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Rehabilitating a Thin Horse: A Case StudyBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 19, 2015

A horse owner recently sent a short note and a snapshot. The note read: “I just purchased, inexpensively, this chestnut mare from a local farmer. I enclosed the photograph because I know it’s sometimes easier to show than tell. From a nutritional standpoint, where do I start?”

Kentucky Equine Research (KER) and its employees are dedicated to the well-being of all horses, so images such as this are startling to us. Having said that, it seems as though the mare has landed in a safe place with a conscientious owner, so that’s quite an upshot for her.

How the mare came to be in this condition, we will likely never know—overworked and underfed, diseased, parasite-riddled, a head full of malfunctioning teeth. Because of the hazy history, it’s best to begin with a thorough examination by a veterinarian.

The mare has an attractive, well-shaped head with appreciable depth in her muzzle and lower jaw. The bitting and tying configuration are confounding at best and dangerous at worst, so examination of her tongue for past or present injuries should be part of a thorough oral checkup as should identification and resolution of any broken, abscessed, or sharp teeth.

A fecal egg count for parasites will likely come back positive, and the veterinarian can propose a deworming strategy that will gently cleanse the gastrointestinal tract of parasites. Aggressive deworming might cause an impaction colic due to a wholesale die-off of parasites. Once the initial parasite burden is addressed, an appropriate deworming schedule can then be devised based on geography, season, and future fecal egg counts.

A methodical review of her skin, paying particular attention to any rubs caused by the harness, should be completed. Skin wounds should be cleaned and tended to daily until healed.

Based on this mare’s most recent employment as a “using” horse, with the pavement-pounding it required, a soundness examination is in order. Even if exercise is not immediately planned for this mare—and in her condition, it shouldn’t be—it will be advantageous to get a baseline of her soundness and jot down present and potential problems. The veterinarian, too, should have a look at the injury to the right hock, although it looks to be nearly completely healed at the time of this snapshot, at least superficially.

A competent farrier should be called in for an evaluation. The mare is shod badly with too much toe and insufficient heel. A hoof overhaul, done slowly over a few trimmings, will give this mare the best chance for soundness so long as the remainder of her anatomy is free of pathology.

I started with a veterinary checklist because it is sometimes impossible to get horses to gain weight if their teeth are uncomfortable, if their gastrointestinal tracts are heavily parasitized, or if their joints are creaky and painful.

As disturbing as this image is, it does clearly illustrate some anatomical points necessary when assigning a body condition score (BCS). This mare would receive a score of 2: the mare is clearly emaciated; all of the bony prominences are visible; her neck is thin, flat, and muscled wrongly; and there’s not an ounce of fat on her. Her degree of gauntness is so severe that when the photograph is enlarged to maximal resolution, individual vertebrae are discernible.

So, what’s to be done to revive this mare’s health and spirit?

Any approach to renourishment depends largely on what is available. This photograph was taken in midsummer, in a locale where rain and pasture were plentiful. If the mare had been accustomed to good-quality pasture prior to purchase, return to that setting would be ideal. If she was given access to only poor pasture or middling hay, provision of good-quality pasture is a great way to jump-start rehabilitation. Gradually increasing the amount of time on pasture—starting with an hour and adding an hour or two each day—is one way to introduce pasture safely. Keep an eye on herd dynamics if the mare is turned out with other horses; if she’s bullied too much, she might have to be kept by herself or with an amiable companion.

As seasons change, the energy available in pasture will decline and a high-quality hay should be offered to her. Legumes such as alfalfa (lucerne) and clover usually contain more energy, but any well-cured, early-maturity hay will help with weight gain. Be sure to give her as much as she will eat. Avoid wastage by using a haynet, hay feeder, or manger, or invent another way to keep hay from becoming bedding.

High-quality pasture and hay will help this mare considerably, especially since athletic expectations will be nil. Once her gastrointestinal tract is accustomed to fresh grass, begin feeding a fortified concentrate. A fortified feed includes all of the nutrients needed to fuel the type of horses for which it was meant. Though any feed intended for mature horses will suffice for this mare, if you choose one formulated for performance horses or senior horses, the protein content will be more than adequate to help with muscle accretion. In addition, the energy will come from multiple sources, such as starch (cereal grains), fat (vegetable oil, stabilized rice bran), and fermentable fiber (beet pulp, soybean hulls).

Like pasture, concentrate should be fed slowly in the beginning, progressively adding more over a period of two to three weeks until the full recommended amount of feed is fed. This mare is not a large mare, about 15.3 hands (160 cm), so her grain meals should be restricted to about 5 lb (2.2 kg). If fed more than 10 lb (4.5 kg) of concentrate a day, the total should be divided into three meals daily instead of the customary two.

Remember, refeeding requires a bit of an imagination. The mare should be fed based on the desired weight, not her current weight. This mare weighs approximately 850 lb (385 kg), whereas a target weight would be 1,200 lb (545 kg). Therefore, if the feeding instructions on the concentrate call for mature horses to receive 1 lb (0.45 kg) per 100 lb (45 kg) of body weight, the mare’s daily feed should be 12 lb (5.4 kg) based on her goal weight, divided into three meals of about 4 lb (1.8 kg) each.

Because the mare’s gastrointestinal tract will be inundated with nutrients, a hindgut buffer will keep the cecum and colon working optimally. EquiShure, which was researched and formulated by KER, ensures that hindgut pH remains fairly constant, and this consistency fosters a vigorous microbial population, which enhances digestion of fiber.

Given appropriate veterinary attention and a well-formulated diet, the outlook for this mare is favorable. After she has gained weight, the notion of structured exercise can be addressed. A history of high-headed work in harness will require that she learn a new way of carrying herself, one that involves self-carriage both between the shafts and under saddle, but once she finds comfort and pleasure in her work, she will likely be an agreeable, appreciative companion.