Easily the most common call we get here at MHWF, other than questions regarding donating or adopting horses, has to do with proper feeding of older horses, skinny horses and special needs horses and it still surprises us at how many horse owners can not only spot a thin horse that needs a little extra, but at how many people do not know how to properly feed horses in this situation. This post is to try to address some of the questions we get and to hopefully help these horses get the care they need.
Let’s start off by addressing pain and dental issues. If a horse is dropping weight or is not gaining the weight you are trying to get on them, the first question you need to ask is regarding dental care. When was the last time the vet looked at or floated your horse’s teeth? If the answer is more than a year, it has been too long and that could be the entire issue. Horses need teeth to be a certain length and evenness to properly grind their feed. They also get painful rotten teeth, cavities, sharp edges, and all the things humans also have issues with. If your horse’s teeth are not regularly taken care of, your horse will not be able to properly chew and grind its food and will not get the nutrition it needs. Whether or not you see grain falling out of the horse’s mouth really has little bearing on whether or not there are dental problems. If I had a dollar for every person that told me that their horse does not need to be floated because it does not drop grain everywhere, I could stop fundraising for MHWF. Your horse may not be dropping feed and is probably even getting the food to its stomach, but if it is not properly ground down, most of it simply passes right through the horse’s system and is not truly digested. I have been telling people this simple quote for years, “You can spend $200 on your horse’s teeth, or you can spend $2000 on grain, take your pick”. The truth is that no matter how much you spend on grain, if your horse cannot properly chew it, it is wasted money and you won’t get weight on your horse. Another thing to make sure of it that your vet knows how to properly float teeth. There are a lot of people out there charging to do dental floats who have no clue what they are doing. This can be a hard one to figure out, but a good rule to go by is that if the person floating your horse’s teeth does not use a speculum, they are not doing a good job. Without a speculum, it is almost impossible to get a good look and feel of all the teeth and more often than not, the most important teeth, the molars, are not being properly floated. I can already hear the arguments coming about this one. Ask any good vet and they will agree, without a speculum, it is probably not getting done properly and there are probably issues with the back molars, possibly even sharp hooks and points cutting into the cheeks and palate in your horse’s mouth.
Make sure the grain you do feed your horse is the right mix. Whole oats and soybeans pass right through the intestine, undigested and are not a good way to feed your horse. Textured, pelleted feeds are the way to go for most horses. Make sure the grain is healthy. Feeding 16% sweet feeds and cracked corn is not a healthy way to feed your horse. These are what we call empty calories, loaded with sugars and starches and not a lot of nutrients.
Also make sure your horse is on a decent de-worming schedule. Once again, if your horse is full of parasites, what good is the grain doing? Keep in mind that you can have fecal tests run on your horse to see specifically what types of worms you are targeting, what type of dewormer you need, how often to deworm, and the proper timing of deworming (keeping in mind the fecal tests cannot detect tape worm or encysted strongyles).
Also, if your horse lives on sandy soil, it could easily have a belly full of sand. Sand in the intestines leads to weight loss, failure to gain weight, and sometimes diarrhea and colic. One simple way to stay ahead of this and avoid emergencies is to have your veterinarian routinely listen to your horse's belly with a stethoscope. There are several tricks to try to prevent sand ingestion, but once it is in the horse the only options are feeding large amounts of psyllium (talk to your vet) or surgery.
Last and equally important is pain. If your horse is in pain, it does not matter how much feed you pour into them, they are going to struggle with weight problems. Be attentive to your horse. If it is in pain, it is trying to tell you so, but you have to look and listen.
This subject is one that is probably the most frustrating, because not only is the subject of proper feeding way more simple than what most people make it out to be, but a lot of people will simply “play ignorant” because they cannot afford or are not willing to shell out the money it might take to feed their elderly horse. The fact is, that if you cannot give good care to your horse, regardless of its age or health, you probably should not have it. Find someone who can take proper care of it. The antiquated idea that it is ok for an old horse to be skinny is not accurate and is longer acceptable to most people. What else makes this subject so frustrating is that all the info a horse owner needs to properly feed a horse is printed right on the bag and is available everywhere online, plus just about any good horse person is more than willing to share their knowledge if you just ask. Being ignorant to your horse’s dietary needs is no longer acceptable in this day and age.
Having said all this, for the most part, and to simplify things, diet comes down to two things, digestibility and number of calories. If your horse cannot properly digest what you are feeding it or it is not getting the right amount of calories, you are not going to have much luck when it comes to weight.
Take this example: How much do you weigh? Roughly how much food do you take in daily to be at the weight you are at now? Let’s say you are 150 pounds. Do you think you take in 3 pounds of food per day, 6, 8? You might be surprised. Now, let’s say you are a 1000 pound horse. Do you think 2 or 3 pounds of grain is going to make much of a difference? You only weigh 150 pounds yourself and you take in more than that. When you put it in those terms it sounds pretty ridiculous doesn’t it? That’s because it is ridiculous. You cannot get a 1000 pound horse to gain 100 pounds of weight by giving it tiny portions of grain. The subject of what grain to feed and how much is an entirely separate book in itself and I won’t go into all the detail about proteins, sugars, starches, etc. Instead I will tell you that MHWF has been feeding old horses and special needs horses for 17 years with a lot of success. Over the years we have used different feeds, mixes, you name it, but we have always had the same success, regardless of what we are currently feeding. People see horses here at MHWF in their late 20’s, 30’s, see them come in looking like walking skeletons and ending up looking like a totally new horse, plump and healthy. The proof is in the pudding (or grain in this case) and the stories and photos we have shared over the years are proof that it is not that hard and certainly not impossible to get a horse into good weight and keep it there. Regardless of its history, whether it even has teeth anymore, or its age, no horse should be skinny, period. While I won’t get into what feeds to get or how to feed large amounts of grain without the fear of founder or colic, I will simply state that currently, MHWF feeds mostly senior feeds. Some horses get an additional pelleted feed mixed in with the senior, some get soaked beet pulp and alfalfa pellets mixed in, some fatty oils, etc.
The best way I know how to explain how to feed older and special needs horses is to let you look at some of the photos on our website and tell you what those horses are currently eating. I truly hope this helps some of you who are struggling with their horse’s weight.
Cheyenne, 30 plus years old, TWH mare, teeth ground down to the gums, cannot chew hay at all. Came to us around 700 pounds, loaded with infection, rain rot, etc. Cheyenne now easily weighs around 1000 pounds and looks great, maybe a little chubby, but healthy and now sound once again after many years of painful suffering: 10 pounds of senior feed, twice per day, equaling about 20 pounds per day.
Sassy, 30 plus years old, mini mare, came in with elf-like feet, infested with worms, serious dental problems, and a halter grown into her neck that was covered in live maggots. She was so thin that her body no longer had any muscle to feed off of, so it started to eat her heart muscle. When we got her, she was in the last hours of her life and was expected to pass away from heart failure. She is now in great weight, a little chunky maybe, sassy, active, and is completely sound and healthy: 4 pounds of senior feed, twice per day, equaling about 8 pounds per day (she is a mini).
Dillinger, big QH gelding in his mid to late 20s. Came to us covered in kick and bite marks, deathly thin. Dillinger made a really fast and very noticeable comeback in a very short amount of time. He is now in excellent weight, despite not having any real front teeth to eat with. He went from a horse who looked ready to die to a big beautiful and very outgoing horse: 10 pounds of senior feed, twice per day, equaling about 20 pounds per day.
Faith, came to us in terrible condition in about every possible way, from her teeth to her feet, deathly thin. Faith was not expected to survive long enough to rehab her. She is now in good weight and has been with us for about 3 years. Faith is now the herd boss in her pasture with 4 other horses, two of them being yearlings. Faith carries a lot of respect in her pasture and the other horses know it. Faith started on a diet similar to what Cheyenne and Dillinger are currently on, but has been in good weight for a very long time now and is now on a maintenance diet: 8 to 9 pounds of senior feed, mixed with soaked beet pulp and alfalfa pellets, twice per day, equaling about 16- 18 pounds of feed per day.
These are just a few examples, but are proof that an old horse does not need to mean a skinny horse and that it is not terribly hard or impossible to keep an old horse looking good. We hope this helps and always try to be available to anyone who wants help or advice. We have a lot more respect for someone who has been trying and is willing to look for help than for someone who is ok with having skinny horses in their pasture. With today’s feeds, easy access to information and huge advances in health and dental care for equines, there are no longer many legit reasons to still be seeing skinny horses when driving down country roads.
Yes, the expense to get a skinny horse up to proper weight might be high at first, but once the horse is back to good weight, the amount of grain and the expense of that grain will go down. Not only that, but it is a good feeling to look out in the pasture and see strong, healthy, fit horses and probably terribly embarrassing and heartbreaking to see skinny, unhealthy horses who are suffering. Spending a few minutes to read and research and paying attention to your horses’ needs is not a tough thing to do, and if you want to be a horse owner, something everyone needs to do.
Thanks for reading and if you need advice on how to feed your oldster, feel free to email us. We are always happy to help.