Is Your Horse a Picky Eater?

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Credit: Thinkstock How can an owner tempt a picky equine to clean up its daily ration?

Credit: Thinkstock How can an owner tempt a picky equine to clean up its daily ration?

Do you have a picky eater? The following article on horses' taste and how to tempt a picky eater comes from the equine nutrition experts at Kentucky Equine Research.

Virtually all horses love to eat fresh green grass. Aside from that, each equine has its own dietary preferences. These vary from the chubby pony (happily gobbles anything and everything that’s offered) to the discerning older Thoroughbred mare who sniffs the expensive new nutritional supplement, turns away, and looks at you with a disdainful “this isn’t exactly what I had in mind” expression.

Illness, dental problems, extreme fatigue or the discomfort of gastric ulcers might keep some horses from eating. A veterinarian can find and treat these problems, after which the horse may be more interested in eating. However, if no health issues are found, how can an owner tempt a picky equine to clean up its daily ration? Here are a few tips to try.

First, increase turnout if this is possible. Grass, the most natural food for horses, provides a significant amount of nutrition. Horses that eat plenty of grass may not need any supplementary feed unless they are performing a moderate or high level of exercise.

Feed the best-quality hay you can find. Alfalfa (lucerne) or an alfalfa/grass mix will be appealing to most horses. On the other hand, horses might refuse to eat hay that is moldy, old, coarse and stemmy, or full of weeds. Not every horse needs the abundant nutrients in alfalfa (lucerne), but a flake or two of alfalfa blended into a pile of clean grass hay will often enhance the taste of this offering. As with a grass diet, horses that eat plenty of good-quality hay may not need grain or nutritional supplements.

If your horse refuses a concentrate feed, he may be objecting to its smell, taste or texture. With the variety of feeds available, changing the texture might be worth a try. Textured, pelleted, cubed and extruded feeds vary in consistency. Feeds may include whole, cracked, crimped, rolled, steamed or flaked grains; more or less molasses may be used. You don’t want to have to buy bag after bag of feed, but you might ask several friends to give you a cup of their horse’s feed for a trial.

Horses are very sensitive to the odor of a feed or supplement, easily detecting an “off” scent that humans can’t smell. If your horse has been eating a particular feed and suddenly refuses it, it’s possible that the feed is slightly moldy or rancid. If he readily accepts a scoop from a fresh bag, throw the old feed away and clean the container thoroughly before storing more feed in it.

More on the subject of containers: How long has it been since you checked the horse’s feed trough? Is it clean and smooth, or covered with barn dust, feed residues, bird droppings and rough spots? The horse could be backing away from sharp edges or the musty smell of old feed particles caught under the edge of the feed bowl. Simply cleaning up the old feeder or buying a new one might help to restore your horse’s interest in his meal.

There are many things to try if you want to change or enhance the taste of a feed. Stir in some honey, add a little applesauce or molasses, or top-dress with chopped apples or carrots. Some horses like sliced or mashed bananas, while others can’t resist flavorings like cherry, rosemary, peppermint, oregano or cumin. You can start with a small quantity of the chosen flavor mixed with a small amount of feed to see what might win your horse’s favor.

Any change in feed needs to be made slowly over a period of seven to 10 days. A handful of a new or flavored feed won’t hurt your horse, but when you find something he likes, start with a small portion and build up gradually to a full ration. The same principle goes for using a new supplement: Begin with a tiny bit mixed into his regular feed and increase a little each day until the suggested amount is given. Adding a scoop or two of anything new all at once is almost guaranteed to put some horses off their feed. Go slowly and give the horse a chance to get used to the new taste, smell or texture.