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How to Feed a Severely Neglected Rescue Horse

by Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.


Horses are rescued year-round, but when cold weather is over the horizon, the concern for an underweight horse plays on our heartstrings. If you have recently adopted a neglected rescue horse, let me first commend you for your actions. Saving a horse that is in desperate need of care, and nursing him back to health, can be one of the most gratifying experiences a horse owner can have. But you must be committed to giving him a lot of time and attention. Heíll need to be moved in and out of pasture throughout the day, fed hay nearly every couple of hours, and require frequent meals until he gets to where he can hold his own.


If your horse is very thin due to starvation, you will want to proceed slowly and with caution, giving his body a chance to adjust to change with each step. Some horses are in such poor condition they are unable to eat. In this extreme situation, your veterinarian will use a stomach tube to feed the horse. This is a short term procedure with the goal of getting your horse interested in eating again. Retired race horses almost invariably have ulcers. Your veterinarian may prescribe an ulcer medication, but this can only be used for a month or so. The three main components of healing an ulcer are: chewing on hay or pasture at all times, plenty of water, and reduction in stress.


Your ultimate goal is to allow your rescued horse to graze freely, as much as he wants, on hay and/or pasture. Youíll want his forage to include a legume such as clover or alfalfa. But take your time ó you canít just put him out on pasture right away if heís been severely deprived. I know you want to, but his digestive tract isnít ready just yet. The microbial population in his hindgut is not adequate for fiber digestion; too much, too soon and he may colic or founder. Here is my recommendation for an 1100 lb horse (his normal weight):







Also starting at week three, youíll want to begin feeding him 6 small meals each day. You can use a commercial senior or performance feed that contains 14-16% protein, at least 18% fiber, and at least 8% fat.  Each meal should contain:

         4 cups feed  (weighs approximately 1 lb or .5 kg)

         1/4 cup (60 ml) flaxseed meal  (stabilized, commercial product is best)

         200 IU Vitamin E (you can get capsules in your local pharmacy)

         Probiotic (double dose , spread over 6 meals)

         500 mg of Vitamin C

Gradually decrease the number of meals, every two weeks, but increase the amount of feed in each meal so that by the end of one month, you are providing two to three meals per day, with no more than 4 lbs of feed per meal.  Maintain supplements and if your horse is older than 16, provide additional vitamin C. 







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