Horse Rescue – Part 3 – What Causes “Skinny”

05 Apr

The one person who instantly gains my respect is the rare person that says, “The more I’m around horses, the less I know.” Far too many people actually believe they are experts in equine matters and stop trying to learn anything else. There is a big difference between someone who has, “been there, done that,” and someone who, “knows it all.” Every day around a horse is a learning experience – if the mind stays open. Close the door to learning and everyone suffers, including the horses. If you are around people that believe they know it all, wander off and find someone who wants to learn more and will learn with you.

There are a zillion things to learn about horses and no one has all the knowledge, no matter what they say. One of my greatest teachers was a 6 year old girl who proved beyond any doubt that she knew far more about trailer loading than me.  When I paused after 30 minutes of frustration after trying to trailer load a young Arabian mare, she walked the horse into the trailer and back out, then handed me the lead rope and said, very calmly, “See, it isn’t so hard. You can do it. Just keep trying.” Another was an old farmer who showed me that all you need to do is pick up a couple of balls of poop from a horse and rub them onto the floor of the trailer by the door. The horse will figure he’s been there before (it’s his poop) and won’t be so scared to walk in. It works. 

What so often happens when someone sees an extremely thin horses is they immediately say the reason is the lack of food. As the saying goes, it ain’t necessarily so, and while some of the actual causes might be due to improper diet, there are some causes that are far outside the normal scope of care.

Before we go any further, lets get rid of one myth. “The horse is skinny because it’s old.”


There was a time when that was a valid statement, and it wasn’t that long ago. Before our modern wormers, vets had no real way to actively attack heavy worm infestitations. When I was young, cowboys used Red Man chewing tobacco. They would spit a wad of it in the horse’s mouth to kill worms. It was nasty, of course, and you and your horse really had to trust one another to get a dose transferred, but that was the extent of worming technology. As a result, as the horses got older the load of worms got heavy, the horse would get skinny and eventually the horse would die. With the current wormers, the worm infestation can be removed and horses can live far longer and look far healthier. Our oldest was 42, finally dying of severe colic, but he looked like a 10 year old. We have dozens of horses in their mid to late 30’s, all fat and sassy.

As an excuse, old is no longer valid. There is absolutely no association between age in horses and a reason the horse is extremely thin.  Old folks still use that as a reason and others will assume they know what they are talking about. It’s wrong.

So what are some of the reason a horse may be thin?

Number one, of course, is the lack of food. How much food is sometimes an issue, especially for animals that have no grazing area.  The standard used throughout the industry is 1 percent of their ideal body weight in high quality grain and 2 percent of their ideal body weight in forage. Ideal body weight should be what is the norm for the breed and life style of the horse. An active quarter horse might weigh 1,200 pounds. An inactive,, retired gelding might weigh 900. If given an average of 1,000 pounds, a horse should be eating 10 pounds of high quality feed and 30 pounds of quality forage daily. 

But wait! There is more to it than that.

We have 70 horses at the ranch that don’t receive any feed. They are on a free choice, hay only diet, while others just have pasture for grazing, with no grain and no hay. All the horses have tubs full of minerals, and all of them are between 5 to 7 on the body score scale. So don’t all horses need some type of grain?

There is a lot of discussions around the country on the proper equine diet. If 300 equine vets gathered in one place, they would be able to give you 300 opinions about the proper diet, with no two being the same. However, we’re not talking about the ideal diet. As a rescue, our concern is that the horses have the amount of food necessary to maintain a healthy body condition, and that body condition is measured by the body scoring chart in Part Two.

How the horse gets there and stays there is for a vet to tell the owner.  If the owner wants to feed hay only, that’s their decision. Your concern is that the horse maintains a healthy body condition.

Suppose the owner of the skinny horse shows you that he is feeding the right stuff, but the horse is still skinny. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Group feeding and the horse is being chased away from the feed and/or hay
  2. Bad teeth – the horse is dropping feed and spitting out balls of hay
  3. Ulcers
  4. Cancer
  5. Worms
  6. Any number of other medical problems that only a vet can determine

Many times, when a pasture houses several horses and only one is skinny, it’s one of those problems. That still does not excuse the owner. The lack of necessary care is still a criminal offense and the owner must get the horse to a vet. That’s the law.

One important note – seems silly and mindless to say this but unless you are actually a vet, remember that you are not a vet. You cannot and should not try to diagnose a health issue. That’s where lawsuits get started and rightfully so. If you try to get an owner to deworm a skinny horse and the horse dies, guess what you did. Don’t do it. Leave the medical stuff to the vets. All you need to do is advise the owner that the horse must be seen by a vet.

One of those wise people I told you about at the beginning of this used to tell me that the person he was most afraid of was the person that knew just enough to be dangerous. I’m sure you know people like that – they read a book, watched a video or saw something on RFD-TV and they instantly know how to train a horse. They got a pamplet and know all about homeopathic medicine, They found a website and know all about natural hoof trimming. 

Be careful with people like that. Let them work on your car, paint your house, fix a toilet, but keep them away from the animals. Life is too precious and health is to valuable to place it in the hands of well-meaning people that really don’t know what they are doing. A good example is when they are turned loose in the feedroom.

Most of us are not that knowledgable about calcium-phosphorus ratio in horses, but it’s very important to know this one statment – mess it up and you could do major damage to your horse. The final part of today’s lesson, click here to learn the basics and to avoid becoming one of those charmong folks that stand in the feed room mumbling, “…a little of this, some of that, some of this red bottle, an ounce of that….” 

Ready to learn the basics of refeeding the starved horse? Here’s a hint about the seriousness of the next part – if you do it wrong, the skinny horse you saved will die within three days.


If you are learning anything from this series, click “Like” and I’ll continue, otherwise I’ll go back to my old ways of ranting and raving about all the injustice in the world.


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17 responses to “Horse Rescue – Part 3 – What Causes “Skinny”

  1. Rose

    April 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    I adopted a rather skinny thoroughbred gelding. I feed him a big meal once a day and he has a good pasture graze all day long. I’ve wormed him and all, He is putting on weight slowly, thankfully. But I was wondering what would be some good grain to add into the mix to help him fill out a little bit quicker ? It’s sad seeing him so thin and I begin to feel as if it’s my fault he got that way…

    • Jerry Finch

      April 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      Rose – you’re not listening! Just like in humans – a lot of little meals, NOT one big meal once a day. The “good grain” needs to be a complete feed from a major feed supplier, not a bucket of oats. Read the article again.

  2. Belinda Caron

    April 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you Jerry, Excellent artical and good advice. We cant wait for more !!!

  3. MorganG

    April 7, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Thank you Jerry, excellent information which I am downloading to save. I don’t own horses but am around them a lot. It’s always interesting to me to hear the absolute gospel on horse care until you get to the next person whose gospel completely contradicts that former gospel. Makes your head spin. No one can even agree on shavings or blanketing let alone feed or training. Gadzooks.

  4. Geri

    April 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I don’t like the posts-I love them I’m getting a free education. I do have a couple of questions~~and remember I believe in one of your posts you said that their was never a dumb question. And while you are still on feeding horses.
    In our old house the backyards is where most horses were kept and those yards faced the walking, bike and rideing path. I and many other people walked there all the time and always had treats for the horses-carrots-sugar cubes-hard candys-and even cookies( I knew a couple of big guys that would dang near take your fingers off for a strawberry twisler), do horses get cavites like humans? And if they do what is the recommended treat level?
    Also a couple of folks had signs on their fence–Please do not feed the horses–I always wondered if horses could be allergic to sugar or they just did not want strangers to give anything to their horses-it was so sad because the horses would see you give treats to other horses and then when you went to pet them they would lick your fingers and I always felt so bad for the horses. So wondered what that was all about.
    And last – because not everyone had horses, a couple of years ago some folks got together and had the grass along the path mowed by a young man and when he was done mowing he emptied the lawnmower bag in one of the yards were 2 horses were(I assume he must of thought horses/grass-don’t know) but the horses got real sick and nearly died-now I myself know that they cut hay/grass for horses so why was that? fertilizer or weed killer? I never did hear why but the horses got real sick, but did not die. Does it have to be a certain kind of grass?

    • Jerry Finch

      April 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      Personally, I NEVER want anyone giving treats to my horses. Most rescue organizations forbid giving treats. We allow carrots, but not fed by hand. A number of post ago I discussed hand feeding and the effects, taught by my best example, three-fingered Debbie.

      You have no idea which horse has sugar issues, Cushings, digestive issues. Why would anyone assume that giving candy to a kid is okay? Horses are no different. Do not feed the horses unless given permission by the owner.

      Grass cuttings – like giving massive amounts of sugar. Probably colic and again – never feed a horse anything without the owners permission

      • Geri

        April 8, 2012 at 7:53 am

        I should have stated that in my question–but yes I would never pet or feed anyone elses animals, no mater what kind without asking first.

  5. missredreflection

    April 6, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I hate hearing that a horse is skinny because he’s old. I had an old Quarter Horse who was fat and round until the day he died. As his name was Pie, our vet would always joke that he wasn’t just a piece of the Pie, he was the whole thing:)

  6. anniesezso

    April 6, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Thank you Jerry. A person can never hear this good information enough times no matter how old or how experienced!

    P.S. And I enjoy your rantings too, then I know it’s not just me being a crank. Love your work.

  7. N.Laurel

    April 6, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Important info here..Thank you!
    The County Vet came around, giving mandatory WEE vaccinations. He was not at all friendly, and behaved as if he dared anyone to speak to him and slow him down. His assistant was friendlier. I told him my horse was sick. Anyway, vet gave the shots to my five and left. He came back later with law enforcement to take my ‘skinny’ horse. . If he would have spoken to me, I would have told him the horse was being treated for cancer and kidney failure. My horse died about a week later.(only 14 years old) I truly believe the mandatory vaccination did it, as he went down hill so quickly.
    The others being so fat that water would stand on their backs should have given him some clue.
    I assumed the ” vet ” would know that the horse was too ill to vaccinate.

    Lack of communication can be deadly.
    That was several years ago. I would like to think that now I would be bolder in similar circumstances.

    • sue

      April 6, 2012 at 7:01 am

      I DO know what you are talking about. People assured me over and over the preventative shots were “safe.” I administered them to my BLM mustang. She died two weeks later, lost muscle coordination, fell down and then could not get up. I didn’t want to give her the “preventative” shot since that shot is giving them a disease, but I listened to everyone else. She was healthy and happy before the shot.

      Hindsight is, of course 20-20, and this year my QH will not receive that shot.

  8. N.Laurel

    April 6, 2012 at 1:57 am

    Tried to ‘Like”, and it won’t let me, and yet I am a member, as I get follow-up messages and emails. Perhaps others are having the same problem with WordPress? Anyway…”LIKE”.

  9. BlessUsAll

    April 5, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Will nice comments suffice in place of a “like”? Some people haven’t figured out that they can set up a “user name” on WordPress without having their own blog. Some people don’t even see the “like” button; their eyes pass right over it. But it’s not intentional neglect, just like many horses you discover aren’t being intentionally starved.

    Point being, keep up these lessons, and please do NOT go back to ranting and raving!!!:-)

  10. Margo Nielsen

    April 5, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    You ought to go talk to the owner to see if they know why the horse is thin. Maybe they don’t know or maybe you will hit upon a reason they never thought of!

  11. Beth

    April 5, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Jerry, Avid fan here with a question.
    I drive past a farm 5 days a week, at the same time of day. Sometimes there are two horses outside (although NOT every day); one chestnut horse in the bigger grass paddock who appears to be in good weight, and a grey horse in a much smaller pen further from the road. There are no other pastures or pens visible on the property. The grey horse is strikingly thin, even as seen from the road. Additionally, the grey horse is more often than not (more than 50% of the time) lying down.
    I know darn well that there is isn’t enough information to determine if either or both of these horses need help. Keeping a horse with advanced navicular or laminitis on the thinner side makes good sense and would explain the frequent lying down.
    I have two senior horses (20 and 34) and they both lose weight through the end of winter, and then pack it back on during spring and summer. But my horses live out 24/7 on 8 acres of good pasture, plus get hay in the winter.
    I have been observing the grey horse for over a year and while I can’t see any changes for the worse, nor have I seen any for the better.
    Would I be a total nosy-body to call the local humane officer? I have posed this question to other local horse friends, but no one personally knows this horse owner, or has been watching these horses on as regular a basis as I have been.
    Sorry for writing a whole book!
    QH and TB Mama

    • Jerry Finch

      April 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm

      As I said, I had much rather respond to a call that is unfounded than to not be called and a horse die because no one cared to pick up the phone. Call Animal Control and just ask if they would drop by the pasture, perhaps when you can meet them to explain the situation.


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