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Picky Horse Pandemic: 5 Steps to Get Your Horse Eating What You Buy Them

Updated: Mar 26

Some of the most frustrating moments in my line of work is formulating a perfectly balanced diet that meets the owner's management preferences, compliments the strengths and weaknesses of the forage, and is simple and cost effective only to have the horse...not eat it! For whatever reason, there's been a pandemic of picky eaters over the last few weeks which has me thinking a lot about this common concern? What do we do if the horse won't eat it? The best nutrition products in the world have zero value if your horse won't consistently consume them. I summarize in this article five steps that you could take to get them eating again.



5 Steps to Address Palatability

  1. Diagnose it.

  2. Clean it.

  3. Flavor it.

  4. Simplify it.

  5. Switch it.

Step #1: Diagnose It

The first step is to be absolutely sure that the horse isn't trying to tell you something critical. Serious conditions like gastric ulcers, tooth problems, colic, and chronic pain cause horses to go off feed. If you've checked these off your list with confirmed diagnoses, then continue to step #2.


Step #2: Clean It

You'd be surprised how often simply cleaning the feed bucket works to get your horse eating again! A serious scrub with a splash of bleach or vinegar will kill microbes that may be stinking up your horse's feed pan. This is especially true if you are soaking beet pulp as it is a great medium for bacteria, yeast and fungi to flourish. If you are mixing feeds and supplements with any liquid (i.e. water or oil), I would suggest starting your palatability quest with a good scrub. It's kinda of like cleaning the water bottle you've been using for months at the gym to supply your protein shake and has sat out in the car during warm days. It flavors your bottle and not in a good way.



Step #3: Flavor It

Feed and supplement companies put a variety of natural and artificial flavors into their products to increase palatability and you can too. Traditional ingredients like molasses and oats are surefire palatability improvers, but with the hyper-focus on low-carb diets these days, we often need to get more creative. A landmark study in 2005 by Goodwin and Harris showed that horses prefer flavorings like fenugreek, anise, and banana, so you can start there. Start with a tiny sprinkle of fenugreek seed powder to test. It has a "burnt sugar" aroma, not unlike molasses, and can be purchased as a pre-ground powder or you can buy the seed at the grocery store and grind it yourself. Anise oil has a strong licorice-like smell and can be overpowering, so start small. You might also have luck with brewers yeast (a.k.a. nutritional yeast), banana pudding powder, or Stevia which are also easy to get at your local grocery store.


High Carb Flavorings

1. watered down molasses

2. Agave nector sweetener (cheap at Costco)

3. Handful of oats

4. Instant oatmeal packet

5. Banana pudding powder

Low Carb Flavorings

1. Stevia

2. A teaspoon of fenugreek seed powder

3. A drop of anise oil

4. A scoop of brewers yeast or nutritional yeast

5. Coconut oil



Step #4: Simplify It

Horse owners love to ADD things rather than take AWAY, but simplicity can solve your palatability pandemic quicker than anything. Determine what products are absolutely essential- those are the ones that compliment your forage with calories, protein, vitamins and minerals- and then remove anything that is non-essential. I realize that it may be difficult to know with certainty which products are essential and which are non-essential. Working with a nutritionist who has a graduate degree in a field related to equine nutrition would be appropriate in that instance. You can schedule a Free 15 Minute Discovery Call with the On Course Equine Nutritionist HERE.


Step #5: Switch It

As stated previously, feed and supplement companies vary in the flavorings and ingredients that make their products palatable, so switching to a similar purpose product might do the trick. For example, if you are feeding a ration balancer, you can switch to another brand's ration balancer quite easily and see if their ingredients are more to your horse's liking. There are so many products on the market these days, I'm certain that you can meet your horse's nutrition goals with another brand or product that could taste better. The trick is to know that you are staying in the same feed category. That means that the feeding directions are within a pound or two for your size horse. For more on this, consider On Course Equine Nutrition's ON DEMAND Full Length Course which starts with a lecture on organizing feed and supplement products into purpose categories.


For especially chronic picky eaters, such as senior horses that have lost some of their food drive, I've deployed this switch tactic many times with great success. In these extreme cases, I suggest purchasing 2 or more senior feeds with similar first six ingredients and transitioning in between them as your horse's food drive waxes and wanes. I realize that this method is not traditional and even controversial, but if your horse isn't eating than you've got bigger problems than colic risk. Feed companies don't like this method, because it implies that you aren't feeding 100% of their product. However, if you choose multiple products with very similar first six ingredients than they are more alike than different. Make changes slowly and at a rate dependent on your horse's digestive health history.


SUMMARY

I wish that I could tell you that there was one full proof way to improve palatability with every horse, but they are all unique snowflakes aren't they? Start at step #1 and work your way down the list. Luckily many of the flavoring options are inexpensive and readily available at your local grocery store, so you don't have to wait long to try one or two. If flavoring doesn't work, then simplify or switch. If that still isn't working, call me.



REFERENCES


Goodwin, D., H.P.B. Davidson, P. Harris. 2005. Selection and acceptance of flavours in concentrate diets for stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 95, Issues 3–4; 223-232. ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2005.04.007.



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