Feeding a Rescue Horse: Rehabilitating the Rescue Horse

Feeding a Rescue HorseOften I am sent the good news that a fellow horse enthusiast has recently obtained a rescue horse and needs help to rehabilitate. Or the ASPCA asked their barn to rehabilitate a horse.

The following post is written to help you understand managing the rescue horse or re-feeding the malnourished horse.

Since 2007, horses arriving at rescue or humane shelters have been increasing in numbers. The amount of horse rescues have also been increasing, not only for the malnourished, but also the unwanted or traumatized horse. Horses arriving at rescues with low body condition (scores of 1 to 3 on the 9 point scale) due to starvation continues to produce the most questions for the care takers. For the rescue organization or foster individuals that take on the tasks of rehabilitating these malnourished horses, rehabilitation is most successful with a refeeding plan to help guide them.

When managing a rescue horse, start by working closely with an Equine Veterinarian. A Veterinarian will conduct a physical exam measuring body weight, body condition score, Topline Evaluation Score, blood chemistry parameters and assess appetite.  Disease status can impact the horse’s gastrointestinal (GI) system.  Having gone a prolonged time without food, physical changes in the small and large intestines compromise a horse’s ability to digest nutrients.  Thus making it difficult to regain body condition or to establish a healthy appetite.

When refeeding a malnourished rescue horse consider your ability to safely interact with the horse. Some rescue horses have been neglected or abused and may react defensively. Take care to be observant of this as the horse begins to rehabilitate and gains energy.

Calculate the digestible energy (DE) intake on the current body weight, not the desired optimal weight. An equation to help estimate DE is DE MCAL/DAY = Body Weight in KG x 0.03. This amount must be slowly worked up to over several days and fed “continuously” throughout the full 24 hour day. Forage from a ground feeder, and reliable help that have time to feed this type of horse every hour to every three hours. Feed high quality continuous forage along with an easily digestible controlled starch feed as first choices. A diet based primarily around forage helps regenerate the GI track; when combined with easily digestible feeds, such as those designed for Senior horses, are often a good starting point.

The GI tract is sensitive and digestive disturbances could potentiate if free choice forage and feed is available. Sudden changes and food amount increases elevate the risk of refeeding syndrome. Refeeding syndrome occurs when too many calories and nutrients are consumed by a malnourished animal, resulting in an electrolyte balance and could potentiate multi-organ failure and possibly death.

As a guide, horses with a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 1, a good goal is to gain 0-1 pounds of body weight (BW) per day, horses with BCS of 2 a good goal is 1-2 pounds BW per day and BCS of 3 goal to gain 2 pounds BW per day. Adjust your desired DE levels as the horse continues to gain weight and condition.  As the rescue horse continues to show improvement, the frequency and size of meals can VERY SLOWLY change.

Veterinary and nutritionist guidance is key for helping ensure the horse returns to health. Full rehabilitation can take weeks, months and in severe cases years. A horse with a BCS of 1 can take nearly a year to reach and ideal weight, body condition and Topline score. Care should be taken to ensure the rehabilitation process includes safe physical exercise. A horse that is stall bound can develop other conditions or harmful habits if not exposed to a safe amount of physical activity. Slowly introduce a horse to exercise (the first couple of days might only include slow lead line walk) and take care to be patient as the horse regains strength, balance and ability to perform physical exercise.