You can lead a horse to water … you know the saying. You can’t make it drink and you can’t make it eat either.

A happy, healthy horse will normally plough through around 7kg of forage daily. But sometimes, horses will stop eating and it can be tremendously frustrating.

Horses are emotional creatures and usually when they stop eating, they are trying to tell you something is wrong. 

They may well be sick or suffering dental problems but sometimes, the problem may be a little more nuanced.

They may have decided they don’t like what they are being fed or there may be a more deep-seated anxiety issue at play.

First and foremost though, you should consider if there is a medical problem.

Medical problems

Gastric ulcers – riding on an empty stomach, long-term use of NSAIDs or certain diet supplements can induce gastric ulcers which occur when acids irritate the lining of the stomach. 

Moodiness may also be evident. Reducing stress levels and training regimes, free access to grass and hay and a protein source such as alfalfa hay helps reduce stomach acidity levels.

Colic – a swollen or inflamed stomach or intestines can trigger signs pain in your horse, along with loss of appetite, bloating, sweating, pawing and rolling. Consult a vet as soon as possible if you suspect colic.

Dental issues – horses with teeth pain tend to stop eating. It is recommended to take your horse to a dental veterinarian annually. Floating the horse’s teeth (removal of sharp points) often solves the problem.

Diarrhoea – normally just a short-term problem but a vet should be consulted if the condition persists and eating stops beyond 48 hours.

Choke – occurs when roughage is caught in a horse’s throat. It is often indicated by a horse that constantly bends or shakes its neck, and also copious amounts of nasal discharge. Refrain from giving the horse any food or water and contact your vet straight away.

Vitamin B1 deficiency – may be caused by the consumption of some plants (rock ferns and horsetails). Or uncooked grains such as corn and barley can trigger fermentation and acidosis in the hindgut.

Address the horse’s access to the rogue feed and replace with unlimited hay. Oral vitamin B1 supplements are also a good idea.

Mycotoxin poisoning – hay, chaff and grains may be contaminated with mould which sometimes produce mycotoxins. This should be especially considered if there has been a recent change in the source of feed.

Poor performance, poor coat or skin condition, moodiness and gastrointestinal issues may further point to this condition. The contaminated feed should be discarded. A yeast-based toxin binder can be given to the horse to prevent the toxins being absorbed.

Injury

Painful injuries may prompt a horse to stop eating.

If the injury is serious, have it examined by a vet, otherwise consider over-the-counter medication but be sure to read the instructions carefully and administer the correct doses.

Anxiety

A human’s relationship with a horse is based on their emotional connection so it should come as little surprise that horses are highly complex and fragile, emotional creatures.

Sometimes, their eating disorders may be a result of one of the following:

Separation anxiety – horses crave the company of humans and other horses. Without this, they may become lonely, miserable or even depressed and lose their appetite.

Sometimes they may crave the company of a particular horse. Long road trips have also been known to cause distress and loss of appetite.

Bullying – just as your horse may like to be around some horses, there may be others it dislikes because of bullying. These bullies may prevent your horse from comfortable access to hay.

You’ll need to separate them to ensure your horse regains its appetite.

Boredom – just as you would soon tire of eating your favourite meal every day before undertaking the same old routine, so too can your horse become bored and listless.

Horse treats and toys are one way to help mix things up and keep things fresh.

Encouraging horses to resume eating

Once you have addressed the cause of your horse’s loss of appetite, there are a few additional tips and tricks you can follow to encourage them to resume eating.

Keep it simple – strip your horse’s diet right back and begin with the best quality hay or pasture you can find. Few horses will resist fresh pasture.

Regular feeds – keep feeds small but regular, removing uneaten feed every two hours.

Feed access – ensure your horse can reach their feed bin easily without aggravating any medical condition or injury.

Remove supplements – unless you are introducing vitamin B1 to address a deficiency, remove all supplements from the horse’s diet.

Tempt them – if you are still struggling to tempt them, try to make food fun by adding some sweeteners such as honey, molasses, grated apple, bran or brewer’s yeast.

Slowly does it – once they are engaged again, reintroduce other elements of their feed slowly. Wait at least two days at a time for each new element.

The same applies to supplements which should be reintroduced one at a time so you will know if they don’t like one of them.

Contact us today

If your horse suddenly loses its appetite, it’s best not to procrastinate. Arriving at the cause of the issue is not always easy and it is best to engage the help of a qualified veterinarian.

While horses can last up to three weeks without eating, they may develop health problems after just a couple of days. But performance horses will quickly lose condition and may ultimately face weeks on the sidelines.

We can also advise about ways to keep your horse sustained and hydrated while they regain their appetite.

At Newmarket Equine, we provide a dedicated service to the thoroughbred racing industry with the practice having a long and proud history based around the excellence of our staff.

Our vets are experienced in all matters including medical, reproduction and quarantine procedures.

State-of-the-art equipment is provided including digital radiology, digital ultrasound, shock wave therapy, video endoscopy and IRAP processing. 

Contact us today to book an appointment.

The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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