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The Picky Eater

When we meet new residents, it is surprising how often their owners tell us that their horse is a picky eater. The picky eaters tend to fall into two categories with the first one being the horses that will eat well for awhile until one day they don’t. So their stressed owner does what I call the “feeding gymnastics.” They change their horse’s feed, they remove or change the supplements, they treat the horse for ulcers, often all of the above. They finally hit on the right mix and the horse settles on a new, acceptable feeding regime, at least for awhile. The other category of picky eater is the horse that is fussy about eating all the time, almost without exception. The owners of these horses are locked into a cycle of doing “feeding gymnastics” on a permanent cycle. What worked today may not work tomorrow, or even this afternoon.

Thus, I was really interested in reading an article I saw about a week ago. The title of the article was along the lines of how do I get my picky eater to eat? When I saw that the article was written by a veterinarian at Rood and Riddle I was even more interested in reading it because I have enormous respect for this practice. For those who are not familiar with them, Rood and Riddle is a large equine focused veterinary practice in Lexington, Kentucky that is world famous for their work. You can read the full article by clicking here.

I was quite disappointed when I finished reading the article. The obvious and important things were mentioned such as making sure there were no dental issues, checking and treating a horse for ulcers (stomach and/or hindgut ulcers), and running bloodwork to make sure there weren’t any signs of illness. Then the article talked about some strategies for trying to increase caloric intake, some of which would be hard to implement if your horse won’t eat, or doesn’t eat well. So why was I disappointed in the article?

I thought the author of this article might be willing to say what I’m about to say, or maybe he’s just not had the opportunity to watch the transformations in horses like we have through the years and thinks some horses really don’t like to eat. I’ve gone back and forth on writing this blog post for years because what I’m going to say is going to rip the heart out of a lot of caring horse owners, or offend them, or possibly both. But when all of the obvious, normal things this article mentioned have been addressed and yet you still have a horse that doesn’t eat well, what does it mean? The author concluded that some horses are just picky eaters and you have to live with it. We have come to a very different conclusion. It means your horse has internal, or mental, stressors that cannot be diagnosed or addressed through medicine.

I’ll be brave and say it again. When you’ve done all the right things and your horse still doesn’t eat well, your horse is shouting at you that he is stressed even if he acts happy otherwise. He’s communicating with you in one of the few ways he has, and is telling you loud and clear that there are invisible stressors(s) in his life. I know, I know. I know he’s amazing when you ride him, seems to love his job, and takes great care of you at horse shows. I know your horse is in a stall most of the time because either that is the only boarding option available to you or he runs the fence and wants back in. I know your horse goes out all day or all night with two other horses and seems content. I know, and I believe you. I know how much time, money and emotional energy you have put into your horse trying to make sure they are healthy and happy. It doesn’t change the fact that when an otherwise healthy horse routinely doesn’t eat well it means there are mental stressors that are really worrying him. Like all animals, eating is survival for a horse, and they opt out only due to physical or mental reasons.

We have had the opportunity to watch so many of these impossibly picky eaters become normal eaters, to the point that you forget it was ever a problem. Every day I go out and feed horses with no issue that used to be merciless to their owners with the feeding gymnastics. Their owners were constantly changing feeds, looking for a miracle supplement, changing hay, changing everything, trying to hit on the right formula. They would finally find one that worked for a few days, weeks or months, but it never lasted and they went back to the feeding gymnastics.

Why are we able to watch so many fussy eaters and non eaters turn into to normal, happy eaters? 24/7 group turnout on big pastures, and of course none of them are in any type of work. I think both pieces of the turnout equation are important. The horses need to be out in a group AND the pasture needs to be big relative to the number of horses in it. Both factors are necessary to develop something close to a real herd dynamic. Horses functioning in their natural state not only do so with a group of horses, but they also naturally cover a lot of ground in a 24 hour period. I think the constant, low impact movement is vital not only to their mental health but to their digestive tract. I think the real herd dynamic is also why we’ve never had an issue converting hard core fence runners that hated turnout into horses that love it so much they reverse themselves and becoming spinning, frantic whirlwinds in a stall. Some horses simply need that herd dynamic in their life more than others. Also, despite how wonderful some of our horses are as competition partners, some horses live in a constant state of internalized stress due to us riding, training, and competing them, even when we approach it all in a kind and gentle way.

I’m ready to hear from everyone who is going to tell me I don’t understand, that their horse is different, that their horse is happy and is just a finicky eater. Or I will hear from those whose horses have group turnout and aren’t understanding the distinctions I made above in regards to groups, pasture size, movement and herd dynamics. I do believe that you are doing the best you can for your horse with the resources available to you. But it doesn’t change the fact that if your horse is otherwise healthy but not a good eater, he’s letting you know that he finds something in life stressful. That something may be that he doesn’t like shows, or jumping, or dressage, or barrel racing, or whatever, or that he doesn’t like his turnout situation, or all of the above, but he’s desperately trying to tell you that he is stressed and unhappy about something.

I do agree that to an extent horses have to deal with the fact that they are here to be ridden because that’s the only reason they exist now. But if your horse is chronically a fussy and/or poor eater, I would think hard about what reasonable changes you could make in regards to friends, size of turnout, and giving him an opportunity to have something approaching a real herd dynamic in his life at least part of the time. Maybe he doesn’t want to jump, or dislikes endless 20 meter circles in a sandbox, and he is better suited to a different discipline. Maybe he doesn’t like being out with other horses in a small turnout area because he feels crowded (it can be surprising how much space some horses need to not feel crowded), or maybe he dislikes his individual turnout.

We have had it driven home to us on our farm through the years that when a horse starts being fussy there is always a reason. Sometimes we can make a simple change that gets the fussy eater happy. As an example we feed all of our residents soaked feed, and on occasion if a horse gets fussy we would stop soaking the feed and feed them dry feed. This has often solved the problem for awhile, but never permanently. We’ve now learned that the fussy eating and the need for the change from wet to dry feed is always the sign of something bigger.

Through the years and from keeping lots of notes about our residents we’ve learned patterns. The suddenly picky eaters were always ultimately diagnosed with something, such as Cushing’s (very manageable) or cancer. Or, it ended up being a sign that the digestive system wasn’t working as efficiently as it used to, and the horse continued to slowly go down hill in condition with veterinary diagnostics yielding little information. Unfortunately bodies get old and parts simply start to wear out. But we’ve never had a horse that started being picky about eating for no reason at all. The change in eating has always been a warning flag that a problem is brewing.

I will wrap this post up by apologizing for any hurt feelings or offense I’ve caused with this post. It was not my intent, but I also know it is an inevitable result. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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