Monday, April 9, 2012

A Question of Feed

Harley is backing off his grain again.  Needless to say, I am perplexed and worried, but a part of me is wondering if I should really be rejoicing.  Allow me to explain.

Harley has always been a very hardkeeper.  He has seldom scored a body condition score above a four, although always with good muscle tone and a shiny, healthy coat.  This winter, under my vet's instructions, we tried a couple things to get some bulk on him.  This was partly spurred on by the fact that he contracted a virus in December, which compounded the weight issue.  A blanket, alfalfa pellets, and finally a large increase in grain were in order.  Fast forward to the spring and he looks AMAZING.  I get feedback from everyone, including the vet, and their sentiments are the same. 

Harley looks great!  The best in his life probably. 

Now the problem is that he is starting to refuse to eat all his grain.  This started a few weeks ago with a possible low-level colic.  This is very atypical for Harley.  The vet came out and did an exam, we reduced his grain and he was fine up until this weekend.  Now, he is backing off his grain again.

The ultimate guessing game.

I went out yesterday and hand-grazed him for about 40 minutes.  He seems totally normal.  Alert, eager to eat and friendly.  I cannot say that he is displaying a "poor appetite".  He really wants to eat, but he is more interested in hay and grass than he is grain.  I brought him in for dinner and breathed a sigh of relief when he immediately began chowing down on his dinner.  Less than 15 minutes later, he was standing as his door ready to go out for his hay.  I looked in his bucket and he had left about half of his grain.  Hmmm.  I looked into his eye and stroked his nose.

"Are you okay, Harley?"

He stared back at me with bright, social eyes.  He did not look sick.  Did I fill him up on grass?  I think he knew that I wanted him to eat more, so he walked over to his food and nosed the wet grain around a bit, but then returned to his door with the same expectant look. 

"Time to go out!"

I got out the stethoscope and listened to his gut.  Noisy and easily heard without the physician's instrument.  I tried rubbing his belly and even drumming on it a bit to see if he would kick his stomach or show any signs of discomfort.  Nothing.  He really did not look sick at all.  As per my vet's instructions, I gave him a low dose of Banamine by mouth, just in case, and he proceeded to put on a comedy act putting his lip in the air and turning away from my hand when I offered him a cookie to chase the medicine.  The more his audience laughed at his antics (some friends were nearby), the more he played up the dramatics.  He was not acting like a sick horse.  I decided to put him out with Cisco and he immediately dove into his hay. 

Back at the barn I checked his unfinished dinner and estimated that he ate about 3/4 of a scoop.  If we have a 3-quart scoop, which I believe we do, then he ate about 2 1/4 scoops of Ultium.  If Ultium weights about 1.25 lb/qt, then he ate about 2.8 lbs of grain.  Ultium is a high calorie feed at about 1900 cal/lb.  The protein, fat, and fiber ratios are 12%, 12%, and 19% respectively.  I have not been riding him lately, it is no longer winter, and his body condition is about a "6" according to my vet. 

Is it crazy to think that Harley is meeting his energy requirements with much less feed? 

Most other horse owners would probably balk at how much he was eating before.  I sure did!  He was consuming two full scoops at each meal during the winter.  I have already mentioned that I would never have given him that much grain without my vet's instructions.  For years, he was eating a full scoop of Ultium and a full scoop of beet pulp at every meal.  I was not comfortable with giving him anything more than one scoop of grain, but he also was not able to maintain above a 4+ body condition score.  This weekend, I tried substituting some beet pulp back in his food and he turned his nose up at it, eating all around it and leaving every shred behind.

So I have all these questions going through my mind:

Is something really wrong with him and that is why he is backing off his feed?
Does he have ulcers?
Has all that grain caught up with him and caused a problem?
Or is he finally able to maintain his condition on a "normal" grain ration?

I have been shoving food into him for so long that now my perspective on what a horse should be eating at each meal is skewed.  I never liked giving him tons of feed.  Forage is healthiest for a horse and many horses sustain themselves on high quality forage with minimal grain or a ration balancer.  We did just switch to a new hay shipment: orchard grass and timothy.  The hay looks much finer then the coarse stuff that we had before.  It looks good.  Is he getting more calories from the hay now, too?

I bought some Neigh-lox (an equine antacid, everyone gets a chuckle out of the name) at the local feed store, as per the vet's instructions.  He ate it out of my hand at first, but I think he is leaving it behind now.  I have ordered Ulcergard, which I will try when it arrives in a few days, and SmartGut pellets.  The SmartGut pellets seem to use the shotgun approach, with antacid, prebiotics, probiotics, and herbs.

I have been reading up on ulcers, because poor appetite is a symptom, but he does not seem to display any other likely symptoms.  He is not stall bound.  He has 24/7 turnout with a buddy.  He is not traveling or competing.  His coat is shiny and healthy.  He is not irritable or resistant to work and, for the first time, he is not thin. 

Harley, the happy enigma.

There are a few factors that could be making him ulcer-prone or disinterested in eating.
  1. His busy, high energy personality
  2. He is only fed twice daily.  (Free choice hay is not an option.  Neither is a lunchtime meal.)
  3. He has allergies.
The allergies are new in 2012.  I have not written about them yet, but Harley is being treated for allergies.  Is this the likely stressor?  He is not on steroids and the treatment he is receiving should not be causing digestive upset.  The vet is pretty adamant about that one.

I have wished a thousand times over that he could have free choice hay.  I tried to make it happen last year with the Nibble Net, but that was an abysmal failure.  He could not eat efficiently out of the net, probably due to his overbite, and he subsequently lost weight.  It is really tough when you board your horse.  I want my own farm some day, but I do not see that happening in the near future and probably not in New Jersey.  Besides, my husband and I work full-time.  We would not be around during the day to keep an eye on him (or give him lunch) and we would have to buy a second horse to keep him company.  Oh yeah, and we would have to win the lottery.  ;)

Did I ever get to the rejoicing part? 
Maybe Harley only needs the amount of grain that he is willing to eat at mealtime.  Can a hardkeeper get easier?  That would certainly be something to celebrate.


  1. I don't really know what the answer to the Harley eating question is. We've always had easy keepers and horses that gain weight on air. Maybe he's simply liking the new hay better and the Spring grass and so isn't quite as hungry for the grain as he was during the winter. I would guess it's a case of wait and see. I'm sure he doesn't have ulcers he doesn't look worried but looks like a happy horse. Between you and Harley you will figure it out. Try not to obsess too much or you'll be the one with an ulcer.

    1. You are right! Pass the Neigh-Lox, Harley!

  2. Just wondering...would Harley like his feed if it were dampened a bit?? Sometimes that makes it more appealing, if it's a possibility. You mentioned feeding BP so you are probably already soaking it...
    Another thought; when was his last float? Do you think it's teeth related?

    1. You are like me. The mind just keeps searching for answers!

      His feed is watered down already. His last float was December 1st and he was given a glowing report, which is huge considering how much work he has needed over the years. I did consider calling the dentist to give him a look if I cannot find another solution. Doesn't hurt.

  3. Horses burn a LOT less calories in milder weather. If Harley looks good, I would chalk this up to to too much food.

    I almost always reduce my beet pulp/rice bran for the summer months and increase it again as the weather cools off.

    If Harley looks good and is acting fine, just reduce his feed a bit and see what that gives you. He's probably just telling you that he's full already! :0)

    1. Thanks, Karen.

      We did reduce his ration and he seems fine. I think he is trying to give me ulcers!

  4. Maybe Harley just prefers hay to grain. Jackson did -- and if his weight is good, I wouldn't worry too much.

    1. He does not have a good track record with maintaining weight on hay, but he definitely loves eating it!

      I am trying not to worry (but it is impossible).

  5. Good Luck!

    Our hard-keeper mare does the same thing. She'll eat well for a while, and then back off. Sometimes it's a particular feed, sometimes it's other stuff.

    Actually, I'm not sure if this is helpful, but in any case...

    Our mare will refuse to eat if she's the last one of our herd left in the barn. If I pull her in for a small "lunch" meal and she's alone, she's fine, but at regular feeding times that precede turnout, she consumes as much as she can of her grain, and once the boys are out, she's done. I've managed to help her eat better by keeping our other horses in until she's done, and soaking her feed (for unrelated reasons).

    Which is my long-winded way of asking, are there any changes in timing or routine around feeding that could be causing this?

    1. We do the same thing with Harley. His buddy stays in until he is done so that Harley doesn't feel rushed. They also come in first to give him a head start. My barn owners have made so many adjustments to accommodate Harley, I feel like I cannot ask for anything more. I hope they do not get sick of me!

      Routine changes include new hay and the time change. This does alter the feed schedule somewhat.

  6. A hard keeper can get a little easier at this time of year. I have one that we recently had to back her grain off because the grass is so green and she is gaining weight super fast.

    1. Oh good! Since I have been sick, he has only been ridden twice in the past two weeks. Normally, we ride 3-4 times a week.

  7. I really hope that your hard keeper truly DID get easier! That would be miraculous. Leo gets 3.6 kg (8 lb) of grain and 3.2 kg (7 lb) of preserved (think chopped silage) lurcere/alfalfa each day (plus 24/7 grazing) ... I think he needs to have a chat to Harley!

    Re the free-choice hay, does a normal hay net not work?

    1. Me, too! That was probably wishful thinking, though. ;)

      Thanks for giving me some numbers for comparison. I was kind of hoping for some information about what others feed. I feel like my "north" has been disrupted. Feeding a picky horse is nerve-wracking!

    2. He has an overbite which makes it difficult for him to pick hay through the holes in the net. I do not think the barn owner will let me try another hay net. He lost a lot of weight last time.

  8. Val, you are a REALLY good writer. You should write a book...perhaps for horse crazy young girls. Love your descriptions, such as such as, you couldn't help but kiss his velveteen nose. Love reading your posts!

    1. Thanks so much, Theresa!
      I am a horse-crazy girl, so I guess I know the audience. ;)

  9. If I may be so bold as to ask (and I mean no disrespect), what exactly is wrong with a 4/5 body score? As long as he is healthy and he has plenty of energy to do the work asked of him, I really see no problem with it. Especially if the horse doesn't want to eat all his grain. But, I may be biased... I do own a Thoroughbred! My TB is always around a 4.5/5 even with free choice hay/grass. He's just a skinny guy. I'm OK with that, even if we do get teased by the DQs on their fat Warmbloods ;)

    As far as the feed amounts go, have you ever tried any of the high fat flaxseed/rice bran ration balancers? I use ADM's Moorglo and used to use Nutrena's Empower Boost. I believe Purina makes one, too, but I can't remember the name. They're pretty palatable and you feed a lot less than regular grain.

    1. Nothing wrong with it and there are fewer health concerns related to being underweight than overweight. Over the years, I have tried to find a management strategy that helped him gain weight, but I also accepted his body score of 4 for years. The barn owner referred to him as "racing lean" and my vet, who has owned and treats thoroughbred racehorses, always said that she treats him like one of them, a "light-weight". In comparison to other horses, he did look thin, however, and as you probably know, this can cause sideways glances or comments from time to time.

      I attended a Purina feeding seminar recently. Ultium was the feed recommended for hardkeepers (which he was already one) and Amplify fat-nuggets to add more calories if need be. Our feed store does not carry Amplify, so I would have to special order if the Ultium was not working.

  10. hi! i spotted your blog on it's quarter's for me's blog roll. the title caught my eye. my horse Lance is in his early 20's and i've had him for almost 13 years now. he's always been on about 1 scoop (2 quarts)of grain twice a day and he NEVER eats all of his morning grain. he's too excited for turn out and hay. he takes his time with his dinner grain as well and will only finish it once all his hay is gone. Lance is currently getting equine senior but has been on 4 or 5 other grains through the years with me and it's always the same.

    i'm assuming that's a pic of his actual feed bucket since i see ultium in there... maybe try just giving him grain and nothing else and see if he eats it. there might be a supplement he doesn't like or vit/mineral he doesn't need.

    can you give him more time in his stall to eat? maybe overnight?
    Lance's am/pm grain is always gone by the next morning

    horses are smart but i don't think they are smart enough to only eat what they need.....

    just some ideas. if i think of anything else i'll post again :)

    1. Thanks for the tips, East Bound, and Welcome!

      Harley is definitely a busy body and is out 24/7. We have to keep his buddy in until Harley is finished or he will stand at his door automatically. The picture I included does include Ultium (his usual feed), some Senior, beet pulp, and Neigh-Lox. I was trying a taste test to see if he was rejecting everything or just his usual feed. He really had me scratching my head!


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