How to Handle a Horse That Refuses to Eat

Horses are known for their ravenous appetite. Thus, there can be nothing more frustrating or worrying than feeding your horse and watching them refuse to eat what you have placed in front of them. Yet, you should be aware of any of the possible factors that cause a horse to refuse their feed and deal with them quickly.

What Causes a Horse to Refuse to Eat?

When you notice a horse refusing to eat, your first instinct should be to check the horse’s overall health. Any change in the behavior of your horse can be an indication of a negative health issue. Thus, a general health check would always be recommended, first. This should include checking:

  • Heart rate: Normal resting heart rate is 32 to 36 beats per minute.
  • Respiratory rate: Normal resting breathing rate is only 8 to 12 breaths per minute.
  • Temperature: Normal temperature of adult horses ranges from 99 to 101°F (37.2 to 38.3°C).
  • Dehydration: Skin pinch test or other methods to check hydration status.
  • Capillary refill time: Push thumb against gums, pink coloration should return within 1 to 2 seconds.

You should also look for other signs of distress or discomfort. As a reminder, colic is the #1 killer in horses under the age of 20 and often can be a cause of a horse refusing to eat. Briefly, signs of colic or digestive upset can include:

  • Biting or nipping at their side. Tufts of hair can be seen raised on each side.
  • Excessive sweat.
  • Pawing at the ground or general restlessness.
  • Rolling on the ground.
  • Straining to defecate or lack of manure piles in stall or paddock.
  • Isolating themselves from other horses.

If any of the horse’s vital signs are abnormal or they are displaying signs of colic, it would be advisable to contact your veterinarian immediately. For horses that appear healthy, but refuse their feed, there may be other issues that should be investigated.

Stress can cause a horse to refuse their feed. Thus, things to consider that may contribute to stress:

  • Dental health. Pain in the mouth can cause horses to refuse to eat.
  • Environment. Has anything changed for the horse? A new pasture mate, or has one been taken away? Is the weather erratic or contributing to restlessness and stress? Any changes to a horse’s environment can induce stress and lead to feed refusals.
  • Changes to routine. Are your horses fed on a normal schedule? Did anything change in their daily routine? Horses become accustomed to routine and any deviation, as small as may seem to you, may induce stress and anxiety in your horse.
  • Dietary change. Any changes to a new feed or hay can lead to feed refusals. Again, horses are creatures of habit, and any sudden changes can lead to stress, anxiety, and feed refusals. As a reminder, any changes to a horse’s feed should always be done slowly over a course of two weeks (minimum).
  • Travel or competitions. This would be an obvious factor in causing horses to be stressed or experience anxiety. It can lead to digestive upset and feed refusals.

Finally, when dealing with feed refusals, evaluate your feed. Was it just a bad bale of hay or a bad bag of feed? With higher fat horse feeds (concentrates), if stored too long or improperly, they can become rancid. Thus, check your horse’s feed and ensure it is of the highest quality and not spoiled. As a reminder, it is never advisable to feed horses moldy hay/feed or any spoiled feed. Feeding poor quality hay or horse feed is a major contributor to causing colic in horses.

Strategies for Handling a Horse that Won’t Eat

When a horse refuses to eat, you need to identify the underlying cause and try to alleviate that. Thus, going through all the causes can be a good start. For any underlying health issues, follow your veterinarian’s advice. For others, such as feeding at irregular intervals, it may simply be a change in management to feeding on a set schedule.

For horses that are pickier eaters, it may be a bit more challenging. For horses that are healthy, held to a routine, and not experiencing any obvious signs of stress and still refuse to eat can be the most frustrating for any horse owner. Some tips to help encourage them to eat could include:

  • Simply change the hay and/or feed. Again, do this slowly, but some horses may prefer alfalfa over grass hay. Others may prefer a textured versus pelleted horse feed.
  • Soaking hay. Horses that have difficulty chewing may refuse to eat. By soaking or steaming hay, it may help encourage them to eat by making it easier to chew.
  • Social stress may be a factor. Horses fed in a herd setting can be stressed by their social ranking. Thus, isolating these horses from others can help give them time and space to eat. Alternatively, some horses may want to eat near their companions and refuse to eat when isolated.
  • Your horse has trained you to give them what they want. Some horses may refuse to eat until you add some sort of flavoring like molasses. When you do not add it in, they will refuse to eat. Usually, flavorings are not a concern unless the horse is experiencing a metabolic issue. In these instances, low sugar flavorings could be used.
  • Offer small meals more often. Rather than feeding two large meals a day, smaller more frequent meals are healthier for horses and reduce the risk of digestive upset.

Take Home Message

As frustrating as it may be, feed refusals by your horse should not be ignored. Checking your horse’s overall health should be your main priority when you notice a feed refusal. Then, checking the quality of the feed should be next, ensuring it is still of high quality and not moldy or rancid. If your horse appears healthy and the feed is still of high quality, then going through a checklist of your horse’s routine, including what might have changed, would be a good strategy. Patience is key to finding out why your horse might be refusing their feed and once the cause is identified, a simple change in management should alleviate feed refusals. For any concerns with your horse’s diet or management plan, please feel free to contact us for any advice or help.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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