By Pat Raia
Reasons your horse might turn his nose up at his meals and what you can do about it
Helen Yakin-Palmer refers to her 13-year-old dun mare Cera as “the most finicky eater on earth.” That’s because finding a diet that’s nutritious enough to maintain her body weight—yet tempts her palate—is usually a zero-sum game.
“Sometimes she’ll eat something for one or two weeks, and then she won’t like it anymore and refuses to eat it, and sometimes if she doesn’t like the way something smells, she won’t eat it,” says Yakin-Palmer, of Myakka City, Florida. “Then there are some things—such as her supplements—that she won’t eat, period. It’s an ongoing challenge.”
Cera is not alone. Horses have specific preferences for the tastes, textures, and smells of the things they ingest. Sometimes those preferences are rooted in physical conditions, sometimes they’re not. So before you can figure out how to feed a finicky horse, you must determine why that horse is finicky in the first place, says equine nutrition consultant Clair Thunes, PhD, who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, in Gilbert, Arizona.
“If a horse isn’t eating, you have to figure out what the underlying issue is,” she says. “Is it caused by ulcers, which can lead a horse to go off grain, or possibly hindgut-related discomfort, which may result in them not eating hay? Is it a dental issue that is affecting the horse’s ability to chew?”
These are questions Thunes says she always considers when working with finicky eaters. “Whatever it is, you have to eliminate the possibility of a physical condition first,” she says.
Meanwhile, owners of healthy horses have a host of other things to consider, including whether the feed itself is causing the issue. In fact, something as subtle as a change in hay texture can affect palatability, even if the hay comes from the same provider. Thunes explains that hay harvested later in its growth cycle is more mature and, so, woodier with a higher stem content. Some horses prefer softer hay, while others relish more stem.
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