Feeding a Rescued or Starved Horse

By Gail Sramek BAppSc(Agr) – Consulting Nutritionist to Mitavite


It is concerning when owners or horse lovers are presented with a horse that needs to be nursed back to good health and condition, due to neglect, disease or a symptom of old age.

Ideally horses should be kept in a moderate to moderately fleshy condition. If horses have an extreme loss of body condition they can be 30% or greater below their ‘ideal’ body weight. Care needs to be taken when rehabilitating these horses and each case needs to be assessed individually.

If possible a history of the horse’s circumstances should be collated, detailing the time frame and the cause of the loss of condition. Consultation with your equine veterinarian is necessary so a full assessment and recovery plan can be determined. Metabolic, physical and gastrointestinal changes occur in the starved horse. These horses show symptoms of a decreased metabolic rate, loss of body condition, gastric ulceration, an intolerance to the cold and a lowered immune system. Blood tests and an accurate diagnosis can help to give the veterinarian an idea of the length and severity of the starvation and is necessary to provide an accurate recuperation plan.


A Starved Horse in Poor Condition with no Health Issues

Starved horses that are in poor condition and do not have any health issues relating to the loss of condition can be put on a ration plan to increase condition. The following can be used as a guide when introducing feed to these horses:



  • Due to their physical state and to minimise the stress of communal feeding, these horses should initially be fed separately.
  • Any changes to the diet should be done in a gradual manner.
  • Initially small meals of hay can be introduced. Approximately 1kg hay meals that are fed 2-3 hours apart can be fed for the first two days. After two days, free access to forage can be given.
  • Ideally a combination of Lucerne and grass hay can be fed. The ratio of each fed is determined by the stage of life and current purpose of the horse. I.e weanlings and lactating mares can be fed a higher ratio of Lucerne. Lucerne contains increased levels of protein and electrolytes that can benefit rehabilitation.
  • A protein, vitamin and mineral supplement such as Vitamite Super Amino 66 or nutrient dense concentrate such as Mitavite Promita can be fed to correct any previous deficiencies and promote well-being. In time, these horses can be phased onto a concentrate that can be fed at higher rates such as Mitavite Breeda. Always introduce new feeds slowly…any concentrate should not be increased by more than 300g per day.


The Chronically Starved Horse

The chronically starved horse needs to be handled with more care:

  • These horses need immediate veterinarian care and assessment with full blood samples and tests to determine the hydration level and the kidney, liver and gut function. The possibility of disease also needs to be assessed.
  • The horse should be weighed on accurate horse scales so a benchmark weight can be given.
  • They should be kept in a safe, protected area with deep bedding to provide a secure comfortable environment.
  • Due to their loss of condition the stable/shelter may need to be warmed to minimise additional energy needed to warm the horse. A light rug can be used and ideally the environment warmed, in preference to rugging with a heavy cumbersome rug.
  • A dental check should be performed by a qualified equine dentist.
  • Worm and parasite burdens may be high in these horses and an aggressive worming program should be avoided until the horse’s appetite has improved and healthy weight gain has begun. Immediately worming the chronically starved horse may cause colics, mucosal damage and in some cases death. Your equine veterinarian will be able to suggest an appropriate worming program, initially starting with milder anthelmintics so intestinal blockage and mucosal trauma can be minimized. When your horse is in an advanced stage of rehabilitation and when suggested by your equine veterinarian, stronger wormers can be used at a half dose.


To maximize the chance of survival any feeding practices should be done gradually. The rule of thumb when feeding horses that need more condition is to ‘start low and go slow’. It is important not to overload these horses digestive system with high carbohydrate rations or the risk of ‘Refeeding Syndrome’ is a real possibility.

A feeding regime has been detailed below that has been used in some circumstances. Close consultation with your equine veterinarian is needed when nursing and feeding these horses and you should be guided by his/her advice.





  • If the horse is unable to drink or eat, intravenous hydration and enteral feeding will be needed initially
  • For horses that can drink, hydration needs to be restored. 2-3 litres of water can be offered at 20-30 minute intervals until the horse does not drink ravenously. Once the horse does not drink ravenously, it can be provided ad libitum.
  • Lucerne hay can be fed as the main feedstuff at 75% of the horses maintenance requirements. If Lucerne isn’t available a good quality leafy grass hay can be fed with a low energy forage balancer such as Vitamite Super Amino 66 to increase the nutrient intake. Research has suggested the hay can be provided as six meals at 4 hourly intervals for the first 4 days. After this, for the next 3 days the amount of hay fed can be increased to 100% of the horses maintenance requirements, still feeding in 6 meals throughout the day. The hay can then be offered in 3 meals per day and increased to 125% of the horses maintenance requirements.
  • Non-lush grazing can be introduced slowly once the horse is able to support itself.
  • A small amount of a feed supplement such as Breeda, dampened to a mash, can be introduced after the first week if the horse is progressing well. Each horse needs to be assessed individually and we would suggest contacting a nutritionist at Mitavite to tailor a ration specifically for a starved horse.


Starved and rescued horses require a balanced ration to enhance their recovery. Good quality protein and amino acids are needed above maintenance levels to build back lean tissue and muscle. Protein levels should not be increased if the horse has compromised liver or kidney function. A balanced concentrate that contains vitamins and minerals is needed at the correct levels to enhance recuperation and wellbeing.

Building condition back onto a horse takes time and it may take 6-12 months for a horse to be built back to normal condition. Proper veterinary care, combined with a balanced ration that follows the correct guidelines and the principle of ‘Start Low and Go Slow’ can increase the chance of your horse making a full recovery.