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.

Feeding a horse with Cushing’s Syndrome

As the number of horses known to have Cushing’s Syndrome increases, questions on how to feed horses with this condition also increase.  As a starting management practice, your veterinarian may recommend pergolide as an added medication for your horse.  This is available from a number of pharmaceutical sources by prescription.

When it comes to feeding them, though, here are a few tips that may help make life a little easier:

  1. If your Cushing’s horse has some joint problems, you may want to also consider using one of the chondroitin sulfate + glucosamine products that are available in supplement form.
  2. Cushing’s syndrome horses require a hay or pasture source that is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), so you might want to have your forage tested.
  3. They do well on senior feeds that are fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and organic trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support immune response.
  4. Feeding directions need to be followed to make certain enough senior feed is being fed as these older horses may not be able to utilize forage very efficiently.
  5. If your horse is not maintaining weight, you may need to increase the feeding rate of the senior feed or add a low starch, rice bran based high fat supplement.

Most senior horses with Cushing’s Syndrome do very well on a senior feed and appropriate medication.  Cost of pergolide can vary greatly and your veterinarian may be able to direct you to the best source.  Good luck, and please let us know if we can help!

Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.