There is an innate feeling of comfort associated with a horse eating up well, and this is a useful instinct because a healthy appetite is an important part of a healthy being. But even horses or ponies with the biggest appetite can be sceptical of new tastes and fussy about eating new supplements or drugs, which can make administering them challenging.

Horses are more sensitive to taste, smell and the feel of their feed compared to ruminants. Their dextrous muzzle can pick out the tiniest pellets or suchlike in their feed bowls. The feeling of feed in their mouth and throat also affects their intake. Actual appetite is driven by a variety of factors including hormones, feed intake and flavour, but it remains a mystery why some horses are better eaters than others, and why some are so much more sceptical of new tastes than others.

It makes sense for horses to be sceptical of new tastes or new feeds, because in the wild a new plant could be poisonous or cause colic. Digestive disturbance causing colic is a much more serious issue in a horse – who cannot vomit and who has a sensitive hindgut – compared to a dog or cat.

The flehmen position, flehmen reaction, flehming, or flehmening describes this lip curling behaviour, which is thought to help the horse enhance a smell by closing the nostrils.

You should always persist with a new taste for your horse – whether feed, supplement or drug – for several days because it can take this long for a horse to accept a new taste. Introduce it gradually even if the feeding directions don’t dictate this. Don’t simply offer the horse the new taste once, then decide the feed or supplement is not for him, because if you persist he is likely to start eating it up. You may well know better than your horse that something is good for them! Some owners believe that horses have intelligence for what they need, but this should not be relied upon because most horses will eat more sugary feed than is healthy for them, and many cases of poisoning from plants occurs.

For horses who are fussy eaters, firstly have their teeth, mouth and digestive health checked. Could they have a dental problem or stomach ulcers? Assess the horse for pain or stress, which can contribute to a poor appetite. Then, ensure that feed containers are clean. Soak only enough sugar beet or grain for the next day; don’t make up several days supply. Keep feed buckets and utensils clean, because feed residue is ideal for mould growth.

To encourage your horse to eat up a meal containing a strong supplement or drug, you could add something for flavour. Researchers have shown that there is a large individual difference in flavour preference. In one study, the preferred flavours in order of preference were fenugreek, banana, cherry, rosemary, cumin, carrot, peppermint and oregano. Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum) can be added to encourage horses to eat up. Horses like sweet tastes, so adding molasses, molassed sugar beet, honey or apple juice to a feed can encourage eating.

Even greedy ponies can be fussy about supplements and drugs in their feed.

You could use a more palatable base, providing your horse is not on a strict diet. Grains and grain by-products such as oats and bran are usually more palatable than chaff, and can be useful to help encourage a horse to eat up. A handful might be enough. If you aren’t used to feeding grain to your horse, don’t worry about feeding a small amount – you are feeding to ensure necessary supplements are eaten, not because your horse needs oats in his diet!

Try adding your horse’s supplement to a larger amount of feed, but be sure to use low calorie chaff or fibre nuts if your horse is on a calorie-controlled diet.

Fenugreek seeds can be added to encourage horses to eat up.

When your horse just won’t eat a supplement or drug in their feed, you can syringe it into their mouth as you would a dewormer. Use a palatable base such as apple sauce (perhaps with some honey or molasses) to mix the product with, and start for a few days with just the tasty base. You could also give your horse a preferred treat such as half an apple after you’ve syringed, as a reward.

As a last resort, you could sprinkle a supplement or drug on a jam or apple sauce sandwich, but only for horses or ponies who are not on a low-sugar and low-starch diet.

This entry was posted in News, Top ten questions for autumn by Clare MacLeod. Bookmark the permalink.

About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.