Few things are more frustrating for a horse owner than when a horse decides they do not want to eat.

Sometimes, this can be an acute case, meaning one day the horse just starts rejecting their feed. Alternatively, it can be a chronic behavior, where a horse has always been a picky eater. It is first important to identify the root of the problem to be able to seek solutions. The good news is that for even the pickiest horse, there are strategies that many have used successfully to help encourage eating.

In an acute case of picky eating, or refusal to eat, there can be a wide range of causes. The most critical would be if your horse is experiencing an illness or suffering from an injury. If you suspect that to be the case, then it is always recommended to contact your veterinarian immediately. Any sudden change in behavior of a horse can a be a cause of concern that can be uncovered with a simple wellness check.

Some causes of a horse refusing to eat could be:

  • Colic. Defined as any type of abdominal pain experienced by the horse, our article Is My Horse Colicing is well worth a review for signs of colic in a horse.
  • Poor dental health. As horses chew, their teeth can develop sharp points, hooks and other abnormalities that can cut the cheeks, tongue, and even lead to mouth ulcers. Our article on Managing a Horse’s Dental Health is also well worth a review.
  • Lameness. A sudden injury can most definitely cause a horse to lose their appetite.
  • Gastric ulcers. More common than we would like, gastric ulcers are painful for horses and can lead to meal refusal. Our article on What are Gastric Ulcers is also well worth a read.
  • Digestive upset. In addition to colic and ulcers, there are other disorders that can lead to digestive upset. If this is the case for your horse, our article on Feeding Horses Prone to Digestive Upset offers great advice. Also, products like Constant Comfort™ are specifically designed to help these horses.
  • Sudden change in routine. Horses are creatures of habit and a sudden change to their environment, feeding routine, type of feed, or introduction of other horses, can lead to stress, anxiety, and loss of appetite.
  • Poor quality feed. Hay or feed that becomes moldy, toxic, or rancid can suddenly be refused by a horse.
  • Added medication or supplements. These can cause feed to become unpalatable to a horse.

These are just some of the reasons a horse may suddenly refuse to eat. The priority should always be to ensure the feed being offered is still of high quality and then start evaluating your horse’s health and environment. Once identified and the cause is remedied, the horse should go back to eating their meals with little issue.

A horse that has always been a picky eater is a bit more difficult to manage. These are horses that just consistently refuse to eat all of their feed, will refuse their forage, or sort their feed (if possible). This could be caused by an underlying health condition like those noted above. Again, it would be worthwhile to have your veterinarian conduct a wellness check to ensure your horse is healthy. Other causes could be:

  • Type of feed or hay being offered. Picky eaters often only want to eat the most palatable feed available. Our article on Horse Feeds: Pelleted Versus Textured discusses some of the differences in forms of feed. For example, textured feeds are thought to help encourage picky eaters to consume their meals.
  • Social Stress. Horses fed in a herd setting could be experiencing stress and anxiety by their social ranking. Isolating these types of horses during feeding times, spacing out feeders or employing other strategies that gives these types of horse’s sufficient space during feeding times can encourage eating.
  • Horse has trained you. In some instances, the horse has trained you to give them what they want. To encourage eating, owners will add in molasses or other flavors to encourage eating. When we don’t add them in, the horse will simply refuse to eat until you do.

Once any contributing health issues are eliminated for the chronic picky eater, patience is key for encouraging eating. You may have to conduct some mini feed trials to determine which types of hay or feed these horses prefer. It has also been suggested to offer smaller meals more times per day for those that only eat partial meals, where others have suggested a “just feed them and leave” strategy, with the thought that a hungry horse will eat eventually. Another suggestion is to add some water to a feed to make a mash and maybe adding some flavoring (i.e. applesauce) to encourage eating. Trial and error are key here to find the right “recipe” to help and encourage these horses to eat.

Finally, horses that are picky eaters may not be receiving a properly balanced diet. Diets lacking in key nutrients can lead to a horse being picky. Thus, if you are having issues with your horse, please feel free to contact us for a free and personalized feeding plan tailored to your horse’s exact needs!

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.