Does your horse often leave feed in his bucket? Do you struggle to keep him at a healthy weight? Here’s how to deal with your picky eater.
Feeding picky horses is akin to convincing a toddler to eat vegetables. It’s hard! Like all of us, horses choose their food based on visual cues, odor, taste, texture, availability, and variety. While sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out what flavors and textures your horse prefers, his pickiness may also be the result of medical issues or improper management practices.
Rule out health concerns
If your horse is turning his nose up at his feed, it may be an indication that something is wrong. There are several possible medical reasons why horses may not be eager to chow down. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about these potential health concerns first to ensure your horse is happy and healthy.
1. Digestive disturbances
Gastric ulcers are hugely prevalent in performance horses and leisure horses alike. Picky horses or horses who are slow eaters may be trying to tell you that their tummy hurts! Gastric ulcers are a painful condition that can impact the horse’s desire to eat and prevent him from maintaining a healthy body condition. Hindgut ulcers are also something to consider as they can also suppress a horse’s appetite.
2. Dental troubles
Horses have teeth that do not fall out and are continuously growing. While their teeth can be worn down by the grinding of feedstuffs like forage or grain, they can be worn down unevenly, develop sharp edges, get cavities, or have other dental issues that may make chewing less effective or even painful. Veterinarians recommend getting your horse’s teeth checked out every six months and floated at least once a year.
3. Prescription problems
It is important to keep in mind that certain medications, like peroglide (Prascend), can cause a lack of appetite in horses. Consult with your veterinarian to make sure that your horse’s medication and dosage is suitable for them.
Changing management practices to help picky horses
After ensuring that there are no medical reasons to explain your horse’s pickiness, you can start to investigate different management practices that may be impacting his appetite.
1. Stable stress
Stress can significantly impact your horse’s appetite. If he’s low in the herd’s pecking order, he may be more worried about his food-aggressive companions than finishing his supper. Consider separating your horse from the herd so he feels safe and secure enough to finish his meal. Similarly, if your horse is anxious in a stall or has an aggressive neighbor, he will likely have difficulty focusing on eating. Ensure he has a friend nearby or move him to a quieter stall to make mealtimes more peaceful.
If your horse is not drinking enough it will impact how much food they will want to consume. Making sure your horse has 24/7, free-choice access to fresh, clean water is key to ensuring that they are well-hydrated. If horses only have access to rivers, lakes, or snow, they will not likely consume enough water to stay hydrated. In colder climates, heated water buckets are necessary to ensure the water is an optimal drinking temperature as too cold water will deter your horse from drinking.
The horse’s stomach can only hold two gallons of feed at a time. If you’re feeding high rates of grain, he may just be full! Consider switching to a ration balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure his nutritional needs are being met. Splitting meals up into multiple smaller meals may also be beneficial – you should never feed more that 2kg of grain in one meal. Horses can eat up to 3.2% of their bodyweight in forage (on a dry matter basis), while ponies can eat up to 4.9%. Depending on your horse and the quality of his hay or pasture, he may be getting full on forage. Not all horses and ponies can maintain a healthy body weight on free-choice forage, so if you suspect your horse is overeating hay or pasture, and he’s gaining weight, aim to feed only 1.5–2% of his bodyweight in forage.
4. Feed timing
Exercise, but not intense exercise, can stimulate hunger. Timing feedings after exercise can be a helpful way to increase your horse’s appetite.
5. Bucket placement
Placing your horse’s feed bucket in an area where he stands often (i.e. the front of the stall) will help him focus on eating. Feeding your horse in a bucket at ground level may also entice them to eat.
6. Transition new feed slowly
If you have recently introduced a new feed or supplement and it’s causing your horse to turn his nose up, introduce it more slowly into his diet. Horses have an incredibly strong sense of smell and taste which can make them hesitant to try new things. Adding feed or supplements a bits at a time (and tucked under a high-value reward) can encourage them to broaden their palette.
If you notice your horse isn’t finishing his meals, the first step is to consult your veterinarian. After ruling out health concerns, there are a number of management and feeding alterations you can try to improve your picky horse’s appetite. Bon appetite!