By Heather Smith Thomas
Some horses can be a feeding challenge—especially finicky individuals that are finicky hard to keep weight on. Dr. Bridgett McIntosh, Extension Equine Specialist, University of Tennessee, reminds owners that no two horses are the same. “Something that might work for one might not work for another. Just like humans, each individual has different things they like or don’t like.”
There are many reasons a horse might be thin and only pick at his food. “The first thing to do is rule out any disease, dental problems or medical issues. If there is nothing clinically wrong with the horse and he simply needs to gain weight, or is just fussy about what he eats, we always start with good forage as the foundation of diet. Grass or leafy alfalfa will be the most palatable,” she says.
“Fresh grass (good pasture) will always be the best type of forage to tempt him to eat more. I’ve never seen a healthy horse turn down fresh grass, because this is what his digestive system is designed to utilize,” McIntosh says.
“Finicky eaters will generally eat fresh grass and/or alfalfa hay or alfalfa pellets. We always start with forages rather than grains. If the horse will be fed a commercial concentrate, choose something really palatable, perhaps with molasses that smells good and stimulates the appetite,” she says. Beet pulp can be added, with water to create a mash. This will also stimulate appetite.
“Another thing that may help is to feed him last. Put the fussy one at the end of the barn aisle and feed the other horses first. When he sees them eating, he’ll want to eat, too. Horses are social animals and competitive, so feeding the others may stimulate the fussy one.”
With good quality forage as the foundation of diet, you can add fat—for the horse that needs to gain weight. “This can be corn oil, rice bran, or some other type of fat, just so the extra calories are coming from fat instead of starch–a safer way to add calories—and hopefully palatable enough that the finicky horse will eat it,” says McIntosh.
Tania Cubitt, PhD, equine nutritionist (Middleburg, Virginia–Performance Horse Nutrition) recommends feeding small meals, often. “Picky eaters often don’t concentrate on eating. They are like a small child. If you can get them to eat a small amount several times during the day, they’ll eat more than if you try to feed a couple large meals. With a large meal they eat a few mouthfuls and waste the rest.”
If you keep giving the horse something new and fresh, he might be more interested in eating it. “If he doesn’t like his concentrate meal, add some flavor—such as little honey or molasses mixed in water, or apple juice if that’s what he likes–to pour over the grain/concentrate. If you put the flavoring in a little water it disperses more evenly throughout the ration.”
“Even with the metabolically challenged horses that shouldn’t eat much sugar, a small amount (like a teaspoon of honey) will make their food more palatable without adding much sugar. The Stevia that is very sweet can be mixed with a little water and poured over the food. It will mask or enhance flavor without adding sugar. This is an alternative natural sweetener that some people try for their horses,” says Cubitt.
“Any of the anecdotal remedies might be helpful in some instances. It may work for one horse and not another. It helps to have multiple tricks in the bag. What works to encourage one child to eat vegetables may not work for another, and horses are similar.”
There are also ways to add calories to a ration without adding bulk. “Anything you can do to reduce bulk will help, if a horse doesn’t want to eat much. Adding concentrated calorie sources like oil is beneficial. If a horse doesn’t like the taste of oil you might use products like Cool Calories which is a powdered fat supplement with flavoring,” she says.