For every knowledgable horse professional who has a formula for keeping a horse healthy, there is another knowledgable horse person that will argue the point and tell of a better way. Three things you never bring up around horse people if you want to keep the peace – the best breed of horse, the best horseshoeing method and the best feed. The ideas about the best feed is just like snowflakes in that no two are the same.
There is one point which should never be argued when discussing the care of a horse, that being that the professional equine veterinarian is the best place to seek answers. Just as with human doctors, there are specialists and general practitioners. Those who deal specifically with equine nutrition should be the final answer for all things related to feed. Those are the professionals from which we derived our formula for the refeeding of the starved horse.
A good vet should be the control factor for all equine rescue organizations. It doesn’t matter how professional a person might be or what experience a person has, it will not match the knowledge of a professional veterinarian. In saying that, I also know that there are a number of veterinarians who aren’t worth their weight in horse poop. Knowing and trusting your vet makes all the difference when trying to save a horse.
Many vets are very easy to work with, while others have a difficult time communicating. Even more important is their sensitivity to what you are attempting to do – bring a very thin, neglected horse back to health. A very quick answer for far too many vets is simply to, “Put it out of its misery.” That isn’t the goal here, nor should it be the goal of a vet. As we depend on the advice and medical expertise of our vet, we need to make certain that our goals match and that our vet can see beyond today and look towards the possibilities the horse holds once he has recovered. Don’t be afraid to find another vet if all you hear from your current vet are negative comments.
We deal with a lot of very emaciated horses, those with body scores below 2. The vast majority were brought back to health through the use of a strict refeeding program designed specifically for equines and under the guidance of veterinarians experienced in the physical effects of starvation. We’ve lost a handful of them, some far too emaciated to recover, and some simply gave up on the will to live. The stories of those we’ve lost are heartbreaking, but the feeling of success comes from taking a very thin, neglected horse and changing it to a healthy, strong horse, ready to be adopted and start a new life.
Few people have actually seen a truly starved horse, but once you have, it is a memory that will be burned into you for as long as you live. In its last days, a starved horse truly looks like skin has been sprayed over a skeleton, with well defined hip bones, spinal processes and ribs just underneath the skin. Despite so many odds, the will to live often keeps the horse going far longer than it seems possible. We’ve seen them eat fence posts and rails, trees and dirt, just to stay alive a little longer.
There are any number of reasons why a horse might get into this condition, but the primary reason is either lack of knowledge or economic failure on the part of the person charged with caring for the horse. Help is available at every feed store and by a phone call to a vet, but we have repeatedly seen those who think that horses can manage for themselves in a grassless pasture or that they can go for weeks without food or hay in some dark stall. Starvation because of economic problems or any other reason is inexcusable, for if someone cannot properly feed or care for their horse they need to release it to someone better able to handle the financial burden. Horse care is not cheap, and while the thrill of owning a horse might sound wonderful, on the average it costs around $200 per month to properly maintain it. Not to get on my soap box, but if you can’t afford a horse, don’t get one.
Off topic, but very much in line with the discussion of economic excuses for letting a horse starve is the illogical argument that skinny horses need to go to the slaughterhouse. Fact – horse slaughterhouses will NOT take skinny horses. If they aren’t fat and healthy, they end up being dumped n the woods somewhere along the way to the slaughterhouses. What you heard about needing slaughterhouses so skinny horses won’t die in agony is a lot of BS from the pro-slaughter crowd.
There are several serious medical reasons why a horse may become thin. Those should be addressed by a vet, who is the only person able to make a proper diagnosis. While a trip to a vet may be costly, it may also save the horse’s life. A physical exam, including blood work, a fecal and a look at dental problems, may reveal an easily cured problem that will restore the horse to health in a very brief period if the advice of the vet is followed.
It’s no secret, for instance, that horses get worms. We are seeing more and more cases where the normal worming medication is ineffective in the removal of a heavy worm infestation that can cause a horse to become thin. Worms can cause internal bleeding and even blockage in the intestines and unless corrected, can cause the horse to die. A quick exam, called a “fecal” by a vet identifies the worm that is causing the problem and the proper worming medication to kill that worm. Of course, giving the worming medications at the wrong dosage will kill a horse, too.
Starved horses should not be immediately wormed. Certain worming medications can cause a heavy die-off of worms and massive internal bleeding. In the case of a rescued horse, such worming needs to be done under the guidance of a vet, who will consider the condition of the horse, its age and the type of worms involved.
What eventually kills the horse isn’t what you see on the outside, it’s the effects within the horse’s system that brings a horrible, prolonged death. When access to feed and hay is denied, the body starts using both carbohydrates and fat to produce the necessary energy. These are naturally stored in a healthy horse, but can be depleted fairly rapidly and once gone, the system will turn to protein to keep it alive. It isn’t specific, either, drawing protein from muscles, the heart, and all the other organs. That’s when the real damage occurs.
Some rescue organizations love to show before and after pictures of skinny to healthy horses that they say took six weeks or two months. That is not necessarily a good thing, for the rebuilding of the damaged muscles and internal organs takes far longer to repair. During a necropsy of one emaciated horse, parts of the heart muscle looked almost clear, meaning that the protein had been eaten away. Adding fat to the ribs and hips doesn’t heal that kind of damage quickly. It takes time, and slow and easy, for us, is a lot better. Rehabilitation of starved horses isn’t a race between humans to see who can do it better and faster, it’s about saving the lives of horses.
Refeeding a starved horse requires knowledge of not only the systematic damage that has occurred to the animal, but a specific understanding of the requirements to slowly restore the horse to health. Done wrong, a well meaning person can kill a horse by causing a “refeeding syndrome” – the effects of supplying too many concentrated calories to a system that cannot handle the load, and will cause either the heart, respiration or kidneys to fail, usually within a few days.
The refeeding syndrome happens when caring people try to do something good, but without the proper knowledge, end up killing the horse they wanted to save.
Many studies have been done to research the best diet to bring a starved horse back to health. A number of those studies are available on the internet, with a detailed analysis of the effects of different feed combinations on insulin and electrolytes. In the process of re- feeding the starved horse the balance of phosphorous and magnesium is extremely important. While a detailed study is educational, it’s far better to know what works and to stick to a very specific guideline as recommended by the success stories in these studies.
The following guideline applies to all cases, with the exception of those horses with bad or missing teeth and we’ll discuss them later.
Alfalfa is now available in all parts of the country, either in bales or in cubes. These studies showed that initial feedings of small quantities of alfalfa and high quality grass hay, fed many times over a day, should be the initial reintroduction of food. During the first ten days to two weeks, the quantity can be slowly increased and the frequency can be decreased until, at the end of that time period, the horse can eat as much hay as it wants.
For the hay refeeding – the amount of a 50/50 mix of alfalfa and quality grass hay can easily be figured by knowing that a horse needs 2.5% of its ideal body weight of the mixture every 24 hours. Do not base your calculations on the current weight, but on the ideal weight for the breed. As an example, let’s use an ideal body weight of 1,000 pounds, which means that the horse should be receiving 25 pounds of the mixture per day. Because of its condition, we’re going to start with half of that and divide it into six feedings, or a pound of hay and a pound of alfalfa per serving.
In a week, up the amount to 1 1/2 pounds of each six times a day. At the end of two weeks, the horse should be ready to eat a full ration of hay, being 2 pounds of each six times a day. At that point you can start decreasing the frequency, but increase the amount so that the 1,000 pound horse is still receiving 25 pounds of the hay/alfalfa mix each day. By the end of three months, you can reduce the number of feedings to three per day.
It is only then that small quantities of high quality feed can be introduced, gradually increasing until, at the end of a month, the feed intake should be about 1% of the normal weight of the horse you are rehabilitating. With a high quality feed from a major manufacturer, vitamin and mineral supplements are not needed and should be avoided because of the possibility of throwing off the calcium, phosphorous and magnesium balance. This even applies to healthy horses.
One more time because it is so important – with a high quality feed from a major manufacturer, vitamin and mineral supplements are not needed and should be avoided because of the possibility of throwing off the calcium, phosphorous and magnesium balance. This even applies to healthy horses.
If the horse is to be pastured, only allow access for a brief period at a time until the digestive system can adjust to the grass intake. Unless the horse has poor teeth, decrease the hay intake by one pound for each hour in a pasture with high quality grass.
There will be a slight weight loss during the initial week, but weight should start building rather quickly. Initial weight gain is usually slow, with few noticeable signs for about a month. Certainly the horse will be more responsive and may show signs of increased energy, but the restoration of fat and muscle tissue will be slow. Within two to three months, those that have not been around the horse will notice a big difference, but it may take up to nine months to restore a horse to its full normal weight. Photos are important during this time as a permanent record of the improvement because of the work you are doing. In the years to come, you will treasure those pictures and the memories they hold.
Once again, it’s extremely important to note that a starved horse may not be able to handle any vaccines, including certain medications. Normal vaccines should not be given until the horse is healthy enough to handle them, nor should worming medications be given except under the guidance of a vet. Starved horses should not be pastured with healthy horses, but should be individually stalled until they return to a better state of health. They are easily susceptible to diseases that a normal horse can fight off and they are not able to compete with other horses for feed or hay. In addition, stronger horses may become too aggressive and injure the weaker horse.
What to do if the horse has no teeth?
Most horse owners have no idea about dental care. One overgrown tooth, one sharp edge, and even the healthiest horse will go downhill fast. That’s why dental work must be an important part of the rehabilitation process. Fair warning, however – an emaciated horse should not be sedated, which is what most equine dentist want to do before working on teeth. Until the horse starts gaining weight, soaking hay and feed into soup is the only answer.
Alfalfa cubes and a high quality complete feed are the answer, with warm water and soaked until it all breaks down to look like pea soup. Sounds disgusting, but it’s manna for the starving horse. Expect a lot of sloshing and expect the horse to need a bath after every meal, but it works.
Far too many horses have lost their teeth in the process of neglect, so they will be on this diet for the rest of their lives. They will stand around the hay pile and munch along with the best of them, but they will also spit of soggy balls of hay, kinda’ like the equine equivalent of chewing tobacco.
Hoof care is often a very big issue with rescued horses. The major reason for the lack of proper hoof care exist side-by-side with the reason for the original cause of starvation – lack of knowledge or finances. The pain factor can be devastating to a thin horse attempting to regain his health while dealing with cracked hoof walls, abscesses, founder, and excessive hoof growth. While a vet can attend to other medical problems, a farrier will be needed to slowly readjust the hoof to its proper form.
Cushinoid Disease, commonly called “Cushing’s” is another problem that may cause weight loss. It also causes long hair coat, even in hot weather, excessive water intake, urination and founder. It’s caused by a dysfunction of the pituitary glands and such cases need a special diet. The initial vet exam, plus blood work, will give your vet a true indication that this may be an issue. Chronic kidney disease will also have the same indicators and only blood work can show the true difference.
Horses suffering from chronic pain from founder, abscesses, arthritis or any of a number of reasons, will stop eating, just as humans often do. These problems need to be addressed by a veterinarian well versed in the factors involved in rehabilitation. Again, the initial vet exam should include blood work to determine if specific medical reasons exist for the starvation other than the human factor.
The cause of weight loss always represents the basic fact that far too few calories are being consumed. The problems that cause this, from the lack of education or financial resources on the part of the owner, or a specific medical issue, still needs to be handled in such a way that the dietary imbalances are corrected and more calories are given and used by the horse.
There are times, however, when even the best vet will tell that you’ve done all you can. None of us have the ability to heal everything, no matter how hard we try. When there is no cure medically possible, when there is no possibility for relief of the pain, when a possible cure is beyond your financial capabilities, it’s time to hold the horse tight and say goodbye.
Over the years, I’ve held hundreds horses as they closed their eyes to this world. Each one has been harder than the one before and the first was the hardest thing I have ever done. If it ever became easy, it would be time for me to walk away from this business, but the reality is simply that we should never hang on to a suffering animal for our own selfish reasons. We tried, and that’s far more than most people would do. There are others, just like the one that slipped away, that need your help. Certainly the tears will fall, but when you start rescuing horses, the need for the skills you have, and the love you hold, will draw you to another horse very soon.