Finicky horses that are hard to keep weight on can be challenging to feed. Bridgett McIntosh, PhD, Extension Equine Specialist at the
, University of Tennessee, reminds owners that no two horses are the same. “Something that might work for one to stimulate appetite might not work for another. Just like humans, each individual has different things they like or don’t like.”
A horse might just pick at his food for a number of reasons. “The first thing to do is rule out any disease, dental problems, or medical issues,” says McIntosh. “If there is nothing clinically wrong with the horse, and he simply needs to gain weight or have more energy for athletic performance or is just fussy about what he eats, we always start with good forage as the foundation of diet. Green grass or leafy alfalfa will be the most palatable.”
Fresh grass and good pasture is usually the best type of forage to encourage your horse to eat. Horses that are picky eaters will generally eat grass, alfalfa hay, or alfalfa pellets, so offering forage first might encourage them to eat, McIntosh adds.
“If the horse will be fed a commercial concentrate, choose something really palatable, perhaps with molasses that smells good and stimulates the appetite,” she says. Beet pulp can be added, with a little warm water to create a mash. This will also stimulate the appetite for many horses.
When it’s feeding time, feed the picky eater last. “Put the fussy one at the end of the barn aisle and feed the other horses first. When he sees them eating, he’ll want to eat. Horses are social animals and usually competitive, so feeding the others may stimulate the fussy one,” says McIntosh.
With good-quality forage as the foundation of diet, you can add fat if the horse needs to gain weight. “This can be corn oil, rice bran, or some other type of fat, just so the extra calories are coming from fat instead of starch—a safer way to add calories—and hopefully palatable enough that the finicky horse will eat it,” says McIntosh.
Tania Cubitt, PhD, equine nutritionist with Performance Horse Nutrition and resident nutritionist for Standlee Premium Western Forage, recommends feeding small meals, often. “Picky eaters often don’t focus on eating,” she explains. “They are like a small child. If you can get them to eat a small amount several times during the day, they’ll eat more total food than if you feed a couple of large meals. With a large meal, they eat a little and waste the rest.”
If you keep giving the horse something new and fresh, he might be more interested in eating it. If your horse does not eat his concentrate meal well, you can add honey or molasses mixed with water or apple juice to pour over the food, Cubitt adds.
“Even with metabolically challenged horses that shouldn’t eat much sugar, a small amount (like a teaspoon of honey) will make their food more palatable without adding much sugar. The Stevia that is very sweet can be mixed with a little water and poured over food. It will mask or enhance flavor without adding sugar. This is an alternative natural sweetener that some people try for their horses,” says Cubitt.
There are also ways to add calories to a ration without adding bulk. If your horse is a picky eater, it can be helpful to reduce the size of their meal, but it is important not to reduce their calorie intake. “Adding concentrated calorie sources like oil is beneficial. If a horse doesn’t like the taste of oil you might use products like Cool Calories which is a powdered fat supplement with flavoring,” Cubitt adds.