Thin, fat, lazy, fizzy - feeding the problem horse

Whilst you can’t change a horse’s temperament or type by changing his feed, your choice of feed and the way you feed it can affect his condition and energy levels. Equally, what is acceptable to one rider, and for the level of work or competition for which they keep a horse, may not be acceptable to another. A novice rider may feel much happier if the horse they ride is not bursting with energy whereas a more experienced competitor may want much more “go”. Here we look at the most common extremes of condition and temperament and how you can adjust your feeding programme to achieve the result you are looking for. 


There are a number of reasons why a horse may be under weight, or not carrying the amount of condition you’d like, including poor teeth, worms, or even pain and discomfort due to a bad back. Ask your vet to help you eliminate any of these possible causes then consider the following to help promote the weight gain you are looking for.

  • Firstly it is important to check that you are feeding the recommended quantities of your concentrate feed for your horse’s bodyweight and workload. If you are under feeding you will not be supporting your horse’s energy requirements for work and maintenance so he will struggle to keep his body condition. Use a weightape, if necessary, to check your horse’s weight.

  • Are you feeding the most suitable feed for your horse’s workload and condition?  For example, if you are working your horse relatively hard but only using a feed formulated for light work, there will be little, if any, energy left for your horse to use for laying down extra condition.

  • The most effective way to promote weight gain is to feed a conditioning feed which is energy dense and will give you more calories per scoop than a lower energy mix.

  • Oil is an excellent source of non-heating calories (Outshine) which can help to promote weight gain without significantly increasing the total volume of feed.

  • The “little and often” rule is even more important when you are feeding poor doers, to give them the best chance to make the most of every mouthful.  Large volumes of hard feed no matter how digestible, can overload the stomach encouraging feed to pass out of the stomach too quickly before it has been digested properly.  Feeding smaller feeds higher in energy will ensure that your horse is utilising his feed properly whilst receiving sufficient calories for weight gain and reducing the risk of any digestive upsets.

  • Horses use energy (calories) to maintain their body temperature. By keeping the poor doer well rugged you are helping him to conserve energy which he can then lay down as extra condition.

  • Consider feeding a “digestion enhancing” supplement, like a yeast, pre or probiotic (Digest Plus). These can help promote good gut health and improve gut efficiency to ensure your horse gets the most from all his feed.


If your horse is overweight, careful feeding, exercise and management will help him or her trim down to a healthier size. Feeding a token offering of a horse and pony cube or mix may keep the calories low but, as these products are formulated to be fed in much larger quantities, your horse is likely to be missing out on vitamins, minerals and protein, vital for health and well-being. The best way to tackle feeding a ‘good doer’ is:

  • To feed a low calorie feed balancer (Lo-Cal Balancer) either on its own or with a low calorie, low sugar chaff. Balancers provide a very concentrated source of nutrients without extra calories and enable you to feed a balanced diet which, alongside regular exercise should help your horse or pony lose weight. 

The table below shows the differences in nutrient levels provided by a balancer formulated to be fed in small quantities and a similar weight of a traditional compound feed.

  • Don’t forget the contribution that your forage makes and limit access to lush grass if necessary. Fibre is vital for healthy gut function though, so choose clean but more fibrous (stalkier) hay, which has a lower feed value than the softer, leafier variety. 

  • Chaff based feeds are becoming increasingly popular to feed to our fatties, but make sure that you are feeding according to the manufacturers’ recommendations to ensure the horse receives all the nutrients he needs; this could prove to be a much greater volume than you are used to feeding.

  • Also check that your horse or pony is receiving sufficient exercise to burn off any extra calories that he may be consuming or this will be put down as extra fat.


Lack of enthusiasm for work is often coupled with the horse being overweight, so encouraging weight loss should be a priority and often results in a brighter outlook.  It can be frustrating when your horse or pony has no get up and go so consider the following pointers to help boost energy levels. 

  • Ensure you choose a compound feed formulated for the level of work your horse is doing and that you are feeding according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Under feeding will not only provide insufficient energy for work but also leave the horse deficient in other nutrients vital for general well being, muscle function and performance.


  • Consider changing to an oat-based competition mix (All-Round Competition Mix) to provide your horse with lots of quick release energy that, hopefully, will give him that extra “oomph”. 

  • If water and body salts are not replaced after sweating, dehydration can result with the horse tiring very quickly and a resultant loss of energy. Thus providing an electrolyte solution and plenty of water, whenever your horse works hard enough to sweat, is beneficial and will help him maintain energy levels for longer (Aqua-Aide). 


Be sure that the fizzy horse is not fractious due to, say, ill fitting tack which may be causing discomfort, then consider your management regime. Horses like this often struggle to maintain condition as they use up so much energy for work.

  • As for the other problem scenarios, check that your chosen feed is right for the horse’s work load and that you are feeding the correct amount. If you are feeding a high energy feed when your horse is only hacking out a couple of times a week your horse will have excess energy to use as he wants.

  • If you are feeding the recommended levels and your horse or pony is still too excitable choose a lower energy feed. If this, at correct levels, still provides too much energy, cut the amount and top up with a balancer to provide the additional protein, vitamins and minerals the horse needs but without the calories.

  • Choose a cube rather than a mix as cubes contain less starch and tend to provide more slow releasing energy from fibres and oils rather than cereals.

  • Oil is an excellent non-heating energy source for those in harder work or requiring extra stamina. Around half a pint per day is necessary to make a significant energy contribution but additional anti-oxidants may be necessary in the diet to support its utilisation.

  • Prebiotics have been found to settle the temperaments of some horses. If the bacterial population of the gut is disrupted or unbalanced, the horse can feel uncomfortable and grumpy. Feeding a pre or probiotic helps to restore the bacterial balance and can ease the discomfort.

These guidelines are by no means definitive and what works for one horse may not work for another. If you are struggling to find the key to the feeding of your horse, do make use of a feed company helpline whose advice is free and without obligation and could just help you find the solution.