Feeding the Problem Horse (Book Excerpt)

Some horses present special challenges, such as being too thin, too fat, or sick. Some horses are finicky and are hard to keep weight on, especially when working. The first option is to increase the feed's energy density by adding grain or fat to the diet. Weight loss in spite of plentiful feed may be a sign the horse is being overconditioned.

Increasing good roughage or adding nutrient-rich legume hay can usually help the thin, idle horse or one doing moderate work. A hard-working horse, however, will not tolerate the extra protein some feeds (such as alfalfa) provide, with heat produced during digestion. A better choice might be rehydrated beet pulp, with its highly digestible fiber, low protein, low vitamin-mineral content (unlikely to upset the diet's mineral balance), and palatability. Unlike grain, it is safe to feed in relatively large quantities and can be added to a grain ration to give greater digestibility. For horses that just pick at hay, beet pulp often can be a good substitute for part of it.

The hard-working horse cannot eat enough roughage to supply his needs, particularly if he is finicky, tired, or dehydrated. If a horse won't eat enough hay, he can usually be tempted with something more lush and palatable, such as fresh green grass, or rehydrated beet pulp. A tired, dehydrated horse often will eat green grass when he won't touch anything else. You can also soak a flake of hay in water.

The fat horse needs less calories and/or more work. When cutting down his nutrients, however, don't cut down the total amount of feed or he will look for something else to chew on. Cut down the quality of his ration rather than the quantity. A mature thousand-pound horse still needs about twenty pounds of feed to meet his dry matter requirements, and if you cut him back to fifteen pounds he will start eating the fences or bedding. Feed him clean grass hay (no grain), cut mature enough to be low in nutrients.

The sick or injured horse needs special care in feeding because nutrition plays an important role in recovery. If he was fit and active before his injury or illness, he may need his total ration reduced as he can't use as many calories in his inactivity. Keep in mind, however, that illness may make other demands on his body. Pain, fever, and infection all increase his metabolic rate and his need for energy and protein. A horse that is fighting infection needs extra protein. The immune system needs amino acids to create antibodies and other infection-fighting cells.

A shivering horse needs more calories to help generate body heat. The best way to help him is to increase protein -- with its increased heat of digestion. In a sick horse, the body's metabolic rate (the speed at which energy and nutrients are burned) may increase up to three times the normal rate. If he is not eating enough (which is often the case if he doesn't feel well), he will lose weight. A well-fleshed idle horse usually has enough body reserves to get him through a mild illness, but a fit athletic horse may have very little fat to spare when illness or injury decreases his appetite.

The sick or injured horse should always have access to salt and water. He may not drink enough, so be sure his water is always clean and fresh and at acceptable temperature (cool, but not cold, in summer; warm, but not hot, in winter). Water him in a bucket or tub so you can monitor how much he actually drinks.

Make sure feed is palatable and of high nutrient quality if he has poor appetite. His illness may dictate what is best to feed. A horse with a respiratory problem irritated by dusty feed should have his hay soaked in water or be fed pellets or special feed for horses with heaves. A horse with a small intestine disorder (reduced ability to digest grain) should be fed a nutritious fiber diet with little or no grain. A horse with a large intestine disorder (less ability to digest and absorb protein and roughage, and phosphorus) will do better on alfalfa or pellets and additional grain. A horse with gastric ulcers should be fed fine grass hay and no grain; the latter tends to irritate the stomach lining and causes wider swings in gastric activity, which can accentuate an ulcer. A horse with diarrhea should generally be fed grass hay and no grain.

A horse whose digestive capacity has been diminished (by parasites, antibiotic therapy, or some other situation that has reduced the population of beneficial microbes) may benefit from yeast supplementation and vitamin B complex or other micronutrients to help restore proper gut function. Horses that don't eat enough for an extended time may have difficulty extracting the necessary nutrients from feed and could benefit from supplements that supply an increase in nutrients or feeds that have been processed to enhance digestibility. If a sick horse refuses to eat, tempt him with lush green grass or something he really likes in small frequent meals. If he refuses feed because you have put medication in it, take that feed away and give him some without medicine.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Care and Management of Horses by Heather Smith Thomas. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

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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