Thoroughbred Logic: Feeding the Hard Keeper

“I might find my way to some eggs and leftovers at some point, but… my horses … eat like royalty. Nearly every one of them here was bred to compete in the sport of kings; there was never the expectation that they could do that when fed as anything less.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week, come along for the ride as Aubrey offers her logic on how to feed the hard keeper.

When I got Rikki (Tiz So Fine) off the track, she came with the moniker “the clothes hanger.” The reference to the modeling industry was not lost on me. The nearly 17-hand bay beauty sauntered out of her stall, not looking bad, but still a bit light on weight and muscle. Everyone else in Michael Ann Ewing’s race barn was fat and happy. Rikki was definitely happy — the goat had even claimed her stall as his; she just wasn’t in the mood to be fat. Rikki is a classic “hard keeper.”

The “coat hanger” (Tiz So Fine) in Kentucky in the summer of 2021. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Wallace.

When she came home with me, we amped up her alfalfa intake and fed three meals a day (I’ll talk more about this in a bit). Later, as the fancy Tiz Now offspring loaded on a trailer bound for a new life and potentially next year’s Thoroughbred Makeover, she left on an upswing.

I’ll spare you the long story of everything and everyone in the mare’s last year, but I’ll note that there are people in that history who have absolutely done as right by her as they could. In the end, hamstrung by contracts and complicated relationships, what they could and did do was help her get back here.

Rikki and the goat that chose her at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, KY. Photo by author.

When I bought the mare back she was rail thin. She had been living at a boarding facility for a number of months, having been pulled from the care of a knowledgable trainer. Her coat was dull, long hairs hung from her flanks in the summer heat, and her skin was flaky. The coat hanger look had gone full Kate Moss circa the 1990s; in the equine equivalent, the mare was at least 200 pounds underweight.

You can see all the potential is there and the mare will be gorgeous, but the coat and weight needed some work. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

It has now been almost six weeks since she has gotten back here and we’ve made progress, but there is more weight and now muscle to be gained. Here’s how we got there:

Five weeks after the above photo, here we are. There is still a lot to do – a lot of weight and muscle needed, but she’s starting to shine. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

There are about 3485739457 different ways to feed a Thoroughbred. As such, some folks will take issue with what I write next as it might be different from what they do or what they have done in the past. Great. If your horses are fat and have topline and are shiny and healthy, you’re already winning. This is just one more path that regularly works for the two dozen OTTBs in my barn at any given point, and is particularly helpful for the hard keepers.

First, hay. Horses ought to have access to quality forage (hay or grass or the like) at pretty much all times. When they’re underweight or just a Thoroughbred in general, I always recommend that some of that hay throughout the day ought to be alfalfa. Not only is that super green, super expensive stuff great for their body condition, skin, coat, and overall wellness, it is also good at keeping their gut happy and helping keep ulcers at bay. (No, it likely will not cure ulcers alone, but it will help maintain a happy stomach).

Rikki out for her first ride since returning here. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

To keep putting the weight on Rikki, she eats three times the usual serving of alfalfa and two times the usual serving of Timothy when in her stall. Grain wise, I use a base of soaked forage — so more alfalfa, this time in cube form — as well as soaked beet pulp, which I top with a three-quart scoop of Hallway Distinguished (high quality senior feed), ground flax, Luminance (fat supplement), oil, salt, and Madbarn’s Omneity (complete vitamin and mineral supplement).

Rikki gets that combo meal twice a day. And then in between she gets small meals of 1.5 scoops of grain an additional one to two times a day. *Horses can only digest so much at a time, so the small, frequent meals help a ton. But feeding enough of those meals – and enough at each meal – is critical. Sometimes the hard keepers are good eaters. Sometimes they just need better balanced nutrition and more (high quality) food.

Waffles (Runawaypoint) showing a similar transformation to Rikki. He arrived just three days after she did and has packed on about an equal number of pounds in the last six weeks. Photos by Alanah Giltmier.

A couple of quick points that might kick off internet fisticuffs. No, I do not think that alfalfa makes a horse hot. Some errant horses may have a true allergy to it, sure. But for the hundreds of Thoroughbreds who have passed through these stalls over the years, none have become crazy or hot because they consumed large amounts of alfalfa. I’ll get to the part about sass and energy in a minute.

I also regularly get questions about “why senior feed?” for not senior horses. The short answer is that the grain complements the whole feed package here. Senior feed is high in fat and fiber and easy to digest, helping Thoroughbreds get the energy they need efficiently. There are a ton of very reputable farms that successfully create chunky Thoroughbreds on straight high quality senior feed without all the other components of my concoctions. I just like my set up and enjoy the piece of mind that the sloppy forage mash and quality grain combination provides.

Waffles rocking around under saddle with enough energy not only to do that, but also to do it well. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

A few other important points to add here:

Rikki gets a stall. She gets to eat inside by herself at her own pace. She gets 12 hours of turnout with a small herd, but she also gets a break from the heat and the flies, and she doesn’t have to compete for her food. There are absolutely ways to do this in fields with shelters and individual feeding stations. I just find the stall to be the easiest for my farm’s set up.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) likes the stall because it gives him a chance to try to steal whatever I have that he wants — in this case, less-than-fabulous beer. Photo by author.

Additionally, when Rikki came back in looking nutritionally lacking, I ran a course of the Panacur Power Pack wormer just to make sure we didn’t have any other pest feeding off of her system. That also gave me peace of mind that she was getting the full benefit of what I was feeding — nutrients, calories and all.

Thankfully, she started to improve rapidly. However, for other particular horses, when things still weren’t looking up, when the coat remained dull and the skin wasn’t improving, I got the joy of hunting down and eradicating ulcers. In other words: selling my soul and emptying my savings for tubes of equine gold, also known as Gastroguard. I’ll have to write something specifically on ulcers in another article, but suffice to say there are a million treatments on the market and as many people to swear by different ones. I’m in camp “Scope first, Gastroguard to treat.” That one hasn’t failed yet, unless you’re looking at the impact on my bank account.

Rikki being all spunky (but level headed) during her first ride back to work. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

And now that I have told you a lot of different ways that we go about putting weight on horses… now that I have caveated that there are sooooo many other ways to do this… now that we have gone through stalls, and getting out of the flies, and mini-meals, and ulcers and wormers and all the things… now, I’m going to go up a step on my soapbox for one last thing:

When the horse is fat and happy they will have the energy they were bred to have. For many Thoroughbreds, this means that they have pep. They have spunk. They have some zing to their step. When their coats are shining and they are bright eyed and the ribs begin to fade slowly from view, you are riding the horse in a state of health and appropriate energy. That healthy horse is the horse you train.

There is definitely a good “go” button in this mare, but also a very trainable, sensible brain. I am excited to see the places she is able to go as she progresses here. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

In other words, here’s how my vet puts it, “Drastically cutting feed to make a horse ridable or less ‘hot’ is simply using starvation to gain submission.” Sure, that statement might be hyperbolic, but I don’t think it is wrong.

I’ll step off my soapbox now and go prep the first of the horses’ meals. I might find my way to some eggs and leftovers at some point, but I’ll be damned if my horses don’t have every opportunity to eat like royalty. Nearly every one of them here was bred to compete in the sport of kings; there was never the expectation that they could do that when fed as anything less.