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Feeding the Finicky Horse

by Heather Smith Thomas

As you head into your horse’s stall to feed him his dinner, you notice he hasn’t cleaned up his previous meal. He looks like he might be losing weight, and you wonder what else you can offer him that would spark his appetite.

Like kids who don’t want to eat their vegetables, some horses are fussy eaters; it can be challenging to find ways to get them to eat enough food. There are many reasons why a horse might be finicky about his diet, and Burt Staniar, PhD, associate professor of equine science at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, says it’s important to first determine the cause, especially if the horse is losing weight. “The thin horse and the picky eater may be interrelated or may be totally different problems,” he says. Before making diet changes, ensure your horse has no underlying health issues you and your veterinarian must correct; otherwise, any diet adjustment alone isn’t likely to help.

“If a skinny horse isn’t eating much, consult your veterinarian,” he says. “Several causes come to mind—such as teeth problems or gastrointestinal (GI) tract problems. (For example,) are ulcers an issue?” 

Common Causes

Many health conditions, management changes, and individual palate preferences can cause a horse to hesitate before eating; the following are some examples. Make note of your horse’s recent history and behavior, and work with your veterinarian and/or nutritionist to pinpoint the actual reason.

Feed changes Horses whose feed has been changed might not be eager to dive right into their new grub. “The term I use is neophobia,” Staniar says. “Horses may be reluctant to try anything that has a new texture, smell, flavor, or is different from what they are accustomed to.”

One solution to this problem is to introduce the new feed gradually—both to get him accustomed to the taste and to give his GI tract bacteria time to adapt to digesting something different. You might see an adjustment period when the horse won’t eat his full amount, but give him time (several weeks). Just because your horse doesn’t consume every morsel doesn’t mean you need to change his feed yet again.  

Inconsistent ingredients If one bag of feed tastes different than the last batch, your horse might not eat it, even though it is the same feed. 

“You can’t make exactly the same batch of cookies the same way all the time. Some will just taste better than others,” says Daniel J. Burke, PhD, director of equine nutrition at Tribute Equine Nutrition, in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. “Even in the same mill, you can get variations in the incoming ingredients.” 

Feed timing Consider feeding time as it relates to his exercise schedule. “Usually exercise will stimulate appetite but it can also depress appetite if the horse is working very hard,” says Staniar. “This may be a situation that is specific for each individual horse, so try to gain a better understanding of how factors such as exercise affect your individual horse.”

Stressful situations Staniar suggests asking yourself the following questions: Does your horse reside in a comfortable environment where he can relax and take time to eat? Does he have shelter and shade? Is he able to stay cool enough in summer and warm enough in winter that his appetite won’t be impaired? Is he in a stressful situation—such as living beside an aggressive horse? If the horse is uncomfortable, nervous, or stressed, he won’t be thinking about eating.

Dehydration “Does he have enough water? If he isn’t drinking enough, this will cut down on feed intake,” Staniar says. Horses need adequate water for proper digestion and to produce saliva, which mixes with feed for ease of chewing and swallowing.

Feeder position “Horses are either left-sided or right-sided on how they want to eat,” says Burke. “Sometimes if you move the feeder to a different location in the stall, they are more comfortable eating.” Placing the feeder down low rather than up high can also make a difference, since it is more natural for horses to eat from the ground.

“A study recently published by a research group in North Carolina showed there is some endorphin release when a horse’s head is down in grazing position … which relaxes them,” Burke says. 

Gastric ulcers Owners and veterinarians see ulcers in many horses, especially show and racehorses. Confinement, stress, and consuming grain diets rather than continual small amounts of forage can cause this painful condition. Affected horses begin to associate eating with ulcer pain; they might eat only parts of their meal, or they might refuse to eat altogether.

“The challenge is figuring out whether the horse has gastric ulcers or a hindgut that’s not functioning correctly,” says equine nutritionist Bill Vandergrift, PhD, of Versailles, Ky. “Many horses … tend to just nibble at their grain and then eat their hay instead. When we observe this, we are pretty sure we have a hindgut problem, especially if their manure has a different odor and/or consistency.”

Mycotoxin contamination One thing that sporadically decreases horses’ feed consumption is the presence of mycotoxins, which are toxic metabolites produced by mold. Depending on weather conditions when grain was harvested, mycotoxin contamination levels might be higher in some regions than others. 

If meal size is large, they won't finish it -- either because of stomach capacity issues or satiety.

Dr. Daniel J. Burke

Meal Size: More is not Better

Horses in natural conditions nibble on grass through much of the day and night. “They eat for about 14 to 18 hours out of 24 hours,” Staniar says. “Yet when we feed horses we are generally feeding two meals (morning and evening). Some people feed three meals, but horses are trickle feeders. They are meant to eat a little bit all along,” and this is evident in how their GI tract is built. It handles many small meals offered frequently throughout the day more safely than it does large amounts. 

So, if you expect your horse to eat more than, say, five pounds of hay or concentrates in one meal, he simply might not want to comply.

“The horse’s stomach only holds about two gallons,” Burke says. “We frequently run into this problem with racehorses or hard keepers that are expected to eat a lot. If meal size is large they won’t finish it—either because of stomach capacity issues or satiety.

“When changing feeds, some people tell me their horse isn’t eating the new feed very well, but if the horse is finishing it before the next meal, don’t worry about it,” Burke adds. “Eating slowly is natural for a horse and healthier than bolting down a large meal. But most people want the horse to finish quickly because of their own schedule, so they can turn the horse out again and go to work.”

Encourage Him to Eat

If your horse is fussy at feed time, consider these tips from our sources to make his meal more palatable (Bonus: Many of these also encourage weight gain in skinny horses, whether finicky or not.):

1. Choose forage with a high leaf-to-stem ratio. “It will be more palatable and nutritious if it’s not as mature, there are more leaves than stems, and it’s not as fibrous,” says Burt Staniar, PhD, assistant professor of equine science at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Fewer food particles and the nutrients therein will pass through the GI tract undigested.

2. Feed a higher-quality hay. Better-quality hay can be more appealing to eat and help add condition to a skinny horse, Staniar says.

3. Make supplements more palatable. Equine nutritionist Bill Vandergrift, PhD, of Versailles, Ky., suggests doing this by dampening the food with water. “This can help, especially with powdery or granular-type supplements,” he says. “This tends to minimize odor and also helps stick it to the feed so the horse can’t sort it out and leave it.” He also suggests adding a small amount of molasses or applesauce to a feed you know the horse likes to ease ingestion of the mixed-in supplement.

4. Check feed labels. By law, companies have to list ingredients on feed labels, but some companies don’t break it down into specifics. To determine whether you’re inadvertently feeding a product that’s not very digestible (and, thus, not that tasty or helpful for weight gain), work with a nutritionist and ask the feed manufacturer to provide you with a complete breakdown of ingredients.

5. Adjust fat content. “Higher fat feeds tend to make the horse feel satiated more quickly,” Burke says, explaining why your horse might not finish his meal. There is a lot of individual difference, however, in how horses respond to fat, so work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to find a happy medium.

Heather Smith Thomas

Building an Appetite

One strategy for encouraging a horse to eat is to improve the palatability of his feed. “You can add small amounts of molasses or some other flavoring the horse likes,” says Staniar. “When giving a horse 5 pounds of concentrate feed, I might add ½ cup of molasses at most. This small amount won’t have an adverse effect on glycemic response (the level of blood glucose that rises in response to a meal).” Some horses might prefer a couple of spoonfuls of applesauce mixed into the grain. 

Horses might also respond well to a few drops of anise (licorice flavor) or peppermint oil (each offers a little flavor and pleasant odor).

Today’s feeding trends are moving away from molasses-laden sweet feeds and toward low-sugar/starch diets (for more on this topic, see The trick for manufacturers is making sure they appeal to horses’ tastes. “We use a variety of flavors but the classic one is anise,” Burke says. “We came out with a feed we call banana treat, based on research that found banana to be one of (horses’) preferred flavors.”

At some point you might have to experiment with different feeds to see what a horse likes best. “In some situations we don’t know why a horse might prefer one type of feed over another. We don’t always understand what drives those preferences,” says Staniar. 

Take-Home Message

To summarize, if a horse suddenly becomes fussy about food, check with your veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying health issues before altering his diet. If you change a fussy horse’s feed, there are some tricks you can use to help convince him that the new feed is acceptable. Horses are like kids, with specific likes and dislikes regarding food, and they can be just as challenging to please.

I've rarely had to battle the elements in order to ride during the winter. For the first 22 years of my life, both my horses and I called Houston, Texas, home. There, our idea of a polar vortex was a few weeks of daytime temperatures in the 40s. And since I've lived in Kentucky, winters have either been mild or my horses have been in Florida.

So this year's uncharacteristically brutal season has opened my eyes to some of the challenges of winter riding. Here's what I've learned (and you probably already know):

A well-maintained indoor arena has been a riding must-have this winter.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

An Indoor Arena is Essential

I can't imagine any other way to keep a sport horse in form over a long, icy winter than having access to a good indoor arena. My barn's indoor allows us to ride long past sunset and regardless of the temperature. We did, however, encounter some footing hiccups. When temps first dipped below freezing for days on end, watering and dragging risked turning the riding ring into an ice rink. So the place was a bit of a dust bowl until the owner added magnesium chloride--the same compound applied to roads for ice control--to the footing. Don't worry, it's safe for use around horses, unlike another road salt--caustic calcium chloride. (One pony mom thought this was what had been added to the footing and sent a panicked barnwide email that had to be quickly dispelled!)

Not All Horses Grow Thick Coats

Of course, the one horse whose coat I wouldn't mind being woolly is the one whose hair doesn't grow. Maybe it's a byproduct of being born and raised in Texas like me, but Hannah has yet to figure out her own insulating abilities. She's lived in Kentucky for three winters now, but what starts each season as au natural quickly turns into a rush to find her a lightweight, and then a medium-weight, blanket. I think Dr. Carey Williams (PhD, extension special in equine management at New Jersey's Rutgers University) summed this phenomenon up well in our December issue:

"The biggest determining factor with the hair coat production is where the horse is accustomed to being housed. For example, take a horse from Northern Wisconsin and put him in Florida for the winter and he will still grow a long heavy coat for a few years. This also holds true going from South to North. Those horses will have to be treated with care because they will not produce a heavy hair coat in the first year."

Lily handles the arctic conditions better than I do!

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Snow Makes Turnout Challenging

The first time I turned Lily out in the snow, we both nearly took a few nosedives. I quickly learned that not all snow is fluffy and soft--especially after it's been packed on the ground for a week. I had to choose my path to the paddock wisely, avoiding any areas that looked icy and compressed from horses walking the same route every day.

On days when the footing has been particularly treacherous, the horses have forgone turnout altogether. Instead, hoards of boarders flocked to the facility to help hand walk all 40 horses so they wouldn't go stir-crazy in their stalls.

Winter is Not Kind to Hooves

I thought this past wet Kentucky summer was brutal on the horses' hooves, but winter has been no kinder. The constant moisture is still wreaking havoc on hoof walls and hindering my battle against thrush. And the first time I brought Hannah and Lily in from the pasture, I learned why we run articles about snow traction devices on I spent several minutes hacking away at the giant ice balls that had formed on the soles of their feet.

So there you have it--my first impressions of trying to ride and care for horses during my first "real" winter. Lily and I are supposed to start the year off with a horse show (indoors, thank goodness) in two weeks, at which point I'll find out just how close to competition form we've remained this winter.

What winter riding challenges do you face?

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