The following is an excerpt from the book Feed Your Horse Like A Horse: Optimize your horse’s nutrition for a lifetime of vibrant health, by Juliet M. Getty, PhD. This section offers specific advice and guidelines regarding rescue horse nutrition to people faced with the challenge of helping a rescue horse recover from severe undernourishment. The tendency is to offer a large amount of feed, but this situation is complex and requires patience, dedication and careful attention to detail.

The severely underweight rescue horse
If you have recently adopted a rescue horse, let me first commend you for your actions. Saving a horse that is in desperate need of care, and nursing him back to health, can be one of the most gratifying experiences a horse owner can have. But you must be committed to giving him a lot of time and attention. Rescue horse nutrition requires that you move him and out of pasture throughout the day, fed hay nearly every couple of hours, and require frequent meals until he gets to where he can hold his own.

If your horse is very thin due to starvation, you will want to proceed slowly and with caution, giving his body a chance to adjust to change with each step. Some horses are in such poor condition they are unable to eat. In this extreme situation, your veterinarian will use a stomach tube to feed the horse. This is a short-term procedure with the goal of getting your horse interested in eating again.

Retired racehorses almost invariably have ulcers. Your veterinarian may prescribe an ulcer medication, but this can only be used for a month or so. The three main components of healing an ulcer are: chewing on hay or pasture at all times, plenty of water, and reduction in stress.

Your ultimate goal is to allow your rescued horse to graze freely, as much as he wants, on hay and/or pasture. You’ll want his forage to include a legume such as clover or alfalfa. But take your time – you can’t just put him out on pasture right away if he’s been severely deprived. I know you want to, but his digestive tract isn’t ready just yet. The microbial population in his hindgut is not adequate for fiber digestion; too much, too soon and he may colic or founder. Here is my recommendation for an 1,100 lb (500 kg) horse (his normal weight):

• You should give him a probiotic, at a double dose, every day for approximately one month; then reduce the dosage to a maintenance level.
• Start with one pound of grass hay every two hours, or pasture grazing for 30 minutes with an hour break in between. At night, leave him with four pounds of hay, plenty of water, and a salt block.
• After three days, increase the amount of hay to two pounds every two hours and give him eight pounds of hay at night. • By the end of two weeks, he should be able to have hay available free-choice or graze on pasture 24/7. Be sure he has enough to last him through the night. There should be some hay left over in the morning.
• Starting at week three, add alfalfa to his hay ration. Start with one pound a day for three days, and add one more pound every three days, until you reach a total of eight to ten pounds a day. If you’re not able to obtain alfalfa hay, get hay cubes. Break them into small pieces and let them soak for a few minutes. Feed them as a snack throughout the day.
• Also starting at week three, you’ll want to begin feeding him six small meals each day. A good recipe for each meal that weighs approximately one pound:

Alternatively, to make things easier than assembling this whole list, you can purchase a commercial feed that contains 14% to 16% protein, at least 18% fiber and at least 8% fat. Give him four cups each meal (weighs approximately one pound).You’ll still need to add the flaxseed meal, probiotic and vitamin E.

• After two weeks, reduce his feedings to three to four meals per day, still feeding the same total amount (approximately six pounds) of feed, making sure he has hay and/or pasture in between meals and throughout the night.
• Two weeks later, start reducing the number of meals to two to three each day. You can increase his total feed concentrate consumption to eight to 12 pounds per day, as long as each meal does not weigh more than four pounds.

Other things to consider
• If you do not have healthy pasture and rely mostly on hay, give him one to two pounds of carrots each day; feed them throughout the day, not all at one time.
• If he’s older than 16, give him 3 mg to 5 mg of vitaminC per pound of body weight each day. Past 20 years old, increase it to 10 mg per pound of body weight. He’ll need vitamin C supplementation for the rest of his life.
• Provide a plain white salt block. He needs to consume one ounce of salt each day, so if he is not doing this, add salt to his meals. Choose table salt that you buy in the grocery store. If his supplements or feed contains iodine, choose the non-iodized version of salt. One ounce is equal to six teaspoons or two tablespoons, so divide it between meals.
• Water should always be available. If it’s winter, use heated water buckets. He should be drinking eight to 12 gallons of water each day.

It’s best to have him examined every few weeks by your veterinarian, and draw blood samples to assess his overall health and level of improvement. With proper nutritional care, attention and medical evaluation, there is every reason to be optimistic that your horse will thrive and enjoy years to come with his newfound health.

Juliet M. Getty, PhD is a consultant, speaker, and writer in equine nutrition. A retired university professor and winner of several teaching awards, Dr. Getty presents seminars to horse organizations and works with individual owners to create customized nutrition plans designed to prevent illness and optimize their horses’ overall health and performance. Based in beautiful rural Bayfield, Colorado, Dr. Getty runs a consulting company, Getty Equine Nutrition, LLC (, through which she helps horse owners locally, nationally and internationally. The well being of the horse remains Dr. Getty’s driving motivation, and she believes every horse owner should have access to scientific information