Feeding the Finicky Eater

Some horses present special challenges in feeding, especially if they won't eat enough to maintain proper body weight. Sometimes a lactating broodmare, a horse in hard training or steady work, or a horse recovering from illness or injury just won't eat enough, and the horse owner must find ways to tempt the horse to eat more, or use feeds that are more nutrient dense.

Karen Davison, PhD, an equine specialist with Purina Mills, says whenever a horse is a hard keeper, you should check for possible underlying problems. There might be a physical reason for an inability to maintain proper body condition or for lack of appetite. The horse might have bad teeth, digestive tract discomfort from ulcers, or some other problem that discourages eating--or he could have a chronic metabolic disease or kidney failure.

Dental care can be an important factor, making a difference in whether a horse eats with enthusiasm or reluctance. "I attended a veterinary meeting in St. Louis recently, which included a session on dental work," says Davison. "Slides were shown portraying various problems inside a horse's mouth. We all realize the need to float teeth and give a horse regular dental care, but actually seeing the damage from dental problems was very revealing. The lacerations on the sides of the mouth, cheek, and tongue from bad teeth can seriously affect how the horse eats."

It's pretty basic: If it's painful to chew, some horses will not eat much.

You should try and discover why a horse is off feed, working with your veterinarian to figure it out. "It's one thing if a horse is just picking through the feed to eat what he likes, but it's a more serious problem if he just stands in a corner and doesn't want to eat or won't finish a meal," says Davison.

Jerry Black, DVM, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and owner of Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., says a good veterinary examination and some baseline laboratory work should be a starting point, particularly if there is weight loss involved. "A thorough oral exam is recommended, and this could include radiographs, particularly if there's a possibility of a low-grade tooth abscess forming," he says. There might be things going on in the mouth that you might not see with a visual exam.

"If a horse is not an enthusiastic eater, we want to find out why," says Black. "The ones we are most suspicious about are those that change their attitude about eating; they used to eat well, but are now fussy. This should indicate something is wrong."

Kathleen Crandell, PhD, nutrition consultant for Kentucky Equine Research (KER), feels that every horse normally has a good appetite and if a horse is picky, there is usually a reason. That reason can be anything from overtraining to a health problem to pain. With ulcers, for instance, there might be no visible symptoms, but the horse just isn't doing well.

"Sometimes these horses eat, but not enough, or may be really picky about what they eat," says Crandell. "Some of them dive right into the food, then slow down and back off. This can be a sign of ulcers, because when the food hits the stomach and starts to irritate the lining, the horse becomes uncomfortable."

Black says that "horses with low-grade abdominal pain may tuck the abdomen a bit and you'll see some muscle stinting. Stinting is contraction of the abdominal muscles due to pain. It has the appearance of muscle cramps, but in this case is secondary to other pain that is usually abdominal in origin such as from an organ or bowel pain. If you have any suspicions at all, have your veterinarian check for ulcers. Most equine hospitals now have the three-meter scopes that are needed for examining the adult horse's stomach."

A horse with gastric ulcers usually does better on pasture, or when fed fine grass hay and no grain. Grain irritates the stomach lining and causes wider swings in gastric activity, which can accentuate an ulcer. Living at pasture is the best way to prevent or heal an ulcer, but many performance horses need high-energy feeds in order to give peak performance. They can't eat enough grass to obtain the needed nutrients.

"Some horses seem to produce a little more acid in the stomach than others, but don't actually have ulcers," says Crandell. "When you give these horses an antacid designed for horses, like (KER's) Neighlox, they eat better; their appetite comes back.

"Cribbers are often fussy eaters, but they often crib because they have ulcers, or they learned to crib when they were babies because they had ulcers--and then it became a habit," she says.

"Another thing that can affect appetite is pain," Crandell adds. "A lot of older horses lose their appetites just because of chronic pain from something like arthritis or an old injury. A horse with any kind of injury may back off feed just because he hurts."

Horses in Hard Training

"We often see some really fit horses, like three-day event horses, when they are at peak performance that start backing off feed," says Crandell. "That's usually a sign of overtraining--which can affect the appetite. The horse is getting burned out and doesn't care as much about eating. Some horses seem to reach that point more quickly than others, depending on how they respond to training, and it always seems to be the skinny ones that are the fussy eaters. In these situations, the horse may need a layoff from work for awhile."

Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at Cook College, Rutgers University, says that if a picky eater is in hard training and losing weight, she usually recommends feeding smaller, more frequent meals and supplementing the horse with B vitamins given orally. "There is no strong scientific evidence for the B vitamins, but theoretically they could help, and there are many anecdotal reports that they do. The smaller meals (giving the horse no more than 0.5% of his total body weight at any one meal) three to four times a day will usually improve feed efficiency and maybe stimulate more intake," says Ralston.

Hard-Keeping Broodmares

Melinda Black manages Valley Oak Ranch in Oakdale, Calif., which she owns with her husband, Jerry. She says if a mare can't be at pasture, she feeds a high-quality alfalfa along with some good grass hay. "I generally don't feed cubes or pellets. Horses are grazers and they like a lot of roughage," she says. "On hard keepers, I keep good grass hay in front of them all the time, in addition to the alfalfa or other feeds, if they are in stalls. Our older, hard-to-keep mares do really well on this, or on pasture. We have so much clover in our pastures in the springtime that it's a wonderful feed (adding a little more protein to the mix). Any time they can actually graze, they do better. Grass and sunshine are the most natural conditions. The mares feel good and eat better."

"One product I like to use is rice bran, which is high in fat," adds Jerry Black. "This helps a hard-keeping mare gain weight because it has a lot of calories and is really palatable; horses seem to like it. With this added to their feed, and a mineral block in front of them, most hard keepers do well."

Melinda Black also feels that feeding a daily dewormer, such Strongid C, helps horses keep their condition better. "It not only controls parasites, but helps them metabolize food better and utilize it more completely," she says. "All my mares and sale-prep colts are on this, and all my stallions are on it during the breeding season, and they all maintain their weight very well." Keeping the gut clean and healthy helps horses utilize all the feed they are eating, with less drain on the system from parasites, she says.

"We don't really know how often horses pick up parasites," adds Melinda Black. "If you are deworming every two or three months, you don't know how much re- infestation is going on in between. I feed my 27 yearlings Strongid C, even though they are all in pastures. They have their individual grain buckets and the dewormer is put in their feed once a day. For several years I tried deworming my foals every month as weanlings and every two months as yearlings, but even on that type of diligent program (with rotation of different dewormers, and use of big pastures with minimum contamination), they still had a large amount of worms. So I changed to using the daily dewormer. For the last couple of years I've had them all on Strongid C, and they look better."

This way, she says, a person can be reasonably sure the horses are free of worms and getting more nutrution from their feed. A fussy eater especially needs no added drain on the nutrients he eats.

The Convalescent Horse

"Everyone has their own way of handling finicky eaters, but from a veterinary standpoint, we look for something that horses typically tend to really like, such as good, green, leafy alfalfa hay (which is more palatable than grass hay, for instance)," says Jerry Black. "If a horse is coming back from serious disease or surgery (horses that suffered weight loss), we tempt them with chopped alfalfa and molasses. You can buy a feed called A&M (alfalfa and molasses) and feed fairly liberal quantities of it. We've also used a lot of products like Purina Senior because they seem to be very palatable, digestible, and very nutrient dense."

"With horses coming back from anorexia (no appetite) due to major illness or surgery, I instruct owners to offer them good green grass," he advises. "Sometimes the first thing to do with a horse that's had a major problem is to put him in an ideal natural environment where he can graze some green grass.

"In terms of nutrition, once you get the horse started back on feed, be careful about using a high-carbohydrate diet," Black cautions. "The horse needs some fiber. Some of the newer products like Purina Strategy can be fed liberally, and you don't have to worry so much about carbohydrate overload because these contain some fiber. This is healthier for the gut than the pure grain mixes. You can always go back to the old horseman's standby of oats, with the highest fiber (carbohydrate ratio) we ever fed to horses. Oats are highest in fiber of all the cereal grains, and a natural horse feed; horses tend to like oats better than some of the other grains."

The horse's individual situation might dictate what is best to feed him. A horse with a respiratory problem that is complicated by dusty hay might need his hay soaked in water or be fed a special non-dusty ration of pellets or grain (molasses will reduce the dust). A horse with a small intestine disorder (which reduces his ability to digest grain) should be fed a nutritious fiber diet with little or no grain. A horse with a large intestine disorder (reducing his ability to digest and absorb protein, roughage, and phosphorus) will do better on a diet of pellets and additional grain. A horse with gastric ulcers, and one with diarrhea, should be fed fine grass hay and no grain.

Tips on Feeding the Fussy Horse

With each horse, you must try to find out what's going on healthwise. If you can't find a specific problem to correct, the only thing you can do is try and tempt him to eat more. Giving fresh feed periodically through the day might get him to eat more total feed. The challenge is to find out what he will eat that meets the nutrient requirements.

Black says finicky eaters usually eat more total feed if given several small meals each day instead of larger portions twice a day. They will clean up a small meal better than a large one. Also, this helps avoid the problem of large amounts of feed sitting around to get stale (and thus less palatable to a fussy eater) or spoil in a damp environment. Feed that sits out too long might begin to mold or become contaminated.

"I always recommend small quantities," says Black. "Figure out what the horse will clean up over a six- to eight-hour period and break the ration up into three or four meals per day. The horse will be tempted to eat again when you put out the fresh feed."

Crandell says, "If a horse is a fussy eater, I try to find out if it's a specific supplement he doesn't like. When a horse starts refusing feed, it helps to go back to the basic ration--the grain without the supplements--to see if he'll eat that. If he eats the grain readily, then add the supplements one at a time--the fat, the electrolytes, the vitamins, etc., to discover what he doesn't like. If a horse won't even eat the basics, there is usually something wrong. Horses are normally quite greedy, and if they are not eating well, there may be a health problem. But if it's a specific feed ingredient he doesn't like, you can often figure it out. Once you remove that from his feed mix, he'll eat better." If the unpalatable ingredient is needed, perhaps a different formulation will work better.

You might have to experiment with the basic grain mix. If a grain mix contains barley, the horse might just happen to not like barley, for instance. Black says some horses don't like sweet feed, so you might have to go back to a rolled oat or cleaned oat ration.

Crandell says, "Sometimes when a horse is fussy, he will eat something new fairly well for a couple of weeks, then decide he doesn't like it anymore. So you switch, and he eats the new feed for a while, then decides he doesn't like it either. You might have to keep changing."

A word of caution: Changing feeds can be a major contributor to colic episodes. "You must be careful about making big changes; you don't want to be putting totally different kinds of feed in front of them all the time just to find out what they'll eat best," Davison says, "You should gradually work toward any kind of major change."

Crandell says, "If switching to another grain, we usually recommend taking three days to make the switch." Use the new feed and old feed half and half the first day. By the second day, the old feed can comprise only a quarter of the ration. The third day, it can be just one-eighth, she says.

It also helps if the feed is not a lot different in nutrient density or nutrient content than the old one. "A lot of feed manufacturers today use a pellet in their sweet feed," she adds. "The pellet itself would contain the vitamins, minerals, and protein. They put this pellet in all their different blends of sweet feed. When you switch feeds, they still have much in common. One feed for performance horses, for instance, might be 6% fat and contain oats, barley, and that pellet. If the horseman wants to switch to the feed that's 12% fat, it's the same feed, but has more fat."

There are also appetite stimulants on the market, Crandell says, and B vitamins might also help. "Sometimes horses get their digestive tracts out of balance. The microbe population is disrupted and this will affect appetite. A yeast supplement can help balance everything again, and bring the appetite back," she says.

Beet pulp soaked in water is a feed used by some horse owners to tempt a fussy eater. "This may work for a horse that is not eating hay well," says Crandell. "Beet pulp soaked in water is more succulent, yet can provide some of the fiber he would be getting in hay. But this is an acquired taste; a horse that's never had beet pulp before may not eat it. If a horse will eat it, however, this is a way to get more feed into a fussy horse--rather than giving him excessive amounts of grain when he won't eat hay."

Most horses eat better in company than they do alone, partly because of the competition factor. If a horse is part of a group, he will feel more urgency about eating, because he knows that if he doesn't eat right now, he won't get his share. This tends to stimulate his appetite, along with the fact that horses are herd animals. When one horse eats, it's a signal for the rest of the herd to start eating, says Crandell. Herd life is the most natural situation for a horse. A horse that is upset and nervous because he's in confinement (in a stall or paddock by himself) might not eat enough because he is worried about being alone.

In some cases, however, a timid horse might be too nervous to eat well in a group situation. A non-dominant horse might be insecure about his position in the social order, and back off when threatened by the other horses. "He may be so timid that he is nervous about eating in that group environment," says Black. "Any time we see a horse losing weight in a herd situation, we take him out and feed him separately."

It's always a case-by-case situation to figure out how best to feed the fussy eater. "You may have to do a little investigation about that particular horse to find the best answer," says Black. And once you do, you'll have the information you need to help him keep in good condition.


Karen Davison, PhD, an equine specialist with Purina Mills, is presently dealing with a mare who has trouble maintaining weight. "At first I was concerned that her managers were not feeding her properly, because she wasn't doing well, but in actuality she was just not cleaning up the feed. It wasn't just a grain issue; she wouldn't even clean up good alfalfa hay," says Davison.

"Usually when you find a horse that's finicky and not wanting to clean up a meal, you look for a health reason," she says. "When a horse goes off feed, my first thought is a gastric ulcer. But this mare didn't show any signs (ill temper at feeding time, discomfort, grinding the teeth, etc.). Since she is a valuable mare, the owners went ahead with the expense to have her scoped, but she was clean--no ulcers. We've checked her blood work, temperature, etc., but could find nothing wrong."

"A horse that just won't eat enough can be a challenge, and there is no one answer that works for all of them," Davison says. "With this particular mare, we changed to a new Purina product that is designed for high-end performance horses. It is extremely nutrient dense. When developing this feed, we spent a lot of time and effort on palatability. This mare is now being fed small meals three or four times a day, and this seems to help since she just won't finish two big meals a day. She'll eat more total feed if it's spread out more through the day. Having her on Purina Ultium (the nutrient-dense feed), she doesn't have to eat as much to maintain her condition. We've only had her on this a month, so it's hard to tell if this is the right answer for her, but so far, she is not losing any more weight--and she may start to gain."--Heather Smith Thomas

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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