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Feeding a Sick or Injured Horse

When a horse is ill or injured its daily routine will often be changed, both in terms of exercise and turn out. The horse’s diet needs to be adjusted in accordance with this. To ensure your horse’s health is maintained to a good standard, here is a guide to equine nutrition for a sick or injured horse.

Striking a good balance

Feeding a sick or injured horse requires a careful balance. Correct nutrition may be considered vital for optimum performance but its role in supporting healing, and a subsequent return to competition, should not be underestimated. Below are some important factors to consider when feeding sick or injured horses.

Providing vital fibre

Even minor injuries can mean that a horse needs to be confined to his stable for a period of time so it is important that the horse has access to plenty of fibre to promote normal gut function and to help relieve boredom. Fibre is broken down by a population of micro-organisms present in the horse’s hind gut to provide a source of slow release energy. These micro organisms also have an important role in helping the horse to resist disease and recover from infections, particularly those involving the digestive tract.

Nutritional value of fresh pasture

As the nutritional value of conserved forages such as hay or haylage is lower than that of fresh pasture and the quantity of concentrates has to be reduced when the horse is on box rest, the overall nutrient intake can drop significantly.

A balancer is ideal in these circumstances as it provides all the vitamins, minerals and quality protein the horse requires, for maintenance and all-important repair, but without the energy that could cause behavioural and digestive upsets.

Avoiding boredom during box rest

Boredom can also become a problem for the horse on prolonged box rest so it is worth introducing both stable toys and alternative forage sources to keep the horse’s mind active and satisfy his need to chew.

Chopped fibre sources take as long for the horse to chew as long fibre. They can be offered as an alternative to, or alongside, hay or simply to bulk out a reduced quantity of compound feed.

Changing your horse's diet

Although ideally sudden changes should not be made to the diet, it may be necessary to drastically reduce a fit horse’s concentrate ration if his workload is suddenly reduced. This course of action is certainly preferable to risking the onset of metabolic disorders such as azoturia (muscle damage) due to a starch overload associated with an excessive intake of cereals.

The micro-organisms present in the horse’s digestive system take time to adjust to a new feed and any sudden changes can disrupt the micro-organism population, which may result in loose droppings, colic or even laminitis.

Benefits of pre and post biotics

When changing a diet quickly, a “digestive enhancer”, such as a pre or post biotic, may be beneficial in helping the micro-organisms to adapt to the new diet, thus reducing the risk of digestive upsets occurring.

Duration of box rest

The expected length of time the horse will be on box rest and the current diet will determine how significantly the diet needs to be altered. Oat-based, high energy mixes should be completely removed from the diet if the rest period is prolonged.

For short term box rest, of only a couple of days, reduce the oat-based mix to about a third of the normal ration and add a performance balancer to increase the nutrient concentration of the diet.

Your horse's diet must be adjusted accordingly depending upon the length of box rest required.
Your horse's diet must be adjusted accordingly depending upon the length of box rest required.

Reducing concentrates

Any reduction in the volume of concentrates should be accompanied by an increase in the forage provided.  If the horse on long term box rest requires some concentrates to maintain condition, it is advisable to gradually introduce a high fibre cube over 4 to 5 days after the previous diet has been reduced.

Feeding to heal

Maintaining a balanced diet is as important during convalescence as it is for work and correct nutrition may actually aid soft tissue healing by providing the nutritional components for repair. Amino acids, for example, are the building blocks of protein and are essential for soft tissue construction.

Some amino acids have to be supplied by the diet as the horse can’t synthesise them individually and are termed “essential”; these are particularly vital for soft tissue repair.

Forages do not generally contain the quality protein required to supply plenty of essential amino acids, although alfalfa is a good source of the amino acid, lysine. Again, a balancer is useful here, to provide all the amino acids required for tissue development.

Feeding to boost condition

For horses who have dropped a considerable amount of condition, adding a supplement containing pre and post biotics is beneficial. This helps to support healthy gut flora, thus supporting normal gut function and optimising digestion.

Introducing a low carb diet

Alternatively, where carbohydrates are best avoided, for example in cases of laminitis or azoturia (muscle damage), oil is an excellent source of non-heating calories.

Incentivising fussy horses

When horses are depressed or stressed through illness or a change to routine, they can quickly go off their feed. Tempting them to eat can be tricky and they may only eat very small amounts.

The following tips may be helpful in trying to encourage your horse to eat:

  • Offer very small feeds at a time – just like when we’re feeling ill, horses can also be put off by having huge amounts of feed put in front of them.
  • Try adding succulents, such as apples or carrots, to make the feed more palatable.
  • A garlic supplement can be added to feeds to hide the smell and taste of medicinal powders.
  • Adding warm water to the feed can appeal to some horses.  Although bran is not an ideal feedstuff for horses it can be made into a mash which some horses really enjoy.
  • Adding a vitamin and mineral supplement will help to provide a balanced diet.
  • Make sure the feed bowl is in a comfortable position for the horse. If the horse has a front leg injury, for example, it is better not to put the feed bowl on the floor as the horse will have to put more weight on the injured leg to balance himself which may cause increased pain and put him off eating.
  • Using concentrated sources of nutrients will reduce the volume of feed the horse requires to provide the necessary nutrients. Provide a low-calorie balanced diet for good doers.
  • Ensure the horse is left in peace to eat their feed.
  • For horses on prolonged box rest, alternative forage sources will provide variety and interest.

For more information about your horses condition and diet, contact your vet.


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