Feeding a Senior Hinny

The basis of an underweight hinny’s diet should be hay or grazing if his teeth can manage it.

Photo: iStock

Q. I have rescued a 30-year-old hinny (offspring of a male horse and a female donkey) gelding. We had some of his teeth floated, but more has to be done in a month because they were so bad. He is also very skinny. We’ve been giving him soaked hay pellets, but he continues to lose weight. I don’t know how much I can feed him compared to a horse. I have iron, vitamin C, and joint supplements; Bute (phenylbutazone); senior feed; and beet pulp available at my farm. Hay is either alfalfa or Bermuda blend and rye and oat hay. I can also get red or rice bran if needed. Is there anything beyond that I could give him that would make him more comfortable, help him gain weight, and not cause him harm? Outside of the weight loss and bad teeth, he still has plenty of spirit left.

Cougar Martin, Tucson, Arizona

A. Thank you for your inquiry about your 30-year-old hinny—he sounds very lucky to have found you!

Checking his teeth and asking a veterinarian to assess any other health issues is the first priority to ensure that his poor condition is not due to any underlying disease. All equids need regular dental care and, if this has been neglected, elderly animals may suffer from dental disease, which can make chewing long fibers of hay difficult and painful.

The principles of feeding hinnies, mules, and donkeys are similar to those of horses except that they require feedstuffs with lower energy and higher fiber levels. I would urge you to try to give your hinny the simplest diet possible and not to offer too many different feedstuffs. The basis of an underweight hinny’s diet should be hay or grazing if his teeth can manage it. Otherwise, feeding soaked hay pellets or short chopped fiber products as hay replacers is a good alternative.

When trying to encourage weight gain in hinnies, mules, or donkeys it is important to use only high-fiber, low-starch and sugar feeds. We do not recommend offering grain or sweet feeds, as they have been strongly implicated with the development of gastric ulcers and laminitis in equids.

Weight gain should be gradual, and you should expect it to take six to 12 months for your hinny to safely reach a normal body weight safely. Gaining weight too quickly can put him at risk of developing numerous health issues. Start by slowly increasing the amount of hay pellets provided; we also recommend feeding unmolassed, soaked beet pulp alongside these pellets due to this fiber source’s conditioning properties (learn more about beet pulp on page 38). For ration amount, aim to provide 1.5-2% of your hinny’s body weight in dry weight of forage per day. For a 500-pound hinny, a diet of 8 pounds of hay pellets/hay and 1-2 pounds dry-weight beet pulp soaked and split into several feedings per day would be a good start. If your hinny can manage hay, you might replace some or all of the hay pellets with good-quality, soft grass hay. Alfalfa hay tends to be coarse and difficult to chew for those with dental issues, so I would avoid it if possible.

Be guided by what your hinny can eat comfortably and enjoys. Older equids often struggle with their appetite, so it’s crucial that these animals enjoy their feedstuffs. Keeping to regular mealtimes and providing a safe environment to eat in is also very important. Offering tasty treats, such as apples, carrots, pears, and bananas, can also help. For those with poor teeth, grating or pureeing fruit can provide a welcome, tasty addition to meals as long as it’s not fed in excess—one or two pieces of fruit a day can provide variety and help keep an equid interested in meals.

Finally, adding oil or oil-rich supplements can help encourage safe weight gain. Adding up to a cup of a vegetable-based oil (soya, corn, or rice bran) per day split between feeds can help increase the diet’s energy density without introducing grain.

I also recommend including a vitamin and mineral balancer suitable for equine animals; however, I would not recommend an iron-rich supplement unless specifically indicated by a veterinarian, as these products can pose problems if your hinny has underlying liver issues. Giving other supplements or treatments such as Bute should also only be done on veterinarian recommendation, as they can be harmful if other health issues are not evaluated first.

Good luck with bringing your senior hinny back to health—it will be hugely rewarding!

About the Author

Faith Burden, BSc, PhD

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