Help For Skinny Horses

Usually, there’s no question how the saying ”eats like a horse” came to be, but if you’re dealing with a picky eater you know how a horse can be incredibly adamant about not eating, too. There are many different scenarios where this might occur, with several possible causes. It’s important to carefully define the circumstances.

Your horse may consume more than you realize when grazing. Exercise is one of the most important elements in keeping your horse healthy. Hay is the most important element of your horse’s diet.

Many people feed their horses too much of the wrong things and for all the wrong reasons. There is only one reason to feed the horse — to give him the nutrients and calories that he needs to maintain his body tissues in a normal state. If you’re fretting over your horse not cleaning up, but the horse is overweight, your horse may be simply full. You’ve probably been feeding him the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner every day.

Good Weight, Just Finicky

A healthy horse in good weight that refuses to eat everything he’s given is just finicky. There’s nothing wrong with his appetite, as long as you’re feeding what the horse likes. In other cases, the horse’s naturally present sweet tooth, used to select the most nutrition-packed grasses (see ”lite” grass sidebar) may have become distorted by feeding sweet feeds. The horse’s preferences usually become an issue either when weight gets too high, and there’s a need to change feeding, or if the owner wants to introduce a new supplement or medication.

This is the easiest type of picky eater to deal with — as long as you stand your ground. These horses are simply not hungry enough to be well motivated to try the new offerings. They can snort in disgust and walk away, but they won’t starve themselves. Some tactics to try include:

• Introduce new hays, feeds or supplements slowly, mixing in small amounts with the regular ration.

• Offer the new items when the horse is most hungry — morning feed, or after having had nothing to eat for at least an hour.

• Few things motivate like competition. Feed the picky eater close to another horse that is obviously interested in what he’s getting, or hand feed the new item to another horse with your picky eater standing close by.

• If the problem is with a medication or supplement, start by syringing the whole dose into the horse’s mouth before feeding for a day or two, then gradually begin to decrease the amount you syringe in and increase the level added to the feed. The horse is less likely to notice the item in the feed when he already has a taste in his mouth.

• With powders, trying mixing them into a bit of oil before adding to the feed. This cuts both odor and taste.

• Never cave in by removing what the horse doesn’t want to eat and replacing it with something he finds more yummy. This only reinforces the pickiness — horse has you trained.

• If it’s a feed/concentrate switch you’re having trouble with, check the label on the old feed for flavorings (see sidebar, page 16).

In Work, Getting Picky

A horse in work that starts getting picky about feed or supplements is telling you that something is bothering him. Ulcers usually get blamed, and can certainly cause this picture, but any type of physical discomfort, such as muscle, tendon, foot or joint pain, can do it too. It’s time to slow down and go over the horse carefully to try to locate the problem.


Can’t Eat Enough

A horse that isn’t heavily worked/stressed and eats willingly, just not enough to hold a normal weight, may be a hard keeper.

Start with a close look at the diet, getting an accurate weight on the horse and a calorie count. If the horse has unlimited access to good-quality pasture, grain is rarely needed to hold weight, and even a Thoroughbred should do well in the weight department with minimal to no grain. If not, suspect a dental problem, parasitism or an underlying medical condition, and check for these before assuming the horse isn’t eating enough.

With hay or hay-and-grain diets, a horse in light-to-moderate work will need the equivalent of 2 to 2.5% of body weight in good-quality hay. That’s 20 to 25 lbs./day for a 1,000-lb. horse. If you’re feeding grain, calorie count your grain as 1 lb. of grain = 2 lbs. of hay, so a horse getting 5 lbs. of grain and 15 lbs. of hay is getting the equivalent of 25 lbs. of hay. If the horse is getting enough to eat, next question is whether the horse has always had trouble holding weight on this level of feeding, or if it’s a change. If a change, look for a physical cause as above. If not, your horse is a hard keeper.

One common mistake with horses like this is to push the grain to them. Yes, it’s a more concentrated source of calories, but too much grain can backfire on you. Undigested grain will be fermented in the large bowel, making it more acidic, decreasing the efficiency of fiber digestion, robbing the horse of some of those fiber calories. There may also be enough discomfort from the increased acidity to decrease appetite. Before loading the horse up with grain, try:

• Free-choice hay at all times.

• Cytozyme’s Ration Plus (, 800-728-4667) or a high-potency probiotic like Bio-Vet’s Equine Generator (, 800-246-8381) for improved fiber digestion.

• Consider some feedings of beet pulp and wheat bran (4 oz. of bran per pound of pulp). This is palatable, packs about the same calories as grains but supports fiber digestion and ”feeds” the beneficial organisms in the large bowel.

• Feed no more than 3 lbs. of grain per feeding.

Skinny Older Horse

Keeping older horses at a good weight is complicated. Weight problems are often a combination of poor ability to chew well, inadequate saliva production, decreased digestive efficiency and decreased appetite. But, before assuming the horse has a poor appetite, consider that she may not be capable of eating as fast as she used to. Regular dental care is essential, but it doesn’t necessarily improve the efficiency of chewing. Several modifications can make that help the horse.

• Don’t expect an older horse to clean up meals as quickly as a younger one. Segregate the horse for feeding, and allow as much time as needed for her to eat.

• Continue to offer hay, but also provide at least 1.5% of the horse’s ideal body weight from either a pelleted complete or senior feed, or from hay pellets plus a pelleted mineral/protein supplement.

• Efficient digestion and fermentation requires plenty of fluid. Because seniors often don’t move around as freely, their water intake may not be optimal. In fact, impactions are a common problem. If your older horse still isn’t blooming despite a switch to a pelleted diet, consider feeding it soaked. The extra water intake can make a big difference.

• A pro- or prebiotic may also help improve efficiency of fermentation.

If providing a high-quality diet that requires a minimum of chewing still doesn’t get the horse eating at least 1.5% of body weight, you need to have your vet check for an underlying medical problem causing the poor appetite.


What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!