or prevented from eating. If the new horse is being bullied or prevented from eating, separate the horse from the herd. It may also help to feed the horses separately (for example, in stalls) to ensure that each horse receives adequate food and water. It is important to separate certain horses, such as stallions or mares with foals, from other horses on the property and to use separate barns/enclosures and pastures. This will avoid exposing stallions to mares in heat and the problems associated with their interaction, such as lack of interest in eating.

    What to Do: Health

    Sometimes, despite excellent management and availability of high-quality feed, horses lose weight suddenly. It is important to schedule an appointment to have your veterinarian perform a thorough physical examination on your horse. Your veterinarian may determine that additional diagnostic tests, such as blood tests, are needed to evaluate your horse’s kidney and liver function. Horses can develop dental problems or diseases, such as stomach ulcers, pneumonia, or a tumor, that can cause weight loss.


    It is much more effective to prevent sudden weight loss in your horse than to care for a thin horse that is rapidly losing weight. Providing adequate pasture and free-choice, high-quality hay and/or grain is imperative. If your horse becomes too thin and loses too much muscle mass, (1) your horse will likely become recumbent and unable to stand and (2) your horse’s internal organs may undergo irreversible changes, such as heart, kidney, or liver failure.

    Developing and implementing a thorough deworming program with your veterinarian, along with regular quality checks (such as fecal egg counts to ensure dewormer efficacy), are vital to maintaining your horse’s health. Regular (for example, weekly) manure removal from pastures can help minimize the number of parasites on a farm.

    Having your veterinarian perform regular physical examinations on your horse can help to detect problems early, when they are usually more treatable. Asking your veterinarian for tips may be very useful because he or she is accustomed to working with many types of horses and management styles.