Tips for Getting Horses to Eat Medications

Q. My horse needs daily medication. Do you have any tricks for giving him the pills in a manner that he might actually enjoy?

A. Giving medication to your horse can be a challenge. Given the size of their muzzle, their ability to weed out and leave a tiny pill in a bucket of feed is impressive! For some horses, especially those being fed a textured feed, owners get lucky and find that they can just put the pill in the feed and the horse eats it just fine. But in my experience these horses are the exception, not the rule.

Most owners are left trying to find something that they can put the pill in and hand feed that won’t illicit a response from the horse that indicates he thinks you’re trying to poison him.

Here are some things you can try that might do the trick.

Soft horse treats

Many slightly squishy horse treats are available at local feeds stores and online, and they’re often very palatable and easy to press a pill in to.

Apples and carrots

Classic favorite treats, some owners find they can hollow out a small hole and press a pill into a piece of carrot or apple and successfully feed it this way.

Pill pockets/pouches

Several brands of pill pockets and pouches are on the market designed specifically for horses. Most are quite palatable; however, they might be more expensive than other options.

Pitted prunes

While plum pits are poisonous to horses, prunes (the dried plum fruit) are safe to feed and make fabulous pill pockets. They are sweet and sticky and do the job nicely.

Water

Most pills and tablets dissolve in water. If you place the necessary medication in a syringe, add water, and let it sit it should dissolve and then you can dose the horse orally. You might need to crush very hard pills first. Administering this way takes some skill to ensure the liquid with the pill goes down their throat and not out the side of their mouth.

Dietary Considerations

A good number of horses needing daily medication are those with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease), and veterinarians generally recommend these horses eat low-starch, low-sugar diets. The same is true for horses with other metabolic conditions where a low non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) diet is required. This adds a level of complexity to medication administration as many of the above options are not necessarily low in sugar.

It is important to know your horse’s sensitivity and to keep in mind the actual amount of sugar you’re providing in one treat. For example, the USDA’s food products database indicates that a mini bite-sized prune contains 2 grams of sugar, a single baby carrot contains about 1.33 grams of sugar, and a 7-inch-long carrot has about 5 grams of sugar. Compare those figures to a half-cup of applesauce (administered with a syringe), which can range from about 10 grams to 20 grams of sugar, and you’ll see a single prune or carrot is probably a better option. Treat manufacturers will often be able to tell you their products’ sugar and starch content even if it’s not on the label.

Some treats, pill pockets, and pouches on the market are low-NSC and likely the best options for sugar-sensitive horses. For horses with conditions like PPID, though, sometimes the risk of feeding one slightly higher-sugar treat to get the needed medication dose required to control the condition vs. the horse refusing to take the pill, a small amount of sugar is the lesser of two evils.

If you have concerns about whether a method of dosing is appropriate for your horse check with your veterinarian.

One last consideration for success is how you approach your horse when you present the treat. Medicating horses can be stressful, especially if they’ve refused other methods you’ve tried. However, approaching your horse holding your breath and nervously trying to anticipate the outcome is a recipe for disaster. Your horse will read your body language and know something is up. Try to stay upbeat and positive.