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Feeding the Starved Horse

Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS - Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

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.

Horses eating grass and hay

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 carbohydrate meal, insulin is released and causes glucose to be absorbed into the body cells, but is 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 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. 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 (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 (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 (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 no longer is fed after four weeks into the feeding program.

A complete horse feed and mineral supplement can be introduced after the initial two-week feeding period. Limit the amount of mineral to only an ounce daily for the first week, two ounces daily for the second week and then free-choice access can be allowed or the recommended amount may be top-dressed onto feed at meal times. 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. Legends and Triple Crown horse feeds with high quality protein sources, added fat, elevated mineral and vitamin fortification and low levels of starch and sugar are excellent feeds for horses needing to gain large amounts of muscle tissue.

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, Triple Crown Senior Formula along with Triple Crown Alfalfa Hay Cubes or Chopped Alfalfa Forage, gradually increasing the amount of feed to 1% of body weight daily and cubed or chopped alfalfa hay to 1% of body weight daily. The feed and forage may need to have water added to form a mash if the horse's dental condition is very poor. Also remember to decrease the amount of feed once desired body condition is achieved.

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. Your vet may advise you to only use a half dose of dewormer the first time you treat the horse for internal parasites. A massive die-off of parasites in the horse using a full dose could trigger a bout of colic due to an anaphylactic reaction. 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.

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