Horse nutrition advice for fussy eaters

Horse nutrition advice for fussy eaters

Dealing with horses who are fussy eaters can be stressful, but there are ways to tempt them. We speak to Olympic eventer Lucinda Green about why horses go off their dinner and how we can encourage them to eat and drink.

Just like humans and other pets, horses and ponies can have a range of appetites depending on their personality, breed, workload, condition and stage of life. Staying away at competitions, illness and stress can all be reasons why our horses go off their food, but some are just fussy and require a little encouragement.

Here, we discuss the common reasons why horses stop eating and what we can do to tempt them to eat.

Reasons for reduced appetite in horses

Horses by nature usually eat well, and some, especially native breeds, would eat excessively given the chance. So, if your horse is totally off their feed, it could be a cause for concern and warrants calling the vet. It could mean that your horse is ill, has a temperature or is suffering from colic.

A horse who usually eats well, but starts to lose their appetite, may be suffering from gastric ulcers.

There are also a number of other conditions that can impact your horse’s appetite, such as dental problems which can make eating hay or haylage difficult. Sloppy feeds, long grass and soft hay/haylage can be easier for these types of horses, but you can experiment to find out which foods they cope with best.

Stress, trauma, excitement and exhaustion can also put horses off their food.

Of course, some horses are simply fussy eaters. These types may need to be tempted with tasty aromas and succulents or different feeds in different buckets so that they have a variety to choose from.

Tips for managing fussy eaters

It can be frustrating when your horse won’t eat, especially when they need medication or dietary supplementation. Here are five ways you can encourage your fussy eater to leave a clean bucket!

1. Add a splash of flavour to feeds.

A little bit of apple juice or succulents like grated apples or carrots can work well to make a feed more enticing. Research has shown that horses like certain flavours, so experiment with herbs like fenugreek and mint, or juices like apple or blackcurrant.

2. Offer smaller feeds across the day.

Sometimes, offering a number of small feeds throughout the day is better than overwhelming them with one or two big buckets. Horses are trickle feeders and  are designed to eat little and often.

3. Introduce a different aroma.

Horses have a strong sense of smell, so using potent aromas in their feed can work to your advantage. Adding a cup of lukewarm (not hot) water to your horse’s feed just before feeding will make the food smell irresistible. If your horse is put off by the smell of the feed itself, then try masking it with mint or garlic and then add lukewarm water. Avoid adding extra oils or supplements where possible as these can further deter fussy eaters.

4. Make sure your stable management isn’t preventing your horse from eating.

Check that feeders are clean, that the feed itself is stored correctly and kept fresh, and used within its sell-by date. Check that your horse is not feeling intimidated by other horses, either in the field or neighbouring stable, and that they are fed when it is quiet and peaceful.

5. Try feeding forage 30 minutes before hard feed.

This stimulates the digestive system and helps the horse feel more interested in their feed. If your horse still refuses to eat their feed, consider gradually changing them over to something else.

How to encourage your horse to eat and drink at competitions

Being at a busy showground with horses coming and going can be enough to upset even the most stoic of horses, so it’s no wonder some horses go off their feed.

'It’s important the horse eats if they are performing to ensure they have enough energy and nutrients,' says Lucinda Green.

Try adding molasses

An old favourite with lots of horses, Lucinda laces her horse’s feeds with molasses to encourage them to eat at shows.

Offer rehydration at the right time

 'We also offer a sloppy feed, such as a rehydration mash, straight after they have performed to make sure they stay hydrated,' she says.

Don’t forget the forage

It’s very important to ensure your horse has access to forage, like hay or haylage, while they are at a show. Try to keep their routine as similar to normal as possible to help reduce stress and keep them eating.

Try adding fruit or veg

'Grating the fruit or vegetable and mixing it into the feed works better than slicing it into big chunks as they can easily pick them out,’ explains Lucinda. ‘In the case of drinking water, try adding some soaked hay water, which my horses love, but make sure they are used to drinking this at home first.'

Sweeten their water

If your horse isn’t keen on drinking at competitions, try adding some soaked sugar beet or apple juice to your horse’s water. Giving them electrolytes either in their feed, as a paste or in their water, will also encourage them to drink.

Know what’s normal for your horse

'The key is to know your horse and what is normal for him,' says Lucinda. 'If it is unusual for him to go off his feed at a show, it could mean something is wrong and you may need to call your vet. If you know he goes off his feed at shows, spend time working out what he likes at home, which you can then use at the show to tempt him.'

How to get a horse to eat supplements or medication

Equine medication often comes in the form of a powder or granules, which can be challenging to disguise. If you have a fussy eater, try these tips:

● Allow your horse to eat a few mouthfuls of their feed without the medication, and then add the medication in halfway through once he is in the flow. After the feeding frenzy has started, he may not notice (or care about) the addition!

● Try disguising the medication in molasses, black treacle or puréed carrots and apples, but check if your horse likes these things first.

● If you are giving two different medications, give them in separate feeds, as two together might be too much for your horse to accept in one go.

If all else fails, mix the medication in water or apple juice and syringe it straight into your horse’s mouth. Just as you would when worming your horse.

How to change your horse’s feed safely

Any changes to a horse’s feed should be done gradually to help reduce the risk of digestive upsets and tying-up (muscle cramps). With fussy horses, the process needs to be even slower.

A typical change in feeding regime would require swapping out 1lb (0.5kg) of old feed for 1lb of new feed every other day. So, in the case of a fussy horse, perhaps halving this is sensible. Mixing in a bit of molasses or sugar beet water may also help to disguise any new smells and tastes.

How do you encourage your fussy eater to eat their dinner? Share your tried and tested tricks with us on Facebook for other owners to try!