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Feeding Horses in Low Body ConditionBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 15, 2017

Domestic horses depend on humans to supply them with life-sustaining feedstuffs. Unfortunately, some horses are not given access to enough forage and feed to maintain acceptable body condition and become extremely thin. Refeeding these horses can be challenging for even the most well-meaning caretakers.

“All undernourished horses should be evaluated thoroughly by a veterinarian knowledgeable in starvation cases,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Not only will the examination identify immediate concerns, it will offer a baseline to gauge progress as refeeding advances.”

Health concerns should be addressed, and any wounds or blemishes should be treated accordingly. Hooves should be tended to as soon as the horse is strong enough to be trimmed or shod comfortably and safely. If lameness precludes trimming and shoeing, check back with a veterinarian about pain management possibilities during hoof-care procedures, especially if the hooves have been neglected for a long period of time.

Faced with an extremely thin horse, how does a caretaker begin refeeding? One refeeding schedule was proposed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and has been used for many years*, according to Whitehouse.

Days 1-3:  Feed 1 lb (0.45 kg) of leafy alfalfa (lucerne) every four hours (total of 6 lb (2.7 kg)/day in six feedings).

Days 4-10: Slowly increase the amount of alfalfa and decrease the number of feedings so that by day six just over 4 lb (1.8 kg) of hay is fed every eight hours (total of 13 lb (5.9 kg)/day in three feedings).

Days 10 and beyond: Feed as much alfalfa as the horse will eat and decrease feeding to twice per day. Provide access to a salt block. If the horse is progressing well in its recovery, small amounts of grain can be added at this point under a veterinarian’s supervision.

“This schedule should be used as a guide. Slight changes based on the situation and availability of feedstuffs will also likely yield satisfactory results, as the key is to provide small portions of highly palatable and digestible forages,” said Whitehouse. “Certainly, if an owner is fortunate enough to have access to a veterinarian that is well versed in refeeding, follow that professional’s suggestions.”

Caretakers might run into problems when refeeding a starved horse. Consider these points:

  • Watch the horse closely as he eats on the first day or two of refeeding, taking note of chewing and swallowing technique. Does the horse process the forage like a healthy horse? Problems with teeth might keep a horse from eating normally, and painful swallowing due to strangles, abscesses, or scar tissue from previous choking episodes can make a horse unwilling to consume forage. Contact a veterinarian if the horse shows little interest in eating, or if the horse rolls the forage in its mouth and then drops it. An examination by a dental specialist might also be a priority.
  • Think about treating the horse for gastric ulcers at a time approved by the horse’s veterinarian. “Gastric ulcers often develop because horses go long periods without eating. In the case of starved horses, days or weeks often elapse with little or nothing to eat, so gastric ulceration is a valid concern,” Whitehouse said. Gastric ulcers will sometimes reduce appetite, negating refeeding efforts. “Omeprazole can be used to heal ulcers, and then horses can be placed on a supplement such as RiteTrac, which will support a healthy gastric environment. RiteTrac also contains a buffering agent to optimize hindgut health,” she commented. (Horse owners in Australia should look for these research-proven products.)
  • If a horse becomes uninterested in alfalfa and appetite wanes, allow the horse access to lush grass for a few minutes several times a day, if possible. Green grass is a well-known appetite enhancer. Do not allow the horse to gorge on grass.
  • Changes in diet should always be made bit by bit, slowly decreasing one feedstuff while gradually increasing another. Be especially cognizant of this when refeeding starved horses, as their gastrointestinal tracts will not be primed for sudden variations in rations.
  • Malnourishment causes a host of inflammation processes to spike in horses. The addition of a body-wide anti-inflammatory, such as omega-3 fatty acids, could help multiple systems regain strength. “The most potent omega-3 fatty acids come from marine-derived sources, so choose a product such as EO•3 that is rich in DHA and EPA,” said Whitehouse.

Horses provided the best of care sometimes lose weight as part of other, unrelated health problems, including kidney and liver disease, aftereffects of major surgery, neurological dysfunction, and gastrointestinal anomalies. Nutritional requirements for these horses differ slightly from those of starved horses. See Feeding the Atypical Horse for more information.

*Stull, C. 2003. Nutrition for rehabilitating the starved horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 23:456-459.