Normally, horses love to eat. A healthy, stress-free horse may eat until he makes himself sick or foundered, if given the chance. However, if you have a horse that won’t, well, eat like a horse, you have a major headache. Getting a horse to eat something he doesn’t want is no easy task. Frankly, even the best eater may balk if you add medications or supplements or even if you change the brand of feed.
The first thing to go when a horse’s appetite is off is grain consumption. Horses seem to instinctively prefer grass or hay rather than concentrates when something is wrong, regardless of the cause. The stress of a long trip, change in environment or heavy competition often puts a horse off grain for one or more days — longer if the horse is not “happy” with its environment. Pain, whether muscular, joint or bone, can cause decreased grain consumption. Digestive upset, especially ulcers, is also a common appetite killer, whether on its own or in association with another problem.
Poor appetites can also be caused by the simplest reason of all: The horse is being overfed. Far too much emphasis is placed on the grain portion of the horse’s diet. The average horse in light work — even moderate work levels for easy keepers — needs little, if any, grain. Horses should receive as much hay as they can eat with grain only as needed to keep them from losing weight or for feeding supplements.
Excessive amounts of grain can backfire in your attempt to get a horse to gain weight. Too much grain lowers the pH (makes it more acidic) in the large intestine, causing digestive upsets that throw the horse off feed. This is especially likely if the horse cuts back on hay intake because of the amount of grain he’s receiving.
More common, however, is that an overfed horse becomes picky about what he will eat, accepting only highly palatable sweet mixes and refusing plain grains or feeds that contain supplements or medicines.
Hard keepers are a real headache. If your horse is one of the “hotter” breeds, such as a Thoroughbred or Arabian, you may have to accept the fact that you may never be able to get him to look fleshy.
If you’re faced with this type of horse, first rule out any physical causes for either the poor weight gain or poor appetite. If that proves negative, find a more calorie-dense feed so that you can feed the same amount of feed while providing more calories. Contact the feed manufacturer and ask them for the DE (digestible energy) level of your feed.
Plain oats have a DE of 2.85 Mcal/kg (megacalories/kilogram). High-energy sweet feeds may have as much as 3.6 Mcal/kg. Vegetable oils have a whopping 8.98 Mcal/kg. Adding up to one cup per day of vegetable oil will greatly increase the calorie density of the diet, if the horse will accept it.
If a diet analysis shows that calorie intake is actually adequate or excessive, try a processed grain (crimped, steamed, rolled) to get an advantage on digestibility. Then, add a probiotic to further improve gut function. We like Ration Plus (800/728-4667).
A horse who won’t “clean up” his grain and/or refuses some types of grain may be just finicky. Of course, ulcers and chronic pain must be ruled out for all horses that eat poorly, but if the horse is in good flesh or even fat, odds are he’s being overfed. If he isn’t eating at least 1% to 2% of his body weight in hay per day (10 to 20 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse), he’s probably getting too much grain. Grain should also be fed according to work level. On days the horse doesn’t work or works lightly, cut back grain drastically. We’d deal with this horse by stopping grain or cutting back to only a handful for a few days.
However, the horse that leaves only one element in a grain mix, such as a certain type of pellet, may be telling you that a particular ingredient doesn’t agree with him. We’ve seen this behavior several times. Take the offending ingredient to the feed store and ask them to identify what is in it. Usually, it will turn out to be either a fat or protein source. Improper processing of these ingredients can lead to spoilage or “burnt” pellets.
The problem could also be due to a manufacturing change. Sometimes feed companies change to cheaper high-protein sources, like fish meal, in order to keep protein levels in the feed where they should be, but these substitutions can cause upset or just be too distasteful for the horse to eat them. Switch to a fixed-formula feed that doesn’t contain that ingredient. A fixed-formula feed is guaranteed by the manufacturer to always contain the exact same ingredients at the same levels.
If your horse seems hopelessly spoiled, but you need to change to another grain type, gradually mix in the new grain with the old, at a 10% substitution rate, increasing the level every two to three days. You will have to mix the grains together well or a clever horse will figure this out quickly. Keep the total amounts fed during this time relatively low so the horse’s appetite is good. It may also help to use a flavoring during the transition period. After the switch has been successfully made, start tapering off the flavoring ingredient.
Lots of horses refuse to eat grain with medications or supplements added. While some hearty eaters will dig into just about anything, others know the difference from three feet away and won’t even consider tasting a feed when a medication or supplement added.
The best way to introduce a new ingredient is to start with small doses (use one tablespoon per pound) and work up.
For best results, skip or greatly reduce the size of the meal prior to starting the additive. If the horse refuses it, discard the grain and wait until the next meal to try again (don’t give in and feed any other grain, though). If by the third try the horse still refuses to eat the medication or supplement, you’re going to need to try something else.
Sometimes the horse objects to the additive because it’s powdery. Wetting the feed and/or the ingredient so that it adheres well to the grain may be all you need to do. This is a good idea anyway, since it prevents fine materials from being left in the bottom of the tub. If wetting alone doesn’t do it, try mixing the medicine or supplement in a small amount of oil or other liquid flavoring. Oils often disguise both odor and taste better.
Making the meal into a mash may work, too. If you feed plain grain, you’ll need to add about two cups of beet pulp (see June 2001), alfalfa cubes/pellets or wheat bran. If you feed a commercial grain mix containing pellets and molasses, you can usually make a satisfactory soft/moist meal using this alone. Soak your combination or regular grain in enough warm water to cover it, stirring several times over 10 to 15 minutes until the water is absorbed. Mix in the medication or supplement well before feeding. You can also consider adding a flavoring.
If all else fails, you may want to consider finding a taste-tempting ingredient to help that “medicine go down.” We chose phenylbutazone — a notoriously terrible-tasting medication — and known finicky horses for our trials.
We tried some common flavoring tricks as well as some commercial products for the ir ability to get picky horses to consume a grain meal (five pounds of commercial sweet mix) with 1 gram of bute added.
First we tried to feed all five test horses grain alone with the bute, and all five refused to eat the mixture.
Then, each additive was tried with all the test horses one time. Horses that didn’t begin to eat within five minutes of having the treated grain put into their tubs had the treated meal removed and replaced with an untreated one on that test day. This appears to be a contradiction to our earlier advice on getting a horse to accept an additive to his grain. However, our purpose was to determine what flavorings horses found most palatable, with and without bute.
A time period of three days was allowed between tests of each ingredient. None of the horses had appetite problems otherwise and none developed appetite problems during the test period. Results are listed in our chart.
Flavorings can entice appetite or make medications/supplements more palatable. We’d reach first for CocoSoya, followed by Sweet Success Apple. While our homemade grass juice was also a big success — and “dirt cheap” — even we have to admit it was too much work if you’re a busy horseowner.