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Feeding the Starved Horse

Unfortunately, in the equine community, we have all probably known first or second hand a horse that has been malnourished. Why would this happen so often? In a society like we have today, with all kinds of regulatory bodies and assistance programs for horses in need, how could this be so prevalent? The truth is that most of the time, horses end up in a starved state, not from maliciousness on the owner’s part, but of ignorance or economic turmoil. The owner simply didn’t understand the cost of owning a horse, or horses, and has gotten in over his or her head.  Consequently, the horse does not get its teeth done, isn’t wormed, or isn’t fed much or even adequate quality hay and grain if fed anything at all.  These are problems that are not going away quickly, but thankfully there are programs and organizations that are taking it upon themselves to help these starved horses. So if you end up with a malnourished horse on your hands…what do you do first??


You need to evaluate whether or not the horse is actually starving or not.  A starving horse is one with a body condition score of less than 3.5 on the body condition scoring system.  Some signs of a horse that is starving, other than a visual assessment, include diarrhea, constipation, laying down a lot, colic, poor coat quality, and a depressed attitude.  When a horse is starved, it cannot use fats or carbohydrates that are normally stored in a healthy horse. The starved horse simply no longer has these to pull from. Therefore, it uses protein stored in the body. Protein is not stored like fat and carbohydrates are.  When deficient, Protein is taken from the horse’s muscles and tissues, which is not how the horse is meant to function. Now, critical bodily functions don’t take place as they should, and the horse begins to enter into a starvation state.  Starved horses also have a very low trace mineral count, an empty gut, and lack of digestive bacteria. These things will lead to serious health risks for the horse.


So how do we help this animal? First, be aware of re-feeding syndrome. Re-feeding syndrome can include kidney, respiratory, or heart failure when feed is introduced to the horse too quickly.  This could occur within three to five days of the reintroduction to food.  Re-feeding syndrome happens when electrolytes shift when food is introduced again into the body. Insulin that is released in response to feed puts the body levels of magnesium and phosphorus out of balance. This can cause the ailments described above.  What we have to do is go about reintroducing food slowly.  There is a 10-28 day rehabilitation period.  Frequent small meals need to be offered to the horse in the form of high quality alfalfa hay. High quality alfalfa hay would have a minimum of 16-20% protein, soft stems, and no mold or dust.  Increase the amount slowly over the course of 10 days. After 10 days, you can start to find out how much forage the horse will be willing to eat and then offer that much.  Be patient, this rehabilitation process can take up to five months for the horse to reach a good body condition score. An example schedule for re-feeding would look like this:


For first 3 days, feed one pound of alfalfa every 4 hours


The next 4-10 days, slowly increase to amount of 4 pounds every 8 hours.


After day 10, offer as much forage as the horse will eat.


It is important to note as well that we are talking about forage. Wait on the grain until the horse is well along in its recovery.


With the proper knowledge of how to rehabilitate these starved horses, we are off to a great start in tackling this equine welfare issue.  Also, make sure to help new horse owners understand the cost and how to manage horses.  This can be helped by any number of books on horse care or contacting your local agriculture extension office for information.  And never hesitate to reach out to your feed company or your veterinarians for assistance when dealing with starved horses.