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Refeeding starved horse

From: Amy

Hey, Okay, I just got this horse who was starved at his last home. He had tapeworms and he has a skin parasite (it's getting better) and he's just bones. My grandfather doesn't know anything about horses, but likes to think he does, and is saying that oat hay is better for him. He gets exercise, and fed 2 flakes 3x a day. With grain and wormer, but still he has barley gained any weight. I'm very worried becuase winters up here get VERY cold and it's almost winter...just on the brink of it, and he's still skinny, with barley any winter coat. HELP! Amy

Hi Amy! Have your vet come out right away, because refeeding a starved horse isn't as easy as you might think. It takes about five months to get the horse into reasonable condition, and the first steps are the most risky, so right now is the time you're going to need the most help.

Meanwhile, you must work with your vet to help rebuild this horse's strength. Most veterinarians familiar with the needs of starving horses will suggest a diet very unlike the one your horse is presently being fed. Oat hay can be nutritious if it's rich - if there is a great deal of grain present - but without the oats themselves, it's effectively oat straw, and in any case, even the best oat hay is likely to provide too much bulk and not enough nutrition to help a starved horse regain its health. If your horse is getting poor-quality oat hay, plus a grain supplement, his diet is unlikely to be well-balanced, and in any case, there should be no grain in his diet for the first few months at least! The diet he needs right now is not a maintenance diet, but a weight-gain diet, and that's going to mean giving him good feed, every few hours.

Your vet can give you an accurate evaluation of your horse's condition. Ask him to do this - then work with him to create and feed a good, safe, high-nutrient re-feeding diet.

In most cases, horses that have just been rescued should be offered a pound of good alfalfa hay every four hours or so. (Of course they will have full-time access to clean water and free-choice salt.) After the first few days - your vet can advise you on this individual horse's case - the horses should gradually be given more and more alfalfa, but the feedings should be more widely spaced. This means that during the first few days, your rescue horse will need to be fed six times a day - every four hours, around the clock. After that (the speed of change depending on your vet's advice), you should build up the amount you offer the horse at each feeding until the horse is getting four pounds, or a little more than four pounds, of alfalfa three times a day. This will make your own schedule easier, too. ;-)

As the horse begins to gain weight and become stronger, the alfalfa should be increased until the horse is being given free-choice alfalfa around the clock.

When your vet thinks the horse is recovering well, and it has been fed like this for some months, you could begin to add a little grain IF NECESSARY. Remember, grain is a supplement, and there are healthier, more easily-digested, safer supplements you can use to increase your horse's caloric intake. Save the grain for later - much later - when your horse is fully recovered, conditioned, fit, and working hard. At that point, and not before, grain might be suitable. Your vet will be able to help you figure out what your horse's maintenance needs will be. Starvation can have drastic effects on a horse's normal metabolic functions. Don't offer this horse grain - or let anyone else, including your grandfather, offer him grain - until he's been on the road to recovery for several months at least, because grain can interfere with the recovery process. Your vet can tell you when it's safe to begin feeding a handful of grain, but that won't be for months yet.

If your horse hasn't had its teeth floated yet, be sure to have that done, and ask your vet about a really comprehensive deworming program. It takes a lot of work and time to rebuild a horse that's been starved. Your vet can also check the horse for any illnesses or lamenesses that might be causing stress to an already weakened body.

You may need a blanket for the horse this winter - it would be a good idea to help the horse retain some of the body heat you're going to try to create with a good feeding plan. A very thin horse without a winter coat cannot create or retain enough heat to keep itself warm through a cold winter, nor can it gain weight if all its energy is going into trying to keep from freezing. If you have a healthy young horse on the property, it may be quite happy spending the winter outdoors without a blanket, but an older, starved, debilitated horse is quite a different prospect, and quite a different management problem.

I suggest that you take a series of photos of your new horse today: front, back, and both sides. Then do the same thing every month from now on until he is in proper condition. Sometimes it's hard to see the changes from day to day, but monthly photos should show such clear changes that you'll be in no doubt about the success of your refeeding program.

If you and your vet need more advice on this, I can recommend someone who has had an enormous amount of experience rescuing and refeeding starved horses: Donna Ewing, head of the Hooved Animals Rescue and Protection Society (HARPS). She and her staff work closely with dedicated veterinarians who also have many years of experience in this area. I suggest that you contact Donna or have your veterinarian get in touch with her. You can reach her via e-mail at

Good luck!


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