Hangry Horses and Picky Ponies: Top tips for assessing, maximising and satisfying appetite

Satisfying Appetite: The Facts. Whether you have a horse with a seemingly insatiable appetite or one where every mouthful appears an effort, read on for guidelines on assessing your horse, signs we aren’t getting it quite right and some management tips.

Briony Witherow
Equestrian writer, 30/09/2020

A horse’s appetite changes throughout the year driven by a combination of factors including dry matter, hormones, nutrient content, chew time and passage rate through the gut. While the exact mechanisms may be different between horses and ponies and still require further investigation, we can still use this information to optimise management. Native pony breeds in particular retain strong seasonality with respect to appetite and body condition. This seasonality predisposes them to gain weight through the summer months, where food is plentiful, before losing this weight over the winter months, where food is scarce. Whether you have a horse with a seemingly insatiable appetite or one where every mouthful appears an effort, read on for guidelines on assessing your horse, signs we aren’t getting it quite right and some management tips.

Know your starting point

• Fuss feeders and low intake concerns: Over a week, weigh forage in and out of the stable each morning and evening and take an average to assess just how much of the ration they are eating. You can then compare this against their ideal intake as a percentage of bodyweight (dry matter) tailored for workload and body condition. As a guide average intake at rest is around 2% of bodyweight (dry matter) higher for those in more work or requiring more calories or lower for better doers or those in less work. If intake is markedly low (below the minimum 1.5% bodyweight dry matter) it is worth ruling out any potential health issues with your vet, while employing management techniques in an effort to maximise intake.

• Hangry horse concerns: Time how long it takes your horse to eat a set amount of his forage ration (1 or 2kg, depending on how much time you have). Over a couple of days this should give you a rough estimate of how long this set amount is occupying him for, multiply this up so that it gives you an estimate of the whole ration. With this information you can get an idea of how long the ration might be lasting him and whether a slow feeder or some management to extend eating time may be beneficial.

• Look out for the number and consistency of droppings produced, as this can be an indicator of intake – knowing what’s normal can act as an instant indictor if things change. Where appetite is not quite being met, behaviours such as wood chewing, coprophagy (eating droppings) and consuming shavings or soil can indicate that their motivation to chew/eat has not been met (in low fibre diets for example).

Top Tips for Satisfying the Hungry Horse

- Check minimum fibre requirements are being met. Check you are providing sufficient fibre to meet minimum forage requirements in dry matter. Minimum daily requirements are 1.5% of the horse’s bodyweight in dry matter. Once you have worked out 1.5% of your horse’s bodyweight, you can divide by 0.85 for hay (using a typical 85% dry matter) or 0.6 for haylage (60% dry matter). This will give you their minimum requirement of hay or haylage per day. If you have analysis available, then you can use the actual dry matter of the forage instead of an average. For those where part of the ration is met by grass intake, this is incredibly tricky to quantify but you can estimate by using the following equation. Amount of grass in dry matter = (No. of hours grazing per day/24) x (2/100) x BW. If the grass is particularly sparse or low in quality, this would likely overestimate intake, but it provides a starting point.

- Division of forage ration throughout the day. Consider how the forage ration is split over the day – very often we just split the forage ration in half between the morning and evening feeds when on paper the night-time hours far exceed those needing to be occupied during the day.

- Extending chew time by using slow feeders and/or splitting the placement of forage between different areas in the stable or paddock. This can also serve to enrich the horse’s environment and using a combination of forage presentations may help to encourage natural foraging behaviours and increasing feeding time further.

- Selecting appropriate forage. If you are still struggling to fill your horse’s time and meet his need for fibre, you can try increasing the fibre by selecting higher fibre forage (later cut), or introducing a small amount of straw to the ration (maximum 30%), higher fibre feeds being thought to aid satiety.

- Maximising satiety. High moisture content feeds which essentially dilute the nutrients (like beet) can also be useful to encourage satiety without too many calories – A wet Stubbs scoop of unmolassed beet (roughly 150g dry matter) provides only 1.8MJ of energy but lots of volume.

Increasing appetite in the picky pony or less hungry horse

• Maximise palatability. While the type (hay or haylage) and cut (early or late) can impact the palatability of forage to an extent, this can be manipulated further through management. Research has shown that while soaking hay makes it less palatable, steaming hay improves palatability, multiple studies showing it to be the preferred choice over dry hay, haylage and soaked hay.

• Keep things interesting. For those that perhaps lacking the motivation for slow feeders, consider creating a stable-based smorgasbord of forage. Presenting a selection of forage can help to encourage natural foraging behaviours and in doing so may help to increase overall intake.

- Additional support. In heavily exercised horses, B-vitamin supplementation may help restore appetite and while much of the evidence that supports this at present is anecdotal, it may help to kick start your efforts.

Further reading:

Brown, E., Tracey, S and Gowers, I. (2013) An investigation to determine the palatability of steamed hay, dry hay and haylage. Proceedings of British Society of Animal Science Conference, Nottingham April 2013. p 104.

Dugdale, A.H.A., Curtis, G.C., Cripps, P.J., Harris, P.A., McG. Argo, C. (2011) Effects of season and body condition on appetite, body mass and body composition in ad libitum fed pony mares. The Veterinary Journal, 190 (3): 329-337.

Moore-Colyer, M.J.S. and Payne, V. (2012) Palatability and ingestion behaviour of 6 polo ponies offered a choice of dry, soaked and steamed hay for 1 hour on three separate occasions. Advances in Animal Biosciences. Healthy Food from Healthy Animals. Vol 3 part 1. 127

Owens, T.G., Barnes, M., Gargano, V.M., Julien, L., Mansilla, W.D., Devries. T.J., McBride, B.W., Merkies, K., Shoveller, A.K. (2019) Nutrient content changes from steaming or soaking timothy-alfalfa hay: effects on feed preferences and acute glycaemic response in Standardbred racehorses. Journal of Animal Science, 97 (10): 4199-4207.