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Appetite Stimulation for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 28, 2017

When a typically ravenous horse leaves grain in his bucket or doesn’t seem interested in hay, it is cause for concern and prompt veterinary examination. But not all horses are eager eaters; some are far pickier. It’s nearly impossible to force a horse to eat if he doesn’t want to, but there are some things that can be done to help stimulate the appetite of the more discriminating eater.

A horse may lose its appetite for a number of reasons. A veterinarian will likely rule out any medical concerns, such as fever, colic, illness, pain, choke, or dental problems.

Research has shown that ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, temporarily decreases after short-term, high-intensity exercise. In addition, about 90% of horses in active race training and about 60% of working pleasure horses have equine gastric ulcer syndrome, a condition that can cause a painful stomach and decreased feed intake. General stressors, including a change in environment, trailering, herd separation, and hot, humid weather, can all be factors in reduced appetite and low feed intake. Horses with gastric ulcers should be treated to heal the lesions and then given a proven supplement, like RiteTrac, to keep new ulcers from forming. (Australian horse owners should look for these supplement options.)

If you find yourself with a picky eater despite no medical diagnosis, gradually transitioning your horse to a new feed will sometimes spark interest in food, according to Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Have you ever eaten the same thing day in and day out? You’d get bored, and anecdotal observations suggest that some horses do, too. Slowly introducing a novel feed may encourage a horse to eat,” she said.

Horses evolved eating several small meals throughout the day. If a horse doesn’t want to consume his entire ration in two daily feedings, breaking the meal up into smaller ones spread over several hours may encourage eating.

In more chronic cases, a veterinarian may recommend appetite-stimulating medications, such as steroids. However, such medications often don’t work. Benzodiazepine derivatives (types of tranquilizers) can cause temporary increases in appetite, especially in anxious horses, but their use is generally not recommended due to potential negative side effects. Furthermore, B-vitamins are frequently given in effort to encourage eating, especially in ill animals, but the positive effects are anecdotal and scientific research on this practice is limited.

Some simple management techniques can be useful for encouraging food consumption. In hot weather, providing a cool bath can help make a horse more comfortable, therefore encouraging him to eat. If a horse is in an intense exercise program, temporarily easing the amount and duration of work could help. Keeping a buddy close by, offering turnout, and minimizing environmental stressors can all help a horse feel less anxious, increasing the likelihood of eating.

When a horse stops or reduces feed intake, a veterinarian should be consulted immediately. Check the horse’s environment for potential stressors, and break up meals into several small portions throughout the day.

The equine nutrition professionals at KER can help ensure the horse’s diet stays balanced, preventing problems such as weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. Contact a specialist today.