The Challenge of a Horse That Stops Eating

Posted by Heather Smith Thomas on 01/21/2021

Now and then a horse suddenly stops eating, or doesn’t clean up his last feeding, or just picks at his food. There can be various reasons why horses go “off feed,” so it’s important to find out what’s wrong. Some horses are simply fussy eaters and it can be difficult to find ways to get them to eat enough. Horses may not eat enough if they are confined, making it hard to keep weight on them. This is a common and often challenging problem, especially in hard-working horses that need a high level of nutrition.

Make Sure the Horse Is Healthy

There are many reasons that a horse may have a lack of appetite or go off feed entirely. W.B. “Burt” Staniar, PhD, who is an Associate Professor of Equine Nutrition at Penn State, says it’s important to find out what might be causing a horse to be picky, 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.  It’s important to make sure there are no underlying health problems that need to
be corrected.

“If you have a skinny horse that isn’t eating much, the first thing that comes to mind is a health issue. This is when you need to work with your veterinarian to figure out what it might be.” If there is some other disease condition, you need to find out what the problem is and treat the underlying cause.

Reasons for Anorexia

Dr. Kathleen Crandell, Equine Nutritionist, Kentucky Equine Research, says there are many things that might make a horse stop eating. “It could be something that affects the horse’s ability to taste or smell, or decreases his ability to chew or to digest food,” she says. A horse that is moderately constipated/impacted may not feel like eating much, even though he is not showing signs of colic.

“Horses might stop eating if they are in pain, stressed, or nervous. If something has changed in their circumstances or environment, they may not be interested in eating. This might happen if they lose a stablemate, have moved to a new location and are not happy in their new environment, or don’t like their stablemate. Mental stress can affect appetite,” she says.

Pain can be an appetite suppressant. The horse is more focused on the discomfort than wanting to eat. “Dental issues, gum disease, tooth loss, etc., could be a factor if it hurts to chew. Ulcers in the mouth can also be painful,” says Crandell. If you watch the horse try to eat, you might be able to tell that there’s a problem.

“Inflammation or abrasions in the esophagus can make it uncomfortable to swallow. Horses that have choked might have residual damage in the throat, such as irritation, swelling or even some permanent scarring, that makes it hard for them to swallow,” she explains. Certain neurologic diseases, like rabies and tetanus, impair the muscles of the head and throat and can inhibit swallowing so that the horse is unable to eat. 

Lack of appetite can be associated with disease or fever. Some disease conditions will have other obvious signs; the horse may be dull instead of alert, reluctant to move, coughing, or have a runny nose. But the first thing you might notice is that he didn’t clean up his last feeding or isn’t interested in the feed you are currently giving him. “Horses with diarrhea may not have much appetite. There are also certain illnesses like liver disease, kidney disease, etc. that cause suppression of appetite,” Crandell says.

Overwork can also cause a horse to lose interest in eating. “As a horse gets fitter, he may not want to eat as much. Lack of appetite can also be due to overtraining, and we see this fairly often in endurance horses, or in any sport where horses are worked hard,” she says.

Anorexia can be due to physical causes, mental causes, etc., but sometimes refusal to eat is due to the food itself. It might smell different or have a different taste or texture. A flake of hay might be moldy or have a small animal baled up in it. Hay might contain foxtail awns, cheat grass seeds, or other sharp seed heads that poke the mouth. If they get embedded in the tissues, they might make the mouth sore or create a painful abscess.

“Grain may be refused if it is old, stale, moldy or contaminated. Some horses are picky and don’t want to eat it if there is too much fat or salt added. For instance, if you added a fat supplement, salt or electrolytes.” Adding anything to the grain may “turn off” a fussy horse, and he may not clean it up or might not eat any of it.

Assess Your Feeding Program

Staniar says some horses may refuse just about any type of new feed that they are not accustomed to eating. “From my experience, after having put horses on many different diets and trying them on many different feeds, one of the things I consistently see is that horses are often hesitant to eat something new. The term I’ve used for this is neophobia. In most cases, these horses are very reluctant to try anything that has a new texture, new smell, or is a different feed from what they are used to,” he says.

“When I tell someone that a certain new type of hay or feed product is acceptable for their horse, they often come back a week later and say that their horse won’t eat it. Part of the solution is giving the horse enough time to acclimate slowly, introducing the new feed gradually. At the same time, we have to be willing to deal with the fact that there may be a period of time in the beginning when the horse won’t eat the full amount. We have to give the horse time to get used to it. This may take several weeks,” Staniar says.

Crandall says that if you feed too much grain and not enough forage, this can also affect a horse’s appetite. “The excess grain can cause a pH imbalance in the hind gut and too much acidity,” she says. Grain meals that are too large may also satiate a horse, and he won’t eat all of it. 

Horses in natural conditions are grazing periodically, eating small amounts during the day and night. They normally eat for about 14 to 18 hours out of the 24 hours—many small meals. Yet the way we feed horses today, we are generally feeding two meals (morning and evening) with some people giving three meals. “But horses are trickle feeders. They are meant to eat a little bit all along,” says Staniar.

“When you expect your horse to eat more than five pounds per meal (whether hay or concentrates), the horse may not want to eat that much at once. If you are feeding more than five pounds of grain or pellets, that’s a lot to eat at one time. The horse’s appetite may not match that amount of food, and you’ll be more successful by dividing it into more meals. This can be very difficult to do, however, from a management standpoint,” he says.

“If a horse has forage available, such as pasture or free-choice hay, and you are feeding a concentrate as well, the horse may choose the forage. The horse may fill up on pasture or hay and won’t be that hungry to eat the grain. The horse may not be a finicky eater at all, but has simply satisfied his requirements with forage. You need to know how much time the horse is  actually spending grazing, or how much hay the horse is eating,” Staniar says.

“A 1000-pound animal would need about 20 pounds of dry matter per day. This will be complicated to figure out if the horse is eating pasture grass which contains moisture. But if you are just feeding hay and grain, 20 pounds is about how much feed the horse will be eating—or just a little more because there will be some moisture in it,” he explains.

“If you are trying to feed six pounds of grain/concentrate per meal and offering the horse a certain number of flakes of hay, this will quickly exceed the daily requirements. That would be 12 pounds of grain and only eight pounds of hay, and that’s not very much hay. Most people are offering more hay than that.” So, is the horse actually a finicky eater or is the owner feeding too much?

Another issue is timing of feeding. When is the horse being fed in relation to exercise? “There are circumstances in which exercise will stimulate appetite, but also other situations in which exercise will depress appetite—if the horse is working very hard. Heat can also impact feed intake,” says Staniar. “Does the horse have enough water? If he isn’t drinking enough water, this will cut down on feed intake.” The horse must have adequate water for proper digestion and to produce saliva, which must be mixed with the feed for ease of chewing and swallowing.

Some horses are fussier than others and may refuse certain feeds that others will eat. “Normally horses have a good appetite, however, if it’s something they like,” says Crandell. “If a horse stops eating or gets picky in situations you would not expect, there is something wrong.” Even with a picky horse, you generally know what he does and doesn’t like, and if he stops eating the things he likes, you know there’s something wrong.

“Appetite regulation is controlled by hormones in the body. There is a neural component. There are also certain nutrient signals, and sometimes some seasonal effects. When there is abundance of food in summer and fall, the horse tends to eat as much as he can to be prepared for the coming winter when there might be a lack of food. Then, the body becomes more efficient in winter to try to make it through the leaner times when there might not be as many calories available. In cold weather, however, horses crave more roughage because fermentation of fiber in the hindgut helps keep them warm,” she says. If a horse goes off feed when he normally should want to eat a lot, this is definitely a sign of some kind of problem.

What To Do 

If a horse isn’t eating well and you suspect a physical problem or illness, consult your veterinarian and get help with diagnosis. Once your vet figures out what is wrong, a specific treatment may be needed. Then the next step is to try to encourage the horse to eat.

“Green grass is often the best feed to tempt him. Horses rarely refuse green grass unless they are sick. If the horse is refusing to eat the grass hay or any hay that he normally eats, you might try tempting him with some alfalfa hay or peanut hay because these are things that horses really like. You can also offer a different type (or better quality) of grass hay. If the horse has been eating stemmy timothy, try a soft orchardgrass or something finer and more palatable,” Crandell suggests. Fine, high-quality alfalfa is also relished by most horses.

“With grain, you could offer smaller meals instead of large meals, fed more frequently so the horse isn’t overwhelmed with so much food at once. He might clean it up better. Usually we recommend not making abrupt changes in feed, but if the horse isn’t eating, you have to try something else. You might need to give something different one day and something else the next, just to see if you can tempt them to eat.”

Feeding behavior may also need to be addressed. “If there are several horses in a group and the dominant one pushes a timid one away, sometimes that timid one will just give up and not even try to come to the feed. If this is the problem, you may have to remove that horse and feed him separately,” Crandell says. He may need to be moved temporarily into a different pen where he is still near his buddies so he doesn’t feel isolated, but he can safely eat without fear of being chased away.

“Being herd animals, the flip side is also a factor in horse’s eating behavior, and you can use their group mentality to advantage when trying to tempt a horse to eat. If one is eating, they all want to eat. If one is grazing, they all tend to start grazing,” says Crandell. They mimic herd mates because that’s the safe thing to do, as a herd. You can make sure the horse has company, with other horses around him providing an example by eating their meal. Horses are social eaters.

“If a horse is off feed, the old traditional bran mash is a good thing to try because this is something horses tend to enjoy eating. Soaking bran in hot water and letting it cool to a comfortable temperature is generally the best way to feed it. You can also add molasses, corn syrup, honey, chopped up carrots or apples, applesauce, or apple juice—whatever your horse might like. Sometimes, a little bit of apple cider vinegar added to the grain will stimulate appetite,” she says.

“Horses tend to like molasses, so sweet feeds might be eaten more readily than a pelleted feed and might perk the appetite a little. Adding molasses to whatever they generally eat might also help,” says Crandell.

Staniar says one strategy to get the horse to eat is to improve the palatability of a certain feed. “You can add very small amounts of molasses or some other flavoring the horse likes. This doesn’t always work, however. If I am giving a horse five pounds of concentrate feed, I might add 1/2-1 cup of molasses at most. This is a small amount and won’t have an adverse effect on glycemic response,” he says. Some horses might prefer a couple scoops of applesauce mixed into the grain. 

“Other flavors might encourage certain horses, such as a very small amount of certain oils, like anise or peppermint oil. You only need a few drops to mix into the meal to give it a little bit of flavor or a pleasant odor. Some horses might like a certain flavoring while others will be completely turned off by it just because it’s something new. Try some of these things carefully, with experimentation. It might work for one horse and not another,” he says. 

There are several things you could try. At some point you may just have to experiment with different feeds to see what the horse likes better. “We have situations where we really don’t know why a horse might prefer one type of feed over another. They do have some preferences and we don’t always understand what drives them,” says Staniar.

Crandell says certain supplements may also stimulate appetite. “The B vitamins can help, especially thiamin, niacin and B12. A supplement containing B vitamin complex might be beneficial for the horse with a suppressed appetite. Brewer’s yeast is high in B vitamins and probiotics and prebiotics are another option, especially if the problem is hindgut imbalance,” she says.

“If the horse has ulcers or is prone to ulcers, medications like omeprazole may help or even an over-the-counter stomach buffer. If the problem is in the hindgut, there are also some hindgut buffers that might help. In some situations, your vet might prescribe an appetite-stimulating drug like benzodiazepine,” she says.

If the problem is overtraining/overwork, the solution would be to give the horse some time off from work and then gradually get him back into training again. It might be that the horse is overtired from one hard day and is off his feed the next day and then bounces back, or it may be a cumulative thing after a season or training period of hard work—peaking at a high level of fitness and then going too far beyond it. The main thing is to pay attention to your horse and try to figure out why he is not eating.

If a horse is very fussy and only eats a little bit, you need to make sure that every bite he eats is nutritious. “You need to choose a feed that is highly nutritious, especially if the horse is only consuming 1% or less of his body weight per day. This would be a situation where poor-quality forage won’t meet his needs,” says Staniar. 

Categories: Health

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