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.

Costs and Considerations When Rescuing a Horse

On occasion, the horse industry relies on well‐intentioned horse owners to rescue horses and other equids from negative situations. These horses rarely come with a history of their breed, age, training level, health, temperament, or disposition. Many times, rescuing or fostering these horses takes a skilled horse person with monetary resources. The goal of this article is to outline some of the common needs and costs of rescuing a horse.

Adoption or Purchase Fee

It is common for horse rescues to request an adoption fee which can range from $100 to over $1,000. This fee rarely covers the rescue’s investment in the horse, but does provide the new owner some history of the horse. When rescuing a horse from a kill pen, it is common for the new owner to purchase or bail‐out the horse; this fee can range from $100 to $1,000.

Transportation

Rescue horses likely need to be transported to their new location. If using a privately owned trailer, the trailer should be cleaned and disinfected after transporting the horse. Commercial haulers commonly charge $1 to $2 per loaded mile.

Housing

All rescue horses will need to be quarantined in a private area for 30 days. Although it is difficult to attach a price for horse care at a privately owned farm, quarantine board at a public boarding facility can range from $200 to over $1,000 each month.

Basic Veterinary Care

A veterinary assessment prior to rescuing a horse is rarely possible. Most rescued horses will need vaccinations, a Coggins test, and a fecal egg count and deworming. Additional care may include an examination and treatment for ulcers, castration, dental work, and delousing. Prices for veterinary care vary greatly and depend on the condition of the horse. Average costs for basic care include: initial veterinary examination ($100), five core vaccinations ($75), Coggins ($30), fecal egg count ($25), annual deworming ($60), ulcer examination and treatment ($500), castration ($250), basic dental examination ($250), delousing ($25 for product). 

Specialty Veterinary Care

Horses in need of being rescued can suffer from a number of diseases and conditions, including lameness, laminitis, pregnancy, lacerations, broken bones, unveitis, and skin diseases, which may result in the need for medications, ultrasounds, radiographs, or even euthanasia and rendering. Some lameness issues can be resolved, while others may be long‐term, untreatable, or surpass the owner’s economic and management ability to treat. A recent survey determined the average costs for euthanasia and rendering in Minnesota was $237 and $168, respectively.

Nutrition

Many times, rescue horses are underweight. These horses will require high‐quality forage and a grain concentrate. On a monthly basis, these costs can average $75 for hay, $150 for commercial grain products, and $50 for additional supplements. The horse should slowly, over the course of two weeks, be introduced to the new diet. Horses that are emaciated will require a special and longer-term re‐feeding program. In this case, please consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

Hoof Care

The cost of hoof care is largely dependent on the condition of the animal’s hoof and the amount of prior hoof care. Costs differ greatly, but can range from a regular trim (average cost of $40) to corrective and specialty shoes that can cost thousands of dollars.

Training and Demeanor

Usually, the level of prior handling and training is unknown and may be limited. It is important to understand one’s own abilities as an owner and handler and to seek out a reputable and knowledgeable trainer when needed. Monthly training (excluding board) can range from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars with the investment lasting months to years. Care should be taken if a horse displays an aggressive or overly fearful demeanor or has a known history of biting, bucking, rearing, bolting, or kicking. Even with extensive training, some horses will not be ridable or safe to be around. 

Disease

The most commonly observed disease in rescued horses is Strangles. If treated quickly, horses can recover from Strangles but costs will skyrocket if an affected horse requires hospitalization. Infectious diseases are the primary reason a 30 day quarantine period is recommended for all incoming horses. When rescuing a horse, keep in mind your long‐term goal. If an owner’s goal is to rescue a horse with the intent of allowing it to live out its natural life as a pet or companion, then most horses with a kind demeanor who lack major health issues or who have minor, treatable diseases would be acceptable. If an owner’s goal is to have a ridable horse with the ability to perform, then a sound, trainable, younger horse that is free of major health issues is best.

This information is not meant to deter horse owners from rescuing horses, but to better equip them with knowledge of what financial resources are needed to rescue a horse and conditions that can arise.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.