What To Do If Your Horse Won't Eat
Equus|Winter 2019
What To Do If Your Horse Won't Eat
Here are three questions to ask when a healthy horse loses his appetite for no apparent reason.
Heather Smith Thomas with Laurie Bonner

Whether it’s just a few mouthfuls of feed sitting in the bottom of your horse’s bucket or a whole ration untouched, discovering that your horse has suddenly lost his appetite is troubling ---and it should be.

A horse doesn’t refuse to eat without a reason, and that reason could be serious and even life-threatening. If your horse has lost his appetite and is showing any signs of illness or distress---such as a fever, discoloured gums or elevated heart rate---it’s cause for an immediate call to your veterinarian. Likewise, if you notice half-chewed feed or other evidence of tooth or oral issues, arrange for a dental checkup.

If, however, your horse seems physically fine, your first instinct may be to change his grain and whip up something “more interesting” in the feed room. But that’s not the best course of action, experts caution.

“There are a multitude of things people try, to get a horse to eat,” says Stephen Duren, PhD, founder of Performance Horse Nutrition, a consulting firm in Weiser, Idaho. “They start changing everything---feeding a different grain, or a different hay, or put molasses in the grain. Before I’d start trying all kinds of new things, if I had a horse that was eating well and suddenly stopped, I would first find out why he is not eating. I try to solve that issue first.”

It might take a little bit of detective work to find the source of the problem. “A person needs to step back and look at this logically and work through a progression of possibilities, which includes medical problems, and if those are ruled out, look at feed quality, and then look at what else might have changed, such as the horse’s routine or exercise,” says Duren. “Stabling can be an issue if the horse’s routine has changed. I work through all of these possible issues before I think about changing a feed, especially if that feed at one point was being readily consumed by that horse.”

A variety of social and environmental factors can put a horse off his feed---and it may even be a problem with the quality of that bag of feed or bale of hay itself. To help you figure out which factors or combination of factors may be affecting your healthy horse’s appetite, we’ve presented three major areas of inquiry along with additional questions in a “decision tree” format.

Each answer will point you toward potential solutions. With luck, the problem will turn out to be something that is easy to fix.

QUESTION 1: IS IT THE FOOD?

A horse might reject hay or grain if it has a smell or texture he doesn’t like. “Horses are very adept at sensing when something is ‘off’ or different. It might smell different or taste different,” says Shannon Pratt Phillips, PhD, of North Carolina State University. “Their acute senses help them avoid consuming toxic plants; they can detect any subtle difference in the feed.”

• Has only one horse lost his appetite or have several others in the barn?

If you find leftover feed or hay in one stall, check the other stalls and see if any other horses have also snubbed their food. “If all the horses stop eating you can assume it’s the feed,” says Phillips.

• What to do:

Check the rest of the feed for debris, such as mice or snake carcasses that might have gotten caught up in the processing, as well as wetness, mold or other contaminants that may be affecting the smell or taste. “Maybe you started feeding some hay that has weeds or mold in it,” says Duren. “Maybe the grain is old, or dried out, or insect-infested. These can be reasons for a palatability issue and the horse stops eating.” Also check the quality of any supplements you may have added to the rations.

If horses throughout the barn seem to be wasting a lot of hay, check your supply for palatability. Pick up and squeeze a handful: Any jabbing on your palm means your hay may be too “stemmy.” Less expensive hay may actually cost you more over the long run because your horses waste so much. Switching to a higher quality hay, perhaps mixed with some alfalfa if that is safe for your horse, may be more cost-effective.

“Certain types of hay are much more palatable than others,” says Brian Nielsen, PhD, Dipl. ACAN, of Michigan State University. “Some years ago if a person asked my advice when they had trouble keeping weight on a horse, I would suggest grain and a high-fat diet because it’s more energy-dense and the horse doesn’t have to eat as much to get the necessary calories. What I’ve discovered is that if you just feed a high-quality hay diet, often with a fair bit of alfalfa, giving that horse as much good hay as he wants, it’s a rare horse that won’t eat an adequate amount.”

A more palatable hay may also save you money on other products. “I am always amazed at how some people are hesitant to increase the amount of hay they feed, or change the type of hay, yet they are willing to spend a lot of money on grain or supplements,” Nielsen says, “whereas some good alfalfa hay may do the trick and get the horse eating better. It’s a simple fix. Often you just need to go back to the basics with these horses, which is good forage.”

• Are you feeding from a new bale of hay or a new bag of your horse’s regular feed?

“Even if it’s only one horse in the barn or group that suddenly goes off feed, it might still be something in that horse’s food,” says Phillips.

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Winter 2019