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Putting Weight on a Rescue Horse


I rescued three starved horses, two 12-year-old Percheron geldings and a 23-year-old QH mare. My vet told me to put them on some high fat high fiber, I was also told senior would be the best as its HF-HF, and easily digestible. What would you recommend? Thanks! – Jennie, via AAEP Ask the Vet

I’m impressed that you rescued three horses at one time! You’ve certainly got your hands full! Fortunately for you and for them my background is in horse rescue and I swore by the research that Dr. Carolyn Stull and her team did at the University of California-Davis. She found that starved horses were not unlike starved people (think POWs) in being susceptible to refeeding syndrome which can be fatal.

This syndrome happens when a person or animal goes without food for a long time, begins to breakdown their own body for nutrition, then is “rescued” and given food high in energy/calories, which then leads to electrolyte disturbances and even death. She found that small, frequent meals of alfalfa hay were the best way to bring starved horses back to health, as oat hay was too high in fiber and too low in other nutrients but grain was too concentrated a source of calories. Here is the research if you would like to share it with your veterinarian so you can develop a safe feeding plan.

My advice is don’t be in a hurry to fatten them up or to put their preventive care programs in order (vaccines, parasites, teeth, hooves). All of these procedures create stress and some, like immunizing, rely on the horse’s body to mount an appropriate response. If they’re truly a body condition score of 1, immunizations will likely slow down their recovery while conferring no protection. So give them time to eat and heal from the inside out; they’ll be plenty of time later to start providing good veterinary medical care!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Misc. Topics, Weight Management

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3 comments on “Putting Weight on a Rescue Horse
  1. Alison Grove says:

    That’s is most interesting not only from an equine Shiatsu perspective but also personally; as I help look after a friends rescue horses. These horses have a whole different attitude to food too which can be overlooked.

    • Thank you for sharing the research Dr. Gray. There wasn’t any mention on beet pulp. I’m thinking they didn’t consider it since there are so many variables to consider – how it expands, if it sits, it could go rancid, etc. What are your thoughts on beet pulp as a high fat/high fiber alternative?

      Finally, what is your experience with using slow feeders such as hay nets and hay cube or pellet dispensers for refeeding malnourished/emaciated horses? My concerns are inline with Alison in that the use of slow feeders could alter the attitude the recovering horse has with humans and his/her food. Thank you for your consideration and response.

      • SmartPak SmartPak says:

        Hi Joanie, Thanks for raising some excellent points! I agree that Dr. Stull’s team probably didn’t include beet pulp in their research because they already had several different feedstuffs to compare plus there are so many ways to provide beet pulp that it could quickly complicate a study. For just-rescued horses in the 1 to 2 body condition score range, I still think it’s best to work with a veterinarian and follow UC-Davis’ advice to offer small amounts of alfalfa frequently. But for thin horses in general, replacing up to 25% of the hay with beet pulp can be an excellent way to put weight on. The interesting thing about slow feeders is that they help thin horses put on pounds but also overweight horses lose pounds. I guess providing forage closer to what Mother Nature intended normalizes all sizes and shapes of horses! – Dr. Lydia Gray

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