Nutrition Corner

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Discover the essentials of equine nutrition and delve deeper into the science behind it.

How To Fix 5 Common Feeding Problems

Too fat? Too thin? Too picky? Too eager? Whatever your horse’s issue, finding the solution starts with understanding the causes, then devising a strategy that addresses his individual needs.

All horses are definitely not created equal—especially when it comes to how they eat. This one starts getting fat when the air simply smells like cut grass; that one’s a finicky diva who won’t touch her beet pulp. One competition horse may be sleek and happy on just grass and hay, while his half brother gets ribby if he doesn’t get his daily grain.

“Even when their needs seem similar, something that might work for one horse might not work for another,” says Bridgett McIntosh, PhD, extension equine specialist at the University of Tennessee. There’s also the matter of individual preference, she adds: “Just like with people, each horse has different things they like or don’t like.”

Some nutritional problems in horses are easy to address—cut back calories for an overweight horse, increase them for a skinny one—but occasionally a situation defies common sense solutions. How do you handle the skinny horse who simply won’t eat the food he needs to thrive? Or an overweight horse who is already getting just a minimal ration?

Meeting these equine nutritional challenges requires some thought and creativity, as well as some trial and error, but the rewards will be a happier, healthier horse. Here are some strategies to help you solve your feeding problems. Click on each subhead to read more.

Feeding a too-easy keeper

The horse who doesn’t lose weight even on a meager ration is a common challenge, but it’s not just a feeding issue. In this situation, the owner needs to look at exercise level and energy level—how much work the horse is doing in relationship to calorie intake. The key is a good forage diet; most horses don’t need much else.

The best approach to taking weight off of a horse requires a balancing act between increasing his exercise and reducing calories without eliminating too much bulk from his diet.

• Cut the calories. Nutrient-rich hays and feeds may not be the best for an overweight horse. “Today we’ve developed many high-quality feeds and forages that have made many horses too fat,” says Amy M. Gill, PhD, an equine nutrition consultant in Kentucky. “We have to stop thinking about always feeding the ‘best’ quality to this type of horse, where feed restriction then becomes necessary, and start thinking in terms of medium- and lower-quality feeds, where the horse can still feed free choice because the calorie content of the feeds is much lower.” If you are feeding alfalfa hay, for example, you may want to switch to a grass hay that offers fewer calories per pound. That way, you can still offer a higher volume of hay, which will give the horse more “chew time” to help keep him happier.

Also, eliminate concentrated feeds or grains from his ration. He doesn’t need the calories they provide. However, if he’s now eating a less nutritious hay, he may need extra vitamins and minerals. “These horses don’t need grain, so I usually recommend a vitamin/mineral forage balancer,” says McIntosh. Ration balancers are formulated to provide nutrition without too many calories for easy keepers. Another option is extruded pellets. Extrusion makes feed more digestible and some extruded pellet products come in low-calorie formulations.

• Limit grazing. Lush pasture grasses provide more sugars and calories than an overweight horse may need. Limiting turnout time is one way to cut a horse’s intake, but he will likely fare better both mentally and physically if he can be out socializing with herdmates, moving about and getting exercise. In that case, consider using a grazing muzzle, which limits or eliminates the amount of grass he can eat, for all or part of each day, depending on his needs. Another option is to turn him out in a dry lot with a companion.

• Try a slow feeder for hay. Overweight or not, a horse still needs a steady flow of forage to keep his gut working properly, and that’s where a slow feeder can be a great help. A number of different slow-feeding devices are available—such as small-mesh nets as well as troughs and tubs with metal grids over the openings—that limit the amount of hay a horse can pull out at once. As a bonus, his hay will last longer, with less waste.

• Increase his exercise. There are two sides to the weight-loss equation: Eating less and exercising more. “The key to properly managing the chubby horse is to increase his metabolic rate by increasing his exercise,” says Gill. Casual weekend riding probably isn’t going to be enough to make a difference. Assuming he’s sound enough to handle it, an overweight horse needs to work up a sweat at least five or six times a week to shed pounds and increase his fitness level. If that amount of riding doesn’t fit into your own schedule, consider getting help from a friend or someone interested in half-leasing your horse.

Increasing turnout time by itself probably won’t get a horse enough sustained exercise to lose weight, but it can help. “I’d rather see the fat horse out at pasture, wearing a grazing muzzle, so he can still be with his friends running around and getting some exercise, rather than in a dry lot where he’s fed next to nothing and develops an even slower metabolic rate,” says Gill. 

Feeding the speed eater  

The greatest danger when a horse eats too fast is that he will develop choke, a serious condition in which wads of inadequately chewed or moistened hay and/or grain become impacted in the esophagus. A horse with choke is unable to eat or drink until the impaction is dislodged, and he may also develop aspiration pneumonia if backed-up fluids get into his lungs.

A two-pronged approach is needed to reduce the risk of choke in your speed eater—slowing his intake, and doing what you can to ensure that the food he ingests is adequately chewed and moistened with saliva. Here’s what might help:

• Moisten the food for him. Spraying your horse’s concentrates with water beforehand can help him ingest his meal more smoothly.

• Feed him alone. Some horses are prone to bolt their food because they are nervous eating while others are around. “The horse who bolts feed should not be fed in a group situation because he is generally worried about competition, wanting to eat the food very quickly before another horse grabs it,” says Gill. Instead, bring him into a stall or private corral at feeding time.

• Provide more frequent, small meals. When horses are left standing in a stall or dry lot with no feed for hours at a time, they are more likely to bolt their food when it does come. “With infrequent large meals the horse may be so hungry that he eats too fast,” says Gill. “We humans tend to eat too fast when we are hungry, and horses are no different. Eating smaller amounts more often can resolve this problem.”

Ideally, a stabled horse would have four or more small meals per day instead of just one or two. “If the horse is at a boarding stable that can’t do that, find a different boarding stable, or hire a helper to feed the horse at a time of day you can’t get there to do it,” says Gill.

• Consider switching to an extruded feed product. Extruded pellets break down more easily than to conventional pellets, which can reduce the risk of choke.

• Increase turnout and grazing. Even better is to have the horse turned out so that he can graze continuously. “If the horse doesn’t have to compete for food and never is allowed to become extremely hungry, then he doesn’t feel the need to bolt his feed,” says Gill. “The horse [at risk for choke] should be turned out as much as possible, with forage in front of him continually, and never allowed to get hungry.”

• Make bolting difficult. The traditional method for slowing a horse’s feed intake is to put big, smooth rocks or a salt block in his grain tub so he has to eat around them. Nowadays, you have a number of other options, including feed dispensers that drop small amounts of grain into the bucket at preset times or that hold the pellets under a grid so the horse can pick up only a few at a time. It may also help to feed hay first and then the grain; sated on the hay, the horse might be less excited about his concentrates. Finally, some extruded feeds are difficult for a horse to gobble too quickly.

• Offer hay in a slow feeder. A number of different devices are available—such as small-mesh nets as well as troughs and tubs with metal grids over the openings—that limit the amount of hay a horse can pull out with each bite. When forced to eat only a few strands at a time, as he would while grazing naturally, a horse isn’t likely to swallow enough at once to cause choke.

• Keep the feeding schedule consistent. Stress can aggravate the problem of a greedy eater.

Feeding a horse with poor teeth  

Age- or injury-related dental issues can make it difficult for a horse to chew his feed adequately. Signs that he’s having trouble eating include weight loss, quidding—dropping partially chewed food from his mouth—and the presence of long stems of poorly digested hay in his manure. The consequences can be colic, choke, malnutrition and other ills.

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If a horse has gotten beyond the point where dental treatments will keep him chewing well, then it’s time to adjust his diet with foodstuffs that he can eat more readily and that will provide all the fiber and nutrition he needs.

• Switch to a complete feed for seniors. When a horse can no longer chew hay, he may need hay cubes or one of the many senior feeds that includes fiber. Just remember that, no matter what form it’s in, a horse still needs to take in small amounts of fiber around the clock to keep his digestive tract healthy.

• Choose a softer forage. A horse who still has some chewing ability may do better with a softer-stemmed hay or more access to pasture. Soaking hay can also make it easier to chew and swallow.

• Try feeds or supplements specially processed for easy chewing and/or digestion. Extrusion and other processing can make a feed much easier for a horse to ingest and digest. Extruded pellets, for example, are easier to chew because they are softer and are less dense.

Feeding a picky eater

Before taking any steps to change a picky eater’s diet, make sure there is no physical cause for his lack of enthusiasm for food. Ask your veterinarian to perform a complete examination, looking in particular for problems with his teeth, mouth and digestive tract that may interfere with chewing or eating.

Once your veterinarian has ruled out health issues, it’s time to explore options for enticing your horse to eat enough to receive the nutrition he needs.

• Make sure your horse likes his hay. Before starting to add more concentrates to your thin horse’s diet, take a hard look at his forage. Some horses may eat more if provided with a different variety of hay or one with a softer texture. “If there is nothing clinically wrong with the horse and he simply needs to gain weight, or a horse is just fussy about what he eats, we always start with good forage as the foundation of the diet,” says McIntosh.

Another option might be to add nutrient-rich alfalfa hay to the horse’s ration. “Finicky eaters will generally eat fresh pasture forage and/or alfalfa hay or alfalfa pellets,” says McIntosh.

In addition, it may help to simply allow for more turnout. “Green pasture grass will be the most palatable—the best type of forage to tempt him to eat more,” says McIntosh. “I’ve never seen a horse turn down fresh grass, because this is what his digestive system is designed to utilize.”

• Make his meals yummy. It may take some experimentation, but it’s worthwhile to determine whether particular flavors or feed combinations will encourage your horse to eat more. Most horses, for example, will dig into a meal a little more vigorously if it has been “dressed” with a little molasses or honey, mixed with water.

When looking for flavors your horse might like, go beyond apples, molasses and carrots. In a 2005 study from England, researchers presented horses with choices of different-flavored feeds to determine which ones they ate most readily. The top-ranked flavors in the study were fenugreek, banana, cherry, rosemary, cumin, carrot, peppermint and oregano.

• Feed the fussy one last. One trick that may encourage a finicky horse is to feed him last. “Put him at the end of the aisle and feed all the other horses first,” says McIntosh. “When he sees the other horses eating, he’ll want to eat, too. Horses are social animals and somewhat competitive, so feeding the others may stimulate the fussy one.”

• Keep trying new things. If no amount of encouragement will get a horse to eat his feed, it’s time to try a different product. A horse may not like the texture of a particular feed, for example, but may love another product of the same brand that comes in a different form—pelleted, extruded or otherwise processed.

As long as any changes in feed are made gradually, over the course of two weeks or so, and as long as you provide adequate water, salt and forage, you can safely mix and match to identify the concentrates and supplements that work best for your horse.

Feeding a robust eater who remains thin

When a horse fails to gain weight even when he apparently eats his full ration each day, the first thing to do is bring in your veterinarian. A physical examination is needed to determine whether ulcers, parasitism or disease processes are interfering with your horse’s ability to utilize the nutrients he consumes. Part of the investigation will be an oral exam looking for problems that interfere with the adequate chewing of food.

If your veterinarian rules out health issues, also ask her to evaluate your horse’s current diet to make sure you’re covering all the right bases—fiber, calories, protein, vitamins and minerals, water and salt—in the correct proportions. Then, working with her or an equine nutritionist try one of the following measures for helping your horse maintain his condition:

• Add more calories. Fattening horses once meant loading up their feed buckets with grains, sweet feeds and the like, but research over the years has shown that there are better approaches, primarily because the consumption of large amounts of sugars and starches can cause disruptions in digestive processes that in turn can lead to serious health issues such as laminitis and colic.

A better alternative is to increase dietary fat, which provides ample calories without the risk of digestive imbalances. “Fat is easily digested, absorbed and readily available as an energy source—and if fed correctly, does not cause any disruption of the hindgut, like sugars and starches can do,” explains Gill, an equine nutrition consultant in Kentucky.

There are several simple ways to increase the fat in your horse’s diet. Over a week to 10 days you can add up to one cup of vegetable oil or half a pound of prilled, dry palm fat to his feed or hay. Or try one of the many high-fat, low-starch commercial feeds formulated to help put weight on horses. “It’s healthier for most horses to eat a concentrate with little to no grain in it,” says Gill. “For the fussy eater, we want feeds with lots of calories, but without starch. This usually means a high-fat, high-soluble fiber diet.” Likewise, there are several supplements on the market that provide additional calories in a palatable form.

• Try a different kind of hay. Make sure you are feeding the best-quality hay available and consider switching to hay that is higher in nutrients. Alfalfa hay, for example, has long been valued for its high nutritional content. 

• Observe his lifestyle. Your horse’s failure to thrive even on a seemingly balanced diet may not reflect a problem with the “energy in” part of the feeding equation. If he’s a stall walker, weaver or a generally nervous horse, he may be expending energy fretting and/or through compulsive activity. Also keep an eye on your herd dynamics: If your horse ranks low in the hierarchy he may be forced to run off calories by herdmates who chase him, and he may be bullied away from hay and other food resources.

Meeting your horse’s nutritional needs can be challenging, particularly if he falls into one of the categories above. But with a little research—and consultation with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist—you’ll be able to make sure your horse gets the vitamins, minerals and calories he needs. To jumpstart that process, try the free feed finder tool offered by Sentinel Feeds.

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