Sign Up for Newsletters

Causes of Poor Appetite in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 23, 2012

There is nothing more frustrating than taking the time and research effort to select an appropriate feed for your horse and have him turn up his nose with a haughty air of complete disinterest.

When horses don’t eat enough to meet their energy and protein requirements they lose weight, and when they refuse to eat the most nutritious ingredients in the feeder, they miss out on vital nutrients that can, in the long run, affect performance, health, and longevity.

So why is your horse refusing the feed you put out? What could possibly be wrong with the feed or with the horse? How can you tempt a picky eater to enjoy his food and eat what is required to meet his demands?

There are a number of reasons why your horse might be picky, and investigating the causes of this behavior brings you one step closer to devising a solution for the problem.

Natural Personality Variance

Like humans, horses have different behavioral traits that may be genetic or may evolve during maturity. These include particular tendencies and idiosyncrasies when it comes to feed and eating. Aside from those that are sick, few horses simply do not want to eat. Most of the time there is some barrier or valid reason for the horse not to be having a good go at every meal offered. Horses have evolved to survive on meager pickings, so the norm is for them to take full advantage of every opportunity to consume extra calories in preparation for a possible fast that could be fatal in the wild. Domesticated horses live a somewhat privileged life, and many horses could be described as being spoiled when it comes to feed. When an equine nutritionist hears statements like, “My horse just will not eat grass hay, only prime lucerne,” or “My horse will only eat sweet feed; he just doesn’t like pellets,” the nutritionist may find he is actually dealing not with the horse but with the owner.

If horses are hungry and all valid reasons for inappetence have been ruled out, they should eat what you put in front of them provided it is good quality, clean, safe, and designed to be fed in the manner you are feeding. It may take a few days or even weeks of persistence, but the horse will become accustomed to the feed and will follow his natural survival instincts before perish because he would prefer something tastier. Many owners or managers wisely choose a period when their horse is out of work to introduce new feedstuffs, at a time when a slight loss in condition as the battle of wills progresses is of no big consequence. The time to dig your heels in is not just prior to a race, show, or major event for which your horse needs to be in peak condition. Many coddled horses have been cured of pickiness by being returned to a natural state of living in a paddock with reduced supplementary feeding, and this may be one option if you have a little time up your sleeve and don’t mind a change of environment and condition.

Living Conditions

When it comes to how they are kept, horses can have similar reactions to humans. Horses in small, dark, enclosed stables that get out only to work and are then returned can lose their appetite due to something akin to depression. Also, horses in a herd who are at the bottom of the pecking order and are incessantly bullied by a more aggressive herd member can become disinterested in food as a sign of general discomfort.

Separation anxiety caused by either a move to another property, the removal of a herdmate, or simply traveling alone to a competition can lead to loss of appetite in some horses. Though it usually lasts for only a short period of time, the problem can be of significant consequence if that period of time falls at a critical juncture such as just prior to a big event when it can have dramatic effects on performance.

Keeping horses in airy stables with plenty of light and the opportunity to socialize through bars or maintaining paddock groups that get along relatively well can help horses that are sensitive to their environment in this way. Being sensitive to horses that suffer separation anxiety and being prepared for their reactions can help you develop contingency plans. Some horses eat much better when relaxed in a paddock than in a stable.

Sudden Changes in Feed

Horses are creatures of habit and any changes in feed should be made gradually. This is particularly so with picky eaters. Such horses have highly sensitive radars for anything different or unusual in their feeders, so if you need to change feeds or add a new supplement, you must take care to not just throw it in the feeder. The change is far less likely to be noticed if it is done gradually over a few days or weeks. In any case, changes in feed need to be made gradually for the health of your horse’s digestive system, so just take your time and see if you can sneak in the new ingredient without an almighty battle of wills.

Pain and Discomfort

Causes of pain while eating include poor dental maintenance, mouth ulcers, gastric ulcers, and inflammation or abrasion of the esophagus. All of these factors can have a dramatic effect on appetite and can prevent your horse from wanting to eat. If your horse has always been a good eater and suddenly or gradually over a period of months becomes a picky or reluctant eater, then consider whether there might be any underlying problems causing the inappetence.

Have your horse’s teeth checked at least once or twice per year. Some aged horses and horses with poor mouth conformation need more regular maintenance, which your equine veterinarian or qualified equine dentist can advise you on. Pain in the mouth is a common cause of inappetence, and fixing the problem is as easy as a visit from the dentist.

Some feedstuffs such as barley hay with seed heads attached and feeds including oat or rice hulls are sharp and can cause damage to your horse’s gums as he eats them. Inflammation and infection of these sores can lead to painful mouth ulcers that can affect appetite. If you are feeding anything that you suspect might be causing abrasions in the mouth, take a look or get your veterinarian to have a look inside your horse’s mouth and consider changing the feed to prevent the problem.

Horses on high-grain diets and those not getting enough forage in their diets are prone to gastric ulcers. Horses in hard work and horses that get stressed during travel and competition are at risk, as are those who have had to be maintained on phenylbutazone (bute) for an extended period of time or that have not been eating and have had extended periods with an empty stomach due to whatever reason.

If gastric ulcers are a possibility, contact your veterinarian and ask to have your horse undergo an endoscopic evaluation, or ask your veterinarian about treating for ulcers, which in itself can act as a diagnostic tool. If ulcers are confirmed, treat according to veterinary advice and then take measures to prevent the return of the ulcers, including adding more forage to the diet, reducing grain intake, and increasing energy intake from fat and fiber sources. Equine antacids may be helpful, particularly during stressful times like travel and competition.

Some types of feed can cause abrasion and sensitivity of the mucous membranes of the esophagus. Rough, stalky hay can cause problems, though this is quite rare. Feeding copper sulphate (bluestone) can cause abrasions, as it is caustic even in relatively small quantities. Horses that regularly suffer choke from bolting their feed or from problems with the conformation of the throat or the position of the feeder are prone to inflammation and abrasions of the esophagus. Feeding dampened or soaked feeds and forage can assist a horse who is suffering from a sore throat, and feeding from the ground is a better option than using an elevated feeder. A horse eating from the ground stretches out its esophagus in a straight line, while feeding from an elevated feeder causes a bend in the esophagus that can obstruct food and make it less easy to swallow.

Hindgut acidity is a problem primarily with horses on high-grain diets and those getting extremely rich legume hay. Hindgut acidity can cause discomfort and lead to reduced appetite. When this is coupled with diarrhea (scouring), weight loss can be profound and can happen quickly. The cause of acidity must first be established and removed or managed in order to reduce the problem. If a high-grain diet is the cause, then reducing meal size and choosing heat-processed grains (corn and barley) rather than rolled or crushed grains to improve small intestine digestion should be the first step.

For horses scouring due to pasture or hay type, add some well-cured grass or cereal hay to bulk out the roughage and reduce the overall energy density of the forage component. With horses that are scouring due to illness, veterinary consultation is necessary. Horses will often scour following administration of an antibiotic course and this can sometimes be prevented by using probiotics alongside the treatment. Often probiotics can assist in getting the horse’s digestive system back on an even keel following a period of low-grade acidity or scouring. Choose a reputable brand and follow the directions on the packaging for best results along with the feed management methods mentioned above.

Horses in Hard Work

As horses progress in their training, they sometimes lose their appetite. As they get fitter, they sometimes require larger and larger portions of hard feed and less and less forage and any sudden increase in work can simply turn them off their feed. It is thought that there may be hormonal reasons for this sudden decline in appetite, so it is best to try and prevent this if possible. Make changes in work gradual, and as feed needs to be increased, increase the number of meals rather than simply the size of the meal. Feed no more than 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) of hard feed in one meal plus chaff if required. Be sure to provide plentiful forage. Preferably the largest proportion will be long-stem forage (hay and pasture) rather than all chaff so that the horse spends more time chewing and is less likely to develop gastric ulcers. Rather than automatically increasing just the grain, or adding bulky ingredients such as bran or pollard, try adding more concentrated energy sources such as high-fat feeds and supplements so the overall volume of feed is not increased too much, but the important energy is still provided in the right quantity. Instead of using dry, stalky hay, choose softer hay with more leaf ,which will be more nutritious per mouthful.

Illness and Injury

Many equine illnesses are accompanied by anorexia or refusal of feed. Inappetence can be due to pain from an injury or general depression from illness. Though this is generally a temporary reaction, severely ill horses can have a poorer prognosis if they go off their feed. Trying to increase the energy density of the feed and taking steps to encourage appetite can be of assistance in these cases.