How to Feed Malnourished Horses
As a lifelong horseman, it always makes me sad to see a malnourished horse. In addition to lacking sufficient nutrition, they have also been neglected of general healthcare such as deworming, vaccinations, hoof care, dental care, exercise, and companionship.
There is not a one-sized-fits-all recipe for returning malnourished horses to good health. Each horse’s recovery plan must be individualized to their situation. The list below offers guidelines for caring for malnourished horses that should be tailored accordingly.
- Day 1 – Examination by experienced veterinarian to ensure the horse is medically stabilized.
- Observe eating, drinking, waste, frequency of waste, behavior, interaction with other horses, etc. Unusual eating behavior including aggression is not uncommon. Record observations and take photographs daily to aid decisions for recovery.
- Accurately evaluate the horse’s body condition score (BCS).
- For BCS 1 (emaciated), BCS 2 (very thin), and BCS 3 (thin) – initially feed grass hay.
- The bacteria population throughout the gut has been compromised from starvation. A slow, methodical recovery of the gut’s microflora will parallel the successful recovery of the horse.
- The initial amount of hay fed per day will approximate half or less of what is expected for the horse’s current body weight. Although the horse will appear hungry and eager for more hay, be consistent in gradually providing hay so that forage is consumed slowly.
- Grass hay should be fed throughout the day via multiple small meals every 3 – 4 hours. This feeding plan may require 7 – 14 days for acclimation before transitioning to larger, less frequent meals.
- A slow hay feeder is encouraged to regulate the rate of food consumption. Long-stem hay requires the horse to drink more water to stay hydrated.
- Use a water bucket in order to observe daily intake. No automatic water sources.
- Hay pellets mixed with water can be a partial meal option along with feeding long-stem hay.
- Do NOT feed alfalfa until the horse has been stabilized medically, nutritionally, and has obtained a minimum BCS 4 (moderately thin).
- Alfalfa is high protein feed and depending on the quality may provide 50 – 125% more protein than requirements. The primary issue is that an undernourished horse has a compromised microflora throughout the gut. Bacteria depend on protein as a fuel/nutrient source and a high protein diet can create rapid unfavorable changes to the microflora population and gut pH thus resulting in digestive disturbances.
- There was a study that suggested recovery of horses fed alfalfa was more favorable than grass forages. The results of this study are inconsistent with an understanding of gut biology and practical experience.
- Other Feeds, Electrolytes, Microbial Supplements, Deworming
- Concentrated feeds that contain low fiber, grains, high starch/sugar, and/or high fat should be avoided.
- Electrolytes may be needed. Consult with your veterinarian on when to start, frequency, and amounts. Adding ½ - 1 oz trace mineral salt may be the simplest approach.
- Yeast culture will eventually need to be included in the diet but most likely not the first few days. Horses need to be stabilized medically and consume hay without any additives in the beginning.
- Once medically stabilized, consider daily dewormer rather than pulse dewormer. Consult with your veterinarian regarding options.
- Once a horse has gained weight (about BCS 3.5) and has stabilized, then it’s time to slowly introduce a high fiber, low starch/sugar balanced formula such as Integrity Lite No Molasses. It is high in healthy fiber (beet pulp, soy hulls), low starch/sugar, modest fat, and a balanced formula with yeast culture, prebiotics, and probiotics.
Please be patient with the horse’s recovery, which can take a few weeks or even months. When you step outside and see a happy and healthy horse, you’ll know it was worth it.
See also: Celtic Cash’s recovery from emaciation to being a healthy weight with a beautiful coat.