My Horse Doesn’t Feel Good, What Should I Feed It?

Strangles abscess under a horse's jaw.

There are a number of potential illnesses which can cause horses to go “off feed” for varying periods of time.  Upper respiratory issues, such as strangles and influenza, may cause the horse to lose appetite and reduce feed intake.

There is a bit of a trade off with the nutrient requirements of the horse that is off feed due to illness.  On one hand, the horse may be moving around less because it does not feel good, so it is not burning up as many calories.  On the other hand, immune response and maintaining/building new tissue requires adequate Calorie intake, along with amino acids, minerals and vitamins, and adequate water intake.  There is also a difference between a healthy horse that is experiences reduced feed intake, and a sick horse that experiences reduced feed intake.  The body of the healthy horse conserves resources, while the sick horse has to expend resources to get well.

The following steps may be useful for the horse that is experiencing reduced feed intake due to fever or upper respiratory issues:

  1. Horses with a contagious condition such as strangle or influenza should be properly isolated with appropriate biosecurity measures to prevent the spread to other animals.  Biosecurity is a separate topic and is very important.
  2. Water should be available free choice, preferably from buckets, so that consumption can be monitored and so that the buckets can be cleaned regularly.
  3. Palatable forage should be used.  If a horse already has a respiratory issue, care should be taken to make sure the forage is dust free.   It may be dampened or soaked if needed.
  4. A palatable well fortified feed should be used to help maintain intake and provide the nutrients required to support immune response and healing, particularly adequate amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins.  Anti-oxidants such as selenium and Vitamin E may be useful.
  5. A feed with added fat may provide easily digestible Calories with reduced risk of metabolic disturbances.
  6. The goal should be to support the horse during the illness, and minimize weight loss and muscle wasting.

Regardless of the age of the horse, a senior horse feed may be a good option.  Senior horse feeds are very safe, highly digestible, highly palatable and well fortified.  They are designed to be used as complete feeds or with limited forage intake and can be made into a mash if needed.  They work well for many recovery conditions.

If a horse is in training, care must be exercised in that even a few days of stall rest can result in some loss of bone density and soft tissue strength, so training needs to be adjusted accordingly to reduce the risk of injury.  Also, lung function may not be back to 100% for several weeks following a respiratory infection.

Horses that are ill, and particularly ones that are severely emaciated, should be under the direction of a veterinarian.

Your horse ate WHAT?

Abnormal or unusual eating behavior is not uncommon in horses and may be of concern to a horse owner.  Foals frequently nibble at manure, which is one way the microbial population of the gut is established.  It does not look attractive, but may be normal investigative behavior.  Other unusual eating behavior includes chewing on fences or stall walls, eating bark off trees, chewing on their stable mate’s tails and eating dirt.  In some species, the term “pica” is used to indicate consuming unusual food.  Except for salt, and perhaps phosphorus, there has been limited information to document that horses have nutritional wisdom for selecting nutrients.  They can select and consume plants that taste better than other plants.

If a horse is demonstrating unusual eating behavior, the following check list might be useful in determining what factors may be driving the behavior:

  1. Does the horse have adequate long stem fiber available?  If the horse does not feel full or is bored, they will find something to chew on and consume.  Fences, stalls and trees may suffer!  If the horse is getting sufficient Calories to maintain body condition, but is not consuming enough dry matter to feel full, they will try to consume more of something and will look for things to nibble on.
  2. Do they have adequate salt available free choice?  Horses that do not have salt available will chew on a variety of objects seeking salt, such as tool handles or leather.  They may eat dirt where salt might be present in small quantities or where there are or have been ashes.   Wild animals seek out “salt licks” and consume bones.
  3. Do they have adequate mineral intake?  While the horse may not have specific mineral wisdom, abnormal consumption may be a good time to review macro and micro mineral intake to ensure their diet is balanced and they are receiving adequate amounts of these important micronutrients.
  4. Does the horse have ulcers?  There have been anecdotal reports of horses with ulcers seeking to consume fiber or dirt.
  5. Young horses cutting teeth may sometimes exhibit some unusual chewing behavior.  Young horses also like to explore and will nibble on or consume mop fibers, decorations, leather etc.

Anytime a horse is consuming unusual material, a thorough review of the diet is a good idea to make certain there is sufficient fiber, adequate minerals, including salt, and adequate protein/amino acid intake.  If boredom is an issue, increased exercise or the use of stall toys may be a good idea.  And of course, if your horse consumes something odd, or excessive amounts of something, make sure to contact your vet!

Creep Feeding Foals

Newborn Foal, Ella takes in the world next to mom, Serena

When was the last time you picked a mare out for breeding based solely on the fact that she was a good milker? If you are like most horse owners, that thought probably didn’t even cross your mind when it came to mare selection. Most of us look at things like conformation, color, attitude and athletic ability as traits to breed for before we ever consider things like milk production.

The fact is that mares need to provide milk - and a lot of it – to feed and nourish the foal at their side. But even the best milking mare will start to decline in milk production a few months after the birth of her foal. By week 13-24 her milk production will shrink from 3% of her body weight to about 2%. This is a peak time for growth in the foal and nutrient needs are increasing just as the nutrition provded by mom is decreasing. A good way to address this issue and make sure that your foal gets all the nutrition that they require is to implement a creep feeding program. Creep feeding is simply a method of feeding foals so that they have access to feed that the mare doesn’t.

A simple creep feeder can be made of a small pen that allows the foal an entry that the mare can’t fit through. Height of the opening is a great way to keep mares out of the creep feeder. Keep your opening at least a couple of inches higher than the foal’s withers – this will be low enough to keep the mares out and still let the foals in. Remember, those foals are growing so you may have to periodically adjust the height of the entry. 

If you feed the foal in a stall alongside his dam, there are small feeders on the market that have evenly spaced bars in place over the opening that prevent the mare’s larger muzzle from reaching in to snack on the creep feed.

The ration you provide as your creep feed should be designed specifically for growing foals with the primary intention of providing balance in the diet.  It needs to have a few key features:

  • Good palatability to ensure intakes
  • High quality protein
  • Amino acids (particularly lysine) for sound growth
  • Balanced levels of vitamins and minerals – having too much, too little, or the wrong ratio of certain vitamins and minerals at this stage can be detrimental. Of particular importance is calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.  

Creep feed can be offered free choice; the foal will nibble at it throughout the day. To make sure that your foal is getting enough of the feed, place your feeder in a place that the mare frequents or spends a large part of her time.  Keep feed fresh and feeders clean so that the foals will be encouraged to eat.

By providing a creep feeding program for your foals you will be giving them the nutrition they require and helping them in their journey to becoming strong and sound adults.

Feeding the Broodmare During Lactation

Proper nutrition for the broodmare during lactation is essential to make certain that she produces adequate milk for the foal and also maintains her body condition so that she will re-breed successfully and safely carry the next year’s foal.

The broodmare has substantial increases in requirements for digestible energy, protein, lysine and minerals as she goes from the last month of gestation to the first month of lactation. For an 1100 lb mare, the following changes occur:

  • Her DE requirement goes from 21.4 Mcal per day to 31.7 Mcal per day
  • Her protein requirement goes from 630 grams to 1535 grams per day
  • Her lysine requirement goes from 27.1 grams to 84.8 grams per day
  • Her calcium requirement goes from 20 grams per day to 59.1 grams per day
  • Similar increases occur in other amino acids and minerals, as well. They are documented in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, pages 298-299.

If her feed intake is not increased to provide these nutrients, she will maintain milk product by using her body stores for energy, amino acids and minerals, causing loss of weight and loss of body condition as well as mineral losses.

Foal scratching face

Ferris with mom Rosie - foals exhibit the most entertaining behaviors....

To meet her increased DE requirement, an additional 7.5 pounds of grain containing 1364 Calories/lb will need to be added to her diet gradually post foaling. Fortunately, she also can consume more dry matter during lactation, so she is actually able to eat more forage and more feed. If she is fed a product suitable for lactating mares, the additional feed will provide the additional energy as well as the other important nutrients. She will also require unlimited access to water and salt free choice along with good quality forage.

If she continues to lose weight, she is much less likely to cycle normally during lactation and less likely to become pregnant and carry the next foal. This may be why some mares are “every other year” mares in producing foals. They are frequently mares that produce large foals and milk very heavy during lactation. As a result, they do not maintain body condition and do not re-breed and carry a foal the next year. When they are not in foal and not lactating, they gain weight and come back into the next breeding season in good flesh and breed successfully. This is even more likely if they are not in a suitable body condition (BCS 6+) prior to foaling.

The nutrient requirements of the mare will start to decrease at the 3rd month of lactation and will gradually decrease until the foal is weaned. Monitoring body condition of the mare and the foal is one of the best ways to determine if the feeding program for both is producing the desired results!