Feeding the Starved Horse

Written by: Marty Adams, PhD, PAS – Technical Services Equine Nutritionist for Cargill

Horse feed questions? You can contact me at marty_adams@cargill.com.

Cargill manufactures ProElite®, Legends®, Nutrena®, ProForce®, SafeChoice®, Empower® and Triumph® Horse Feeds.

Horses that have been the subject of abuse or neglect are usually in a starved condition. Remarkably, horses can lose 30% or more of their body weight and still survive. Horses in this condition will have very little muscle mass remaining and will be very weak. They will need much care and attention to regain their trust, and a sound nutrition program to get them back into proper body condition and health.

Even with the best of care some horses won’t survive, especially horses that have lost 50% or more of their body weight. “Refeeding Syndrome” can occur in horses, and severely starved individuals may die within a few days to a week after starting a feeding program. The problem occurs when a severely starved horse eats a high nonstructural carbohydrate or NSC meal. This causes a large increase in blood glucose which raises blood insulin and allows glucose to be absorbed into the body cells, but it also draws the electrolytes magnesium and potassium out of the bloodstream and into body cells. The starved horse doesn’t have an adequate store of these electrolytes, can’t maintain normal blood levels and their depletion can lead to heart, respiratory or kidney failure and subsequent death.

Equine nutrition research has shown the safest way to start a feeding program for a starved horse is to offer small frequent meals of high quality alfalfa hay. A study compared feeding alfalfa hay only, grass hay only, and grass hay and sweet feed (high NSC feed composed of oats/corn/molasses mix) to horses for the first two weeks of a refeeding program for severely starved horses with body condition scores of 1 on a scale of 1-9. For the first two weeks the lowest mortality rate was for horses on the alfalfa hay only diet. The alfalfa hay only diet contained the lowest level of dietary NSC and prevented an extreme glycemic response to prevent low blood magnesium or potassium levels from occurring.

Start the feeding program by offering one pound of alfalfa hay every 3 to 4 hours for a total of six pounds in 24 hours for a horse weighing 500 pounds (e.g. total of 7 pounds in 24 hours for a 600-pound horse or 8 pounds in 24 hours for a 700-pound horse). Follow this feeding program for the first three days and provide fresh, clean water at all times.

If the horse tolerates this program with no diarrhea or other problems, keep increasing the amount of alfalfa hay fed and decrease the number of feedings. After the first three days, a horse with an initial weight of 500 pounds should be fed four pounds of alfalfa hay every 6 to 8 hours for a total of 10 pounds daily by the sixth day (e.g. total of 12 pounds daily for a 600-pound horse or 14 pounds daily for a 700-pound horse). Keep increasing the amount of alfalfa hay fed and decrease feedings to twice per day, so that by two weeks horses are receiving at least the following amounts based on initial body weight (e.g. 500-pound horse: 13 pounds daily, 600-pound horse: 15 pounds daily, 700-pound horse: 17 pounds daily). After two weeks, the horse may be fed alfalfa hay on a free-choice basis.

After two weeks into the feeding program, introduction to pasture can begin with an hour of pasture access for three to four days. Gradually increase pasture time over a period of 10 to 14 days and then daily or 24-hour access can be allowed. Also, if alfalfa hay is not readily available and another type of hay is more available or economical, the horse may be gradually changed to another type of hay over the next two weeks so that alfalfa hay is no longer fed after four weeks into the feeding program.

A horse feed can be introduced after the initial two-week feeding period. Introduce feed gradually, providing one pound twice daily and then increase the amount by one additional pound each day. Depending on the amount and quality of hay fed, feeding rates up to 1% of body weight daily can be allowed. Many feeds with maximum guaranteed levels of dietary starch and sugars (Dietary Starch + Sugars = NSC) or NSC of 22% or less are recommended to provide added safety to prevent any digestive disturbance such as colic. ProElite® Senior and Starch Wise, ProForce® Fuel and Senior, SafeChoice® Original and Legends® CarbCare Performance and Show & Pleasure and Triumph® Professional Pellet and Fiber Plus are all high fat, low NSC feeds with highly fortified levels of vitamins, minerals and amino acids recommended for horses to gain and maintain weight safely.

For older horses (20 years or more) with poor tooth condition, the ability to chew long-stemmed hay may be lost. Feed the older horse Legends® CarbCare Senior, SafeChoice® Senior, ProForce® Senior or ProElite® Senior along with chopped, cubed or pelleted alfalfa hay, gradually increasing the amount of feed to 1% of body weight daily and processed alfalfa hay to 1% of body weight daily. These senior feeds have maximum NSC guarantees of 20% or less can contain fat guarantees of 7% to 11% to provide a high energy density for more calories for safe weight gain. The feed and forage may need to have water added to form a mash if the horse’s dental condition is very poor.

After two months on a successful feeding program, the horse has regained some strength and become familiar with its surroundings, so now is the time to check with a veterinarian about health care. A dental checkup is also in order, as this has likely been neglected. Your veterinarian may also discover other health problems that your neglected horse may need treatment for, and can also recommend a vaccination program. Contact a farrier about hoof care as well, this is likely another area that needs to be addressed.

After three to five months of care and feeding, a severely starved horse should be rehabilitated to a normal body weight and be ready to resume a normal life once again. Once a desired body condition score has been achieved of a 5 on a scale of 1-9, feeding rates for older horses can be adjusted to 0.75 to 1% of body weight for senior feed and 0.5% to 0.75% of processed alfalfa for horses not able to eat hay and not on pasture. For younger horses without pasture access, hay feeding rates of 1.5% to 2.0% of body weight daily and concentrate or grain feeding rates of 0.5% to 0.75% are recommended. If horses require just a few pounds of feed per day to maintain body weight, then a diet balancer such as Nutrena® Empower® Topline Balance® (for grass or alfalfa/grass diets) or ProElite® Grass Advantage Diet Balancer (for grass or alfalfa/grass diets) or ProElite® Alfalfa Advantage Diet Balancer (for alfalfa-only diets) is recommended with a limited amount of hay if no pasture is available (1.5% body weight per day). And for more information about our horse feeds you can go to: proelitehorsefeed.com, legendshorsefeed.com, toplinebalance.com and nutrenaworld.com.