Re-feeding A Starving Horse

Heart of Phoenix’s Re Feeding protocol for Starved Horses

Horses that arrive at a Body Score of 1-3 (or so) are in danger of developing re-feeding syndrome, but the can actually already be in organ failure. It is important to understand if the organs are in the final stages of failure, not feeding protocol is going to save them.

They are also in some degree of danger of colic.

Re-feeding Syndrome is a serious, potentially fatal, complication of nutritional restoration. A major cause can include low phosphorus blood levels following intake of foods high in calories or glucose. Phosphorus depletion causes abnormalities in the cardio-respiratory system. Symptoms also develop in response to changes in potassium and magnesium levels. Rapid changes in nutritional intake can place excessive strain on the impaired heart which is then unable to maintain adequate circulation. The liver and the central nervous system are almost always affected, also. We have seem mis-fed horses initially show muscle tremors and rear end weakness before they collapse.

Not only is there a risk of this serious metabolic issue that can lead to death, but we believe the risks of losing the horse due to severe starvation (thus creating organ failure) increase when re-feeding is done at too slow a rate, because the rescuer is afraid of overfeeding.

This is a very fine line.

Some people frequently cite a study that stated a horse at the lowest level of starvation, a body score of 1, the lowest the scale will rate, has a very small change of survival.

However, here at HOP, we have been very fortunate that we have lost only 4 large bodied, senior horses who were body score 1 due to the inability of the animals to recover from starvation that was very long term, and these horses has compromised organs.

This is extraordinary because many, if not most, of our cases have been body scores of 1 or the lowest possible body loss condition.

Our feeding process is different than the recommendations found in some articles, a sizable number of emaciated horses rehabbed successfully prove that, for hundreds of horses, it works for HOP.

We feel time is short to stabilize a horse coming in at a body score of 1 when you start to “re-feed.” You cannot make mistakes.

The MOST important aspect, for us: We make sure they have a loose quality mineral and salt (not mixed) from the moment they arrive, even before being offered water or at the same time as water is offered (block of salt AND a block of mineral will work if that is all you can offer, but it isn’t recommended by HOP). If these are not there from the beginning, the horse has a much lower chance of survival if she is a body score of 1. We have used CMPK labeled for cattle in critical cases of a collapsed animal or one near collapse, which is a calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium supplement in the proper absorbable ratios made for cattle with “milk fever”. THIS IS CRITICAL TO UNDERSTAND. Good gel electrolytes will suffice, as well.

Without quick access to minerals and salt, especially before unlimited water, you can run into serious problems as the horse who is already very deficient in these will flush out the tiny bit they have with all the water they are drinking. This is likely the main reason people lose the starving horse. Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Sodium. Get these into the horse fast in unlimited amounts based on how much they want. We find they always prefer minerals to water during the first hour. They will use the loose minerals frequently for weeks. We highly recommend doing HUMAN re-feeding studies to better understand this.

Do not add the salt and minerals to the feed. Leave it separate and free choice.  A horse’s body tells them how much they need to consume when a mineral is lacking. Just as too little mineral can damage a body, too much of certain ones can be detrimental also.

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Obviously, clean water. You wouldn’t believe how denied these horses can be of this basic need which is why they are apt to drink copious amounts of water. Minerals BEFORE or at the same time as WATER.

Then we offer free choice, good quality, grass hay. We personally do not limit hay here at all. We do not do small feedings of hay. Others suggest this, but it has never been how we rehab. Access to grass in our region has proven very safe, as well, even from the start of rehab.

We start almost all of our horses out within the first few days of intake with a dental float. No matter the weight of the horse, the teeth are done right away, unless they are unstable. We do a fecal, and by 10-14 days, we have begun a safe de-worming process. It is a slower process than you would take with a healthier animal.

We uses to use probios paste or the probiotic powder (or even whole, plain yogurt) in the gut daily, but now, we’ve been using and we love Excel EQ for gut health.

We find treating for gastric ulcers from the moment of intake yields a happier, healthier horse quicker, as most emaciation cases have ulcers when scoped.

Depending on condition, overall brightness and vet check, we will begin to introduce a no molasses / no corn type of low starch feed, something low grain in base, high in forage, a handful twice a day, in 7-14 days. If we feel grain is still too much, we will do soaked alfalfa pellets instead. Soaked alfalfa is safe, in our experience, from day one.

We do not usually use weight gain products. We almost never see any need. No need to rush the gain with supplements behind solid nutrition.

The best thing for a horse to achieve optimal weight, after teeth are addressed, is free choice forage/hay (seniors or those with dental issues or other health conditions are exceptions). We want a slower, steady weight gain.

Forage is the foundation of rehab and equine nutrition as time goes on. We use free choice, good quality grass hay offered from intake. We pair that with Chaffe Hay in 2-3 feedings, as we don’t have great access to alfalfa hay (used because of the great calcium / mineral ratios).

We offer grain 2-6 weeks into re-feeding, and our grain of choice is Buckeye Nutrition’s Performance Safe and Easy: a high forage, high fat feed.

Feed Form Pelleted
Type of Horse Idle or Low/Moderate Work
Crude Protein 14.00%
Crude Fat 10.00%
Crude Fiber 20.00%

For feeds, we generally like pellets without high molasses content.

Generally, think of grain or concentrate as a small part of the diet of the rehabbing horse.

4 thoughts on “Re-feeding A Starving Horse

  1. Hello. I was just shown your site tonight. In my case I rescued a severely malnourished stallion in a family group. Mom dad and son. When the three came off the trailer, I was happy to see mom and son wernt in very bad shape. However when the transport coat came off the dad, I was litteraly brought to tears. Senator was a walking skeleton and covered in fleas. Once in stall ample fresh water a mineral salt lick and hay. Since April we have increased his hay to the point I know when hey doesn’t want anymore. As for grain I use two cup of simplicity and two cups of whole corn twice a day . Teeth were done. He forages out in pasture and has improved spunk. Very gentle. However , although he has gained some weight not much I must be missing something? He’s still looking like a skeleton with some meat on his ribs. ( he was kept separate at the rescue and God only nose what he’s been through. He has been dewormed twice when we got him. It’s now coming up again. Any other way to fatten him up cause winter is coming. I know I’ll get him through this. At least now he’s in a loving home with other horse freinds .

  2. For 17 years Second Wind took in starved horses and we started every horse on 5 to 7 lbs of pellets, loads of hay and tons of water and did not turn out until they were strong enough to be turned out. No dewormer until they were healthier, it says on the package to only deworm and give vaccines to healthy horses. We never lost one horse. Never coliced, bever foundered. Founder and colic is a mabaent issue, not an amount issue. Not to say your way does not work but there is always many ways to do something right and get a good result. Thank you for all your work.

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