Most horses are good examples of what it means to “eat like a horse”. The few that don’t dig in as well can drive their owners nuts.
To make things worse, Murphy’s Law often kicks in so the pickiest horses are those that have restricted diets or really need the supplements or medications you are trying to get them to eat.
Like people, individuals vary in their preferences for specific flavors as well as textures. Most healthy horses will eat just about anything but the picky ones can pose a real challenge in finding something they will accept, especially if you have to add supplements or medications to it.
Even horses with robust appetites usually object to having powders puff up their noses when they eat. To prevent this, wet the feed lightly with water or oil (best is CocoSoya which also smells wonderful). This also prevents powders from sifting through and being left in the bottom of the bucket. Mixing powders into the feed thoroughly works for some horses but there are others that prefer to have them top dressed without mixing. I never could come up with a reasonable explanation for why that would be the case but nevertheless it’s true!
If the horse absolutely refuses to eat something you can try a few things:
- Start by putting just a tiny amount in the meal, increasing slowly
- Syringe it all directly into his mouth
- My favorite, a hybrid, is to syringe most of the dose into the horse before feeding then feed the meal with progressively larger amounts of the offending substance in the meal. This method has the taste of the supplement or drug in his mouth already before feeding.
- Some owners report the horse will accept things better when placed on the hay. This can work if you make sure the entire dose is actually sticking well to wet or oiled hay, and that the horse is truly eating and swallowing all of the hay, not spitting it out or sorting through it.
Sprinkling small amounts of the supplement or drug around the stall, on ledges as well as the floor, can also help desensitize the horse.
Texture can make a difference. You need some water or oil to make sure there is good adherence but too much water may cause the horse to refuse the meal. Others like it more soupy. You have to experiment. Also be aware that water may actually enhance the taste or odor of whatever you are adding, while oils tend to mask it.
Some horses are remarkably picky even when nothing is added to their basic meals. This is a common problem when trying to switch from sweet feeds to low molasses options, or from high starch to low starch items. Important: If the horse is refusing to eat something that had previously been well accepted, suspect a problem with the feed even if you can’t tell anything is off, dental issue causing pain or some other illness. Refusal of concentrates and preference for hay is highly suspicious for gastric ulcers. Involve your veterinarian.
Otherwise, first try to wait out the boycott by not allowing any hay or turnout until the meal is cleaned up. If the horse has more staying power than you do, you’ll need to ramp up the appeal. My three favorite options are:
- CocoSoya oil – even barn cats have trouble resisting it!
- Crumble the horse’s favorite dry herbs or treats on top of the meal
- Stevia-based flavorings (don’t use other artificial sweeteners). Some people use Stevia sweetened pancake syrup but there are other options in horse agreeable flavors like apple, banana, peppermint, fenugreek and cherry.
It may take a lot of trial and error but with persistence you can overcome the picky eater problem.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD