Equine specialist with Harbro

The problem of 'picky eaters' is a topic that is very rarely covered, but one that is all too common.

With the average horse topping the scales at around 500kg, a lot of food needs to be consumed in order to maintain growth, performance and whatever work you are expecting of him. In simple terms, if a horse doesn’t eat enough to meet its energy and protein requirements, they will lose weight.

When they refuse to eat that expensive supplement that you carefully selected to suit their every need, they may be missing out on key nutrients that could in the longer term affect health, performance and even longevity. Figuring out how to tempt the appetite and in some cases figuring out what the problem is, can be very frustrating and challenging.

Rations for harder work

Horses that are in higher levels of work generally need to be fed more concentrates than their more leisurely counterparts, to enable them to perform.

A common scenario is that the horse picks at a couple of mouthfuls of the nuts or coarse mix provided and then backs off, refusing to eat another mouthful. The irony being that this is the very horse that requires the extra feed for the level of work expected of him.

In this case the horse is a prime candidate for gastric ulcer investigation. This horse has probably been fed large, cereal-based meals in order to meet the extra energy required to perform at a higher level of work which, in turn, led to gastric ulceration and/or an acidic digestive tract.

The abdominal discomfort associated with eating has resulted in feed refusal. Once a horse has been diagnosed with ulcers by a vet a course of treatment will be required and a low starch, higher fibre feeding regime introduced.

Ulcers can also happen in horses that have not eaten enough forage, whether through not being offered enough or not eating enough due to illness, travelling or other stresses.

Pain and discomfort

There are other reasons apart from ulcers that can cause your horse pain and discomfort whilst eating.

The obvious is teeth/oral pain due to ulcers or sharp edges but oftentimes if horses are in pain in general with, for instance laminitis, arthritis etc; the stress the pain causes them may stop them from eating.

Also if they have an underlying infection and therefore a temperature, this will almost certainly result in them going off their feed. If your horse normally has a healthy appetite and suddenly or even gradually goes off their feed, then a veterinary check -up would definitely be recommended.

Combatting acute and/or chronic pain normally results in a resumption of usual appetite.

Psychological stress

Horses that spend a lot of time stabled and/or in social isolation can suffer from something akin to depression in humans. This type of lifestyle can cause stress which in turn can lead to loss of appetite.

Often, just introducing a bit more turnout and a chance for social interaction with other horses can lead to a massive improvement in appetite. Some horses eat better in a paddock rather than in their stable and others eat better where there is an element of perceived competition, eg 'the horse over the partition may eat my food if I don’t!'

Bereavements and a change of home or owner can also lead to inappetence but these incidences are usually short-lived and nothing to be anxious about. The stress of travelling and stabling away at events can induce inappetence in some horses.

So, when you and your horse are away from home it is more important than ever to try to keep things as similar to home as you can. Same feed bucket, water bucket, hay source etc. Tasty succulents (carrots and apples) can sometimes help to encourage them to eat up, as can hand grazing as an aid to relaxation.

No sudden changes

Horses are creatures of habit but they are also very wary of anything that looks or tastes different from their usual.

This can include the forage part of their ration (if you have had to change sources) but most certainly will apply to complete feed changes, any supplements that are new or even the dreaded 'just add it to his feed' medication! As with humans, some horses are more wary of change than others.

From a gut health point of view, changes to the concentrate part of your diet should always be done gradually but if you have a fussy feeder then you may have to take things even more slowly, with a switch over taking weeks rather than days.

Strong tasting supplements should always be added in very slowly, or they may refuse point blank to entertain it, at any level, once they have decided that you are trying to poison them with it!

Unfortunately, when it comes to medication, chucking it all in at once is exactly what we have to do and consequently some horses may have to be given their medication via a different non-feed method.

Fussy horse / fussy owner

Often when I am met with the remarks that a horse will only eat the best quality, sweetest haylage and will only eat coarse-mix and not nuts etc etc, I realise that I may possibly be dealing with a fussy owner rather than a fussy horse.

The majority of horses which are fit and healthy and under little stress will scoff up whatever is thrown in front of them, unless they have been (how can I put it) molly coddled. If you inherit a horse like this, sometimes a couple of weeks of back to nature approach, where the horse is turned out with no bucket feed offered during this time, can work a treat.

Picky horse

Some horses are genuinely very picky for no reason that anyone can ever work out.

Many just prefer grass or hay to concentrate feed and no stuffing the offending article under their nose will tempt them. Some will back off hard feed as soon as the spring grass comes through, preferring to spend their time eating this new tasty morsel.

For the truly picky horse, the best way is to find a flavour or flavouring that the horse really likes. This could take some time to fathom but it is worth persevering, whether it is sloppy beet pulp, molasses, apple sauce, peppermint (herb or cordial) so long as the horse likes it and it can be used in every single feed that the horse is given then it is ideal. This should reduce some pickiness.

Flavourings like this are also great masking agents, covering up strong tastes or smells (such as medication). Evo, which is the flavouring used in the Harbro Horse Feed Range, is available as a separate supplement and has proven very acceptable and effective for picky feeders and for masking medication in feeds. Used at higher levels it is also an effective calmer.