There’s sound logic behind the phrase “eats like a horse.” If a horse isn’t eating with enthusiasm, something is usually wrong. There is, of course, the occasional brat that refuses to eat what he doesn’t especially want. But mental stress and physical problems can disrupt eating patterns, and our domesticated feeding customs stress the horse’s digestive system to the max. Eating has evolved from a steady activity to an “event” that the horse uses as a starting and ending point for the day’s routines, especially in training barns.
If your horse will eat only certain types of hay or grain, refusing feed may be a matter of habit. These horses may be overfed, or at least extremely well fed. Believe it or not, you can probably “force” this spoiled horse to eat. Be sure all feed changes are gradual, beginning with no more than half a pound of the new grain or two to four pounds of the new hay per feeding. Introducing new grain is usually easiest, since you can mix it in thoroughly with the more familiar type and make it difficult for the horse to sort through and find the stuff he likes better.
Mixing new hay with old in the same feeding doesn’t always work as well. The horse can then easily eat what he likes and leave the rest. One solution is to feed less than the usual amount of the old hay in the morning and save the new hay for the evening feed, when he has less to distract him and usually a longer interval until the next feeding. Using a taste-tempting/masking ingredient (see sidebar) can also often help.
When these measures fail, you may have to get tough: If a new grain is your problem, cut his grain back to a handful for a feeding or two and bed on shavings instead of straw to make sure he isn’t keeping himself satisfied by nibbling straw (horses eat more of their straw than most people realize). Feed somewhat less hay at night and no hay in the morning before the grain. (See intolerance sidebar)
If he balks at new hay, eliminate straw as bedding or keep the horse in a dirt paddock or sand pen overnight with the new hay. The drive for roughage is strong. He will eat it.
Serious Mental Cases
Sometimes, the problem can truly be mental rather than habit. Mental problems are most likely to surface in young horses confined to stalls and worsen with additional stress, such as training. The strict confinement of a stall coupled with social isolation (inability to interact directly with another horse) is stressful, especially for fillies.
Older horses may show the same depressed appetite if moved from familiar surroundings and companions, again, especially if they are isolated. Use of stall guards or Dutch-doors and bars between stalls instead of solid barriers may solve the problem. Some horses will also eat better if fed outside in a small paddock. Taking the horse out for hand grazing will help the horse relax if there are no turnout facilities. If there are no other horses around, you may have to pick up his interest in life with another type of companion, such as a goat (see July 1998). Fortunately, once you get these horses eating, they usually keep right on going.
Some horses refuse to eat at certain barns (e.g. on the racetrack or at a training facility) but will immediately go back to eating full rations if taken out of the high-pressure environment, even if their exercise program is not changed. It is difficult to know what’s going on inside the horse’s head, but the history of eating less in a different environment tells you there is no underlying physical cause for the poor appetite. If moving the horse is not an option, you will have to get creative.
B vitamins often have the double benefit of easing tension while creating an overall feeling of well-being and also stimulating appetite. Ask your veterinarian about a five- to 10-day series of B-vitamin injections — possibly with weekly or biweekly “boosters” after that — if it appears to be a stress-related problem. Injections are preferable when the horse is not eating well, since oral vitamins should be given at the same time as feed and forcing them can cause stomach upset. Maintain the horse on a high B oral supplement once he is eating consistently (see July 1998).
Because these horses are eating — just not enough — dietary manipulations can be made to maximize the number of calories you get into the horse. First, be sure your hay is top quality to get the most calories from it. A green, aromatic alfalfa/grass mix is ideal for mineral balance and the most appealing to the horse. Use a calorie-dense commercial grain mix. Calorie content can vary from as low as about 1.8 Kcal/kg of feed for one that can double as a complete feed to 3.5 to 3.8 Kcal/kg for high performance feeds and weanling/lactating mare feeds.
Because poor digestive efficiency is so likely to be present in any horse with poor appetite and contributes to the problem continuing, we recommend probiotics. There are many good probiotic products available, and many grain mixes are also fortified with beneficial organisms or byproducts that encourage and support their growth.
As a probiotic supplement, we especially like Ration Plus (see February 1997; 800/728-4667) because it is heavily backed by solid research trials and has never failed us in years of use. Since it is a liquid, it is easy to give by syringe if the horse is not eating well. We suggest 8 to 10 cc of Ration Plus by syringe twice a day (this allows for some loss of product if the horse objects) for five to seven days, followed by the label’s maintenance amount on the hay portion of the diet after that. We suggest that you avoid products containing live yeast cultures, at least initially.
Horses with long-term poor appetites must be checked carefully for an underlying physical problem. Chronic lameness/pain will often make a horse go off feed, as will overtraining/overwork (probably associated with muscle/joint/tendon pain). Correcting the problem will usually result in a dramatic improvement in appetite.
Horses that are otherwise healthy but mentally stressed can easily cross over into the category of a horse with digestive upsets. Usually, the root of the problem is in the digestive tract itself. Start with the mouth. Even a horse with recently/regularly floated teeth may have a problem that was overlooked. Gum irritations/infections, loose or infected teeth, retained caps, sores from points, etc. cause pain when eating, especially hard grains.
Young horses with follicular pharyngitis (the equine equivalent of chronic tonsillitis) may eat poorly because of throat/swallowing pain.
Stomach ulcers are always a possibility, especially in stressed horses and/or horses that do not have proper hay to eat for long periods of time (more on ulcers in an upcoming article). If you suspect ulcers, get the horse scoped to be sure that is the cause before starting an expensive medication program.
Intermittent low-grade colic from parasite damage, an enterolith, abdominal abscess/tumor or sand collection can be difficult to diagnose but often lead to chronic poor eating. A common cause — either on its own or a contributing factor — of poor eating is inefficient digestion in the large bowel. Intolerance of a component in your feed may be the problem (see sidebar).
Any number of things can affect the critical balance of organisms (sudden feed change, overeating any one portion of the diet, long intervals between feedings, shipping, ingestion of feed or water with high levels of nonbeneficial bacteria, stress, etc). Once an imbalance occurs it can be difficult to correct without help.
Symptoms are relatively mild and easy to miss. Swelling of the abdomen disproportionate to the horse’s size, weight and fitness level, caused by excessive amounts of fluid and gas in the intestine, is almost universal. A tendency to have diarrhea when stressed (shipping, tacking up, exercise) is also common, as are a dull coat with a tendency to stand up rather than lie flat and even low-grade colics. Over time, poor absorption, especially of minerals, can lead to other problems such as bad feet, frequent infections, even muscle soreness.
Poor appetite may be as simple as the horse being “spoiled,” or it can have its root in mental stress or a physical problem. For horses with chronic weight-and-eating problems, an exhaustive search for an underlying disorder is essential. A course of B vitamins and using Ration Plus and/or other probiotics to encourage healthy digestive function may quickly put the horse’s digestive tract back in order. Keep hay available at all times and use taste-tempting ingredients to entice your horse to dig into both his feed.
Feeding schedule adjustments may also help, for both mental and physical problems. Morning is usually the worst feeding time for poor eaters, so keep that meal small. Offer larger feeds at times the horse will be undisturbed to eat them (over the afternoon hours, overnight). You can also try feeding the finicky horse outside or feeding him last. A horse with digestive upset may not be comfortable eating two large grain feedings a day. Multiple small meals can help by avoiding overloading the intestine and also avoid wide swings in the pH.