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Dr. Young
Dr. Young, Veterinarian
Category: Veterinary
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Experience:  7 years of mobile veterinary service for horses, dogs and cats.
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Hello, would you please give me some tips about refeeding a

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Hello, would you please give me some tips about refeeding a horse who is at about a 2 on the Body Condition Score scale? She's an 8 year old mare recently purchased by a friend of mine who is a vet tech but is new to horses. The mare was starved over the winter, and was taken by a young lady about 2 weeks ago, who started feeding her grass hay at first, then after a few days started her on 12% feed at a rate of about 1 1/2 standard feed scoops twice a day. Would you recommend smaller feedings of grain more times a day? What else can you tell me about refeeding this mare?

Thanks very much!
Submitted: 7 years ago.
Category: Veterinary
Expert:  Dr. Young replied 7 years ago.
THE following is an excerpt from an article that is linked from This is a very good online laymen's journal that contains current information on horse health, care and management. I refer many clients to this journal for information on a variety of topics. The refeeding program described here revolves around the use of alfalfa. Alfalfa is an excellent source of fiber and protein. It should be used cautiously in ponies and arabs. I never recommend feeding more than 1/3 of the diet's roughage in the form of alfalfa on a chronic basis. After the horse is free feeding alfalfa and starting on a grain supplement 2 to 3 times daily (equine senior is an excellent choice for refeeding), gradually (over the course of 2 to 3 weeks) increase the amount of grass/grass hay fed and decrease the amount of alfalfa fed. Alfalfa should be reduced to 0 to 2.5 pounds per day. If the horse needs dental work, do dental work before increasing the amount of grass hay fed. Be sure to take weight measurements (girth(in)*girth(in)*body length(in))/330 = weight in pounds. Take measurements and assess body condition weekly. Adjust the amount fed up or down to maintain an ideal body weight.


Although research is limited concerning the physiological responses of chronically starved horses to re-feeding, Stull conducted a study comparing three different diets for the chronically starved horse. Best results occurred with the following re-feeding program:

Days 1-3--Feed one pound (0.45 kg, about one-sixth of a flake) of leafy alfalfa every four hours for the first three days, i.e., six pounds (2.7 kg) of alfalfa per day in six feedings. Oats and grass hay were found to be too bulky. Horses not accustomed to alfalfa might experience temporary gastrointestinal problems such as mild diarrhea or soft manure.

Days 4-10--Slowly increase the amount of alfalfa and decrease frequency of feeding for the next week to slightly more than four pounds (1.5 kg) of hay every eight hours, equaling 13 pounds (5.9 kg) a day in three feedings.

Day 10 to several months--Feed as much alfalfa as the horse will eat while decreasing feeding frequency to twice a day.

Do not feed any grain or supplements until the horse is well along in his recovery--at least three to four weeks--as early feeding of grain and supplements can complicate the return of normal metabolic function, resulting in death. Introduce grain in very small amounts after three or four weeks, depending on the condition of the horse. Free access to water and a salt block should be provided.

Avoid using "consumable" bedding such as sawdust or straw, Stull cautions. "Some starved horses will eat anything," she warns. "In our research model, we just put down rubber mats."

Address critical veterinary problems as needed. Deworming and correction of dental problems will aid in recovery by allowing the horse to utilize all of the nutrients that he consumes, but neither should be done until the 10th or 11th day after the horse is restarted on feed, Stull says. Floating teeth can stress the horse, while deworming could stress the gastrointestinal tract. If possible, let the deworming and hoof work go for about 10 days.

Take it easy with cleaning the horse those first few days. "We'll groom them lightly," says Stull, "but we don't bathe them or do anything that might cause them stress."

Provide an environment that is quiet and free of drafts and cold temperatures. "If horses were kept as a group in a small lot, try to provide similar accommodations," Stull says. "Horses accustomed to stalls would probably do best in stalls, but horses never individually confined may have increased anxiety and stress. You don't want to increase any type of stress on these horses because they'll utilize available energy, which you want to avoid."

Hand-walking horses for 10 to 15 minutes a day is advisable for horses kept in stalls to assist with circulation of the lower legs. "Do not force walking," says Stull. "Just go for a stroll."

Forced exercise should not be implemented until the horse is at least a body condition score of 4. Then start slowly and be cognizant of early fatigue or respiratory exhaustion.

Total rehabilitation can take three to five months before a horse regains normal body weight. Says Stull, "Starvation is almost completely reversible with the exception of a starvation that has started to metabolize vital tissues." A weight loss of 50% or more of body weight is usually fatal.
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