EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Won't Take Medicine

Getting your horse to take his medicine can be a challenge. Dr. Joyce Harman offers up several ideas for a frustrated reader.

Question: Can you tell me how to get my mare to take her medicine? I dissolve it in water then pour that over sweet feed—she takes one bite and that is all. I’m frustrated and desperate–help!

Answer: Getting medication of all sorts into horses can be a challenge. Your mother would just say you cannot leave the table until you finish ____ (fill in the blank) and usually you end up eating or drinking the offending item. Horses are not like that, and many medications taste really bad. If you feed “bute” (phenylbutazone) to a horse, try touching a corner of the tablet with your tongue. It is a wonder any horse eats it all. (Do NOT under any circumstance eat any bute, just gently taste it. Bute is toxic to humans). Other medicines can be sampled the same way–many are offensive.

There are many ways to get medications, herbs or supplements into a horse. Sweet feed itself often disguises bad tastes, but in your case it is not enough. Also, many horses cannot eat the sugar in the sweet feed as it can cause obesity, insulin resistance and even laminitis. Some horses do not get enough feed to cover up the taste of medicines. Mixing medicine with water usually just spreads the taste of it out through the entire feed. So, what to do?

Do you know what your horse’s favorite flavor or treat is? One of my favorite additives is unsweetened apple sauce, which is safe in small amounts even for insulin resistant or fat horses. Apples are usually a favorite treat. Juices can also be used, but the thicker sauce usually mixes with the medicine better and disguises the taste better. Various sweeteners can be used such as honey, molasses, dark Karo syrup and various flavors of jams or jellies. There are new sweeteners on the market that are safe for insulin resistant horses such as Agave Nectar, which some horses may like.

Be creative in thinking about flavors. Bananas may work well for some horses, and those that live in citrus growing areas may like oranges. Look for other local fruits that are moist or soft and can mix easily. If you keep it clean, a small blender (like a Magic Bullet) in the barn can make mixing a medicine with fruit easy.

For many horses who eat little grain, the problem is getting enough volume to mix medicines or supplements into. Unsweetened beet pulp soaked can add safe volume and moisture to the feed. Mix the evening’s beet pulp into water and let it soak for the morning, and in the morning put the evening meal out to soak. In very hot weather, you may only be able to soak it for a few hours before it ferments, and in the winter it may freeze if you have no warm place. But the important thing is to soak it well before feeding. One cup of dry translates into several cups wet. If all you can find is beet pulp with molasses, and you wish to avoid the sweetener, soak the beet pulp in excess water, then discard the water before feeding; you will remove most of the sugar. Large amounts of beet pulp (quarts) can add calories and help thin horses gain weight, but small amounts (up to 2-3 cups wet) add bulk but only a few safe calories for the fatter ones.

When you have a medicine or supplement for long term use, it is important to find a way to disguise the flavor, since you do not want to create a torture session every day when you syringe something into the horse’s mouth. There are quite a few horses that will not eat anything you add to their food, and the medicine will have to be given by syringe. If a syringe is needed, use any of the above flavoring agents to ease the trauma.

In the case of trying to feed herbal supplements to horses, I personally feel that if a horse refuses herbs, there may be a good reason. Usually the formula is not correct for that particular animal, and it is not advisable to force feed it other than to add a bit of nice flavoring to the feed. Horses are herbivores by nature, and they usually know what is good for them. I find if I go back to the drawing board and change the herbs in most cases they will eat the correct formula.

Be creative and persistent, do not give up at the first refusal, and, if all fails, you will have a nice selection of products for your kitchen.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.

Do you have a veterinary question for Dr. Harman? Send it to asktheexperts@equinetwork.com. Check back for her answers on EquiSearch.com.

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