Stalled Horses: Changes in Feeding

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Credit: Thinkstock Feeding small amounts of hay often during the day can help satisfy the chewing need of the stall-bound horse.

Credit: Thinkstock Feeding small amounts of hay often during the day can help satisfy the chewing need of the stall-bound horse.

Editor's note: In August we are offering a weekly series of articles on horses on stall rest to help those owners and managers faced with this dilemma. No matter the cause, there are some basic steps you need to take to manage these horses, and offer assistance to their owners.

Horses tend to be kept in confined spaces following an illness, injury or surgery that necessitates quiet time. How each horse handles such restricted activity depends largely on the individual’s personality. One item of concern for you, the horse owner, is how to manage and modify the feeding regimen. With less exercise comes a need for fewer calories, yet the horse needs sufficient nutrients to promote healing.

Rarely will a horse be content with the amount of food you are offering: Either he’ll want more, or he won’t have much of an appetite and refuse to eat. Feed him too much and he becomes difficult to handle and too active to facilitate healing. You need to figure out ways to keep him from becoming dangerous or so restless that he tries to tear the stall apart. If he eats too little, this adversely affects his immune system and overall health, with negative impacts on healing progress.

Stimulating a Reduced Appetite

Appetite loss usually is a sequel to a surgical procedure or due to intestinal upset, illness or intense pain. Sometimes all it takes is a good jump-start to get him interested again in eating. What are some tricks you can try that might stimulate your horse to eat?

  • A sloppy bran mash mixed with supplement (complete feed pellet or a small amount of grain) not only is tasty, but it also gets a little xtra water into your horse
  • A beet pulp mash (pellets soaked in water for 6-8 hours) provides fiber, calories and fluids.
  • Adding carrots, apples, softened horse biscuits, molasses, sugar water or Karo syrup might get him interested in a bucket of food.
  • “Harvesting” bits of green grass or taking him to a spot where he can graze (while restrained on the lead line) is an excellent stimulant to appetite.I
  • f he usually only gets grass hay, then adding in a small proportion of alfalfa hay is much like giving us chocolate cake with our dinner. 
  • And, of course, if pain is the cause of your horse backing off food, then discuss with your veterinarian the practical use of anti-inflammatory medication.

Reducing Calories

For a horse that is no longer able to be active due to confinement, it is wise to cut back the calories.

  • Switch him to an all-grass hay diet if he isn’t already on that. Fiber is the most important ingredient for keeping horse intestines healthy and to curtail the risk of developing gastric ulcers.
  • Weigh the hay with a scale rather than "guess-timating" with volume so you feed an exact amount each day. The amount to feed should be calculated based on your horse’s body weight and your veterinarian’s recommendations--this amount will vary depending on starting condition of your horse and his unique metabolism.
  • Cut out most, if not all, supplements while the horse is inactive unless he is a hard keeper that needs added calories to maintain body condition. If an all-forage diet is used, a balancer product might be needed to ensure the horse gets all the nutrients he needs for healing.
  • Feed small amounts of hay frequently throughout the day rather than in just two big meals. A “slow feeder” hay net helps slow intake so the hay lasts longer.
  • Provide stall toys to occupy him so boredom doesn’t cause him to resort to eating bedding, dirt, or the confining structure. (More on this in a future article.)

In all cases of forced confinement, converse with your veterinarian about what diet is most appropriate for your horse and his individual issues. You might need to be a bit creative to keep your horse happy and ‘healthy as a horse’ while in confinement. Once a routine has been established, he should settle in and get about the business of healing.