How Do I Feed an Underweight, Picky Horse?

An owner asks for help feeding her mare who needs to gain weight but is proving to be a picky eater. Dr. Clair Thunes shares some advice.
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how do i feed an underweight picky eater horse
While a horse might simply not like the form or type of food being offered, it is quite possible that some kind of gastrointestinal discomfort could be to blame. As such, determining the root cause of the pickiness and fixing it can be a large component of successfully helping a horse gain weight. | Photo: iStock

Q.I recently adopted an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) mare. She needs to gain weight especially since winter is coming. The problem is, she seems to be a very picky eater and not particularly interested in the hay or pellets I’m feeding her. I need suggestions on how to quickly get weight on her.

—Michelle, Seattle, Washington

A.Dealing with an underweight horse who is also a picky eater can be a stressful situation. Obviously, if the horse were less picky about what they eat, it would go a long way to helping solve the weight issue. So, trying to figure out why she is picky is a good place to start

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

One Response

  1. I have an ott(standardbred) who was picky. I mixed rolled oats with a pellet for foals. We were also boarding an ottt (pasture) who was underweight. Both of them were separated from the others in the morning and given a single tub to eat out of (greed is a great motivator if they don’t fight). I mixed one coffee can of oats with two of the pellets, poured hot water on it the night before until the oats were floating (you may need to experiment with the amount of water until you get a nice texture; not able to pour any excess water off). In two months both mares were weaned off the mixture by slowly changing (drastic changes can lead to gut problems-switch over a two week period/should also mention to ease her into this diet!) the foal ration to an adult hard keeper-although if the ingredients are similar, just switch to adult pellets. Soon you can cut down on the amount of mix.
    Other quick thoughts….. have you dewormed her lately? How are her teeth? Racing bits and the quickness of movement of reins in a race could damage a tooth. I would get her teeth done. Is she pastured for a minimum of twelve hours a day? Gut health is also improved by grazing and walking, not pacing a stall or paddock. Mental health is also improved by herd life. Keep the blankets off and let her grow a winter coat.Blanket her when it’s windy and wet. If you haven’t bought one yet, get a high end (1200denier) one with Velcro in the front, two belly straps and removable elastic hind leg straps. Don’t worry if they stretch- most stores sell replacements. I urge this because some people like the big straps, but most horses don’t, and will try to break them. Make sure you buy for her new weight! For drying her off before putting her out , or any other occasion, keep your eyes peeled at thrift stores and yard sales. Look for 100% wool bed blankets- the more the better.

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