Help, My Horses Won’t Eat Their Hay

A nutritionist gives different reasons why two horses might not be consuming enough hay.

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It is important to ensure that a good-quality forage is a major part of your horse’s nutrition plan. | Photo: Getty Images

Q: My older Arabian gelding struggles with eating hay, and then I have a younger princess of a mare who just picks at it. I know feeding forage is key. Do you have any suggestions?

A:  The base of any horse’s feeding program should be good-quality forage, but a number of issues can get in the way of this. There are several things that could be happening here:

1.) You don’t mention the type or quality of hay you’re feeding, but that is the place to start. If your hay is on the mature or stemmy side, older horses with dental issues will have a harder time chewing it and picky horses will voluntarily leave it behind. Find a soft, less mature grass hay. Depending on where you live, this could be a variety of hays, but I tend to suggest a green, second-cutting orchard grass as a good example. If you have access to a forage analysis, look for an RFV (relative feeding value) above 80.

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2.) The senior horse might be getting to the point that he can’t effectively chew or digest long-stem hay well, no matter the type (though he might still do quite well on green grass if you have it during the growing season). Have his teeth evaluated by your vet, and realize that even if he can chew it, his hindgut might not be able to extract calories from forage like it once did. If he is not maintaining body condition, it is time to provide a forage replacement. Some horses do well with a chopped/bagged hay or soaked hay cubes or pellets, but the most nutrient-dense and highly digestible option is a complete senior feed, meaning it has forage built in and can partially to totally replace hay or pasture.

3.) Determine why your princess is so picky. It could have simply been the hay quality, but other things, such as gastric ulcers, can cause horses to decrease intake. This can sometimes create a vicious cycle where the horse doesn’t want to eat well because their stomach is uncomfortable, but because they aren’t eating hay well, they miss out on natural buffering from hay and saliva and might further increase the risk of ulcers forming. Talk to your vet about diagnosis and treatment options. We often see horses become much better eaters when their gastric discomfort is resolved.

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Written by:

Anna Pesta Dunaway, PhD, is a nutritionist on the equine technical solutions team at Purina Animal Nutrition. She is responsible for helping bring innovative solutions from the research team out to the field. Pesta Dunaway spends most of her time providing technical consultations and support to the sales team on the East Coast, as well as speaking on equine nutrition at horse owner meetings and professional conferences. She earned her BS in animal science from Kansas State University and received both her MS and PhD in animal nutrition from the University of Nebraska. Her graduate research focused on the use of high-fat diets and manipulating the microbial community in the gut. Anna resides in Aiken, South Carolina, and is a lifelong equestrian with a special interest in the nutrition and development of the future sport horse.

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