Feeding the Neglected Horse – a Challenging but Rewarding Task

Changes and challenges in the horse industry may have resulted in an increased number of horses that have experienced prolonged periods of inadequate nutrient intakes, resulting in loss of weight and, in some cases, actual starvation. In order for these horses to be brought back to a healthy condition, it is important to assess the current condition to determine an appropriate feeding and health care program in conjunction with an equine veterinarian.

A useful first step in the in rehabbing the neglected horse is to estimate the body condition using the Body Condition Scoring System developed by Henneke et al (1983). Horses that are at or above a body condition score 3 (thin) can generally be brought back to a body condition score of 5 (moderate) in 6-8 weeks with the introduction of a balanced diet (50% good quality hay, 50% formulated feed) fed initially at 1.5% of bodyweight in 4-5 feedings per day. The amount can be gradually increased to 2.5-2.8% of bodyweight (hay offered free choice, grain fed 2-3 x per day, to a maximum 0.5% BW per feeding) as discussed by Heusner (1993). Complete feeds, particularly Senior Feeds, also work very well in this situation with controlled starch and sugar levels, amino acid profile, high digestibility, and easy to chew attributes. These horses are also frequently salt starved, so salt should also be introduced gradually at 1-2 oz per day and increased until it can be offered free choice. The horses should also have their teeth checked and be de-wormed.  If the horses have a heavy parasite load as determined by fecal egg count, they may have to be treated with a half dose the first time to reduce the risk of problems from the de-worming.

Horses that have been truly starved may be in body condition score 1 (poor) or 2 (very thin). If a horse has lost 40% of optimal body weight, it will generally become recumbent (survival rate is low if a horse has lost 45-50% of optimum body weight).  This type of body weight loss normally takes 60-90 days without any feed and more commonly will take 3-4 months with very poor forage and water (Lewis, 1995).  Horses in this condition may be hypoglycemic and hyperkalemic due to body tissue breakdown. These horses require careful attention from an equine veterinarian as IV fluid administration and blood work are essential and support with a sling will probably be required.

Horses that are not recumbent, but are body condition score 1 or 2 will need a very gradual reintroduction of feed. These horses have lost substantial muscle mass as well as essentially all fat and may also be hypoglycemic and hyperkalemic.  One method to recover these horses is by using high quality alfalfa hay as a base high protein, low starch diet, introduced gradually and increased to ad libidum feeding in about 2 weeks (Stull, 2003).  Senior Horse Feeds which have a controlled starch level, added amino acids, direct fed microbials and balanced trace minerals and vitamins have also been used with severely neglected horses.  This type of product can be introduced at 0.5% BW, split into several small feedings per day, and gradually increased over a 10-14 day period to normal feeding rate per feeding directions. Horses with poor dentition may benefit from having the feed dampened to form a mash.

Fresh clean water needs to be available at all times and special care must always be taken to avoid excessive initial feed intake to reduce the risk of colic, laminitis, diarrhea and other metabolic disturbances. Close observation and blood chemistry monitoring may be useful to prevent complications as there are potential risks with any re-feeding effort. De-worming should be done in consultation with an equine veterinarian as the horse recovers.

The best treatment for neglect is prevention. The sooner proper nutrition can be made available to the horse, the less chance there is of permanent damage or untimely death.

References:

 Henneke, D.R., G.D. Potter and T.L. Kreider, Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency of the mares.  Theriogenology 21:897, 1984

Heusner, GL, Ad Libitum feeding of mature horses to achieve rapid weight gain. Proc. ENPS pp 86-87, 1993.

Lewis, Lon D. DVM, PhD, Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and Care, Williams & Watkins, pp 416-418, 1995.

Stull, Carolyn, PhD, The Horse Report, UC Davis, Volume 21, Number 3, “Nutrition for Rehabilitation of the Starved Horse” pp 456-457, July 2003.