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Why Horses Stop Eating: 13 Common Causes

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Last winter, my friend’s horse stopped eating for a couple of days. It turned out she had developed ulcers in her mouth and, thanks to our vet, she recovered and started eating again. Her experience made me wonder: what other factors can make horses stop eating?

In general, horses stop eating when they’re sick, have dental problems, or there is a disruption in their routine. Some common causes include colic, gastric ulcers, choke, diarrhea, injuries, bad teeth, and infections. When horses are dehydrated or anxious, they might not eat either.

Horses are large sensitive animals that require a lot of food; they typically eat 16 pounds of forage per day; if they stop eating, there is something wrong. That’s why it’s imperative you know your horses’ eating habits so you can catch a problem early and treat it.

Picture of a horse standing in a stall.

Reasons horses stop eating.

Horses can stop eating for many reasons. They can be sick, have dental issues, or they may just not like the type of food you are feeding them. Horses should eat at least 1-2 pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight daily.

A horse’s eating habits can be a great indicator of whether or not they are healthy. When sick, horses often stop eating and drinking; when this occurs, it is important to get the animal checked immediately!

I’ve always believed that horses are sensitive animals. If something causes a horse to suddenly not eat anything, it means your horse is trying to tell you something, and by correctly recognizing this message, you can save your horse a lot of pain!

Let’s look at different things that may be preventing your horse from finishing its meal.

Medical conditions

Colic

Abdominal pain in horses is called colic. There are a lot of causes of colic: the intestine or stomach may become swollen or inflamed; the small intestine might become partially twisted; the large intestine might fold or become enlarged; etc.

Colic symptoms include loss of appetite, bloated bellies, pawing and rolling, sweating, and general signs of distress. The first step of treatment is evaluating the cause, so it’s necessary that you see a vet if you suspect that your horse has developed colic.

• Gastric ulcers

Gastric ulcers form when the stomach acid irritates the lining of the stomach. Ulcers may be caused by riding the horse on an empty stomach, long-term use of NSAIDs, and excessive concentrates in the diet.

Some horses may lose their appetite for eating. Others may leave their meal half-finished. Nervousness or agitation is also generally noticed in horses with ulcers.

Some feeds like alfalfa hay and beet pulp are believed to have acid buffering abilities and are thus recommended for horses with gastric ulcers.

• Dental problem

Horses with bad teeth often stop eating because of the pain. This leads to weight loss and a vitamin deficiency. Sometimes it’s as easy as getting their teeth floated that fixes the problem.

Dental problems often go undiagnosed in horses. It would be best if you took your horse to a veterinary dental specialist to have their teeth floated at least once a year to remove sharp enamel points.

These points can cut into the cheek and cause ulceration and make chewing difficult. I wrote an article all about floating horses’ teeth you should read if you’re unfamiliar with the practice.

• Choke

Choke is a common condition caused by materials like roughage stuck in the horse’s esophagus, which is the organ connecting the throat to the stomach.

A horse with choke will commonly try to cough out the food. You may see saliva, mucus, or foodstuff escaping from the mouth or nostrils. The horse might also bend or shake its neck downwards frequently.

You shouldn’t give your horse any food or water if you think it’s suffering from choke. Usually, the condition will take care of itself, but if the horse still shows the symptoms after a few days, it’s best to contact your vet.

• Diarrhea

Horses with diarrhea have frequent bowel movements, and their stools tend to be watery. Diarrhea is a severe condition caused by bacterial infection, viruses, parasites, diet changes, intestine inflammation, or improper use of medication.

If your horse doesn’t show any extreme symptoms, diarrhea is not a cause for concern and will generally pass by quickly. However, if the horse stops eating and diarrhea persists for more than one or two days, you should consult a vet.

Dealing with equine diarrhea can be messy work. Learn how to prevent diarrhea so your horse always stays healthy.

• Injury

If your horse is unlucky, it can catch an illness from an injury that it may have sustained. However, most minor injuries heal themselves and are not a cause for concern.

If your horse stops eating after an injury, it may be suffering from temporary pain or discomfort. If getting the horse to the vet is not an option, you can opt for an over-the-counter medication in safe doses.

Anxiety

• Separation

Horses are herd animals and rely on equine or human companionship for a healthy mental state. Some horses can easily get stressed by sudden changes in routine and temporarily lose their will to eat.

Horses that are only allowed a few hours out of the stable may become depressed. They can also show anxiety when they are separated from a fellow horse. Moving to another property or going on a long trip can also be a cause of distress.

• Boredom

Horses can quickly become weary of a monotonous diet or a dull routine, not unlike humans. Mixing up their diet with delicious treats and providing horse toys are excellent ways to promote mental stimulation.

• Bullying

You might have heard the term “pasture bullies.” These are horses that bare their teeth, bite, and kick at other horses. Not only can a bully prevent your horse from comfortably accessing hay or grass, but it can also make them stress and lose their appetite.

Though bullying is natural and usually difficult to control (you can’t always watch over your horses!), you should try to prevent any aggressive behavior while you are around your horses. Focusing on treating the bully or relocating it might prove more productive.

Picture of two horses, one laying near a feed bucket.

Other causes

• Abrupt diet changes

Is your horse a picky eater? Introducing a new diet without warning, like shifting from a low-protein Bermuda hay to Alfalfa, makes horses reject their diet. It would be best if you made any changes to their feeding gradually over a few weeks.

• Bad food

Horses are very good at sensing when their food has gone bad or if they have been given moldy hay. Food left in unclean and hot environments gets stales more quickly. Therefore, it’s best to double-check that your horse’s feed smells and looks as it should before mealtime.

• Hard work

Horses that have been worked extra hard or introduced to an intense routine can also lose their appetite. It’s because they now need more hard feed like concentrates instead of roughage. Again, if your horse isn’t accustomed to strenuous work, consider making only gradual changes in its routine.

• Heat and dehydration

Hot weather and flies can also discourage a horse from finishing its meals. Similarly, dehydration is a common cause of decreased appetite. Hence, giving your horse regular baths in summer and 5 – 10 gallons of water per day is crucial.

How can I get my horse to eat?

Watching how horses eat their feed is a good indicator of how they feel. Horses that eat a consistent amount regularly are generally in good health. A horse that refuses to eat has problems and requires care and your total attention!

The first step for getting a horse to eat is determining why your horse has stopped eating. It may be a medical condition or something stress-related. Depending on the severity of the problem, you should work with your vet and follow their advice to get it eating again.

Identifying the cause of your horse’s lost appetite is the biggest challenge. Sometimes, the problem is as simple as minor pain or anxiety and goes away with time and positive treatment.

However, if poor appetite seems to be a long-term problem and you can’t recognize any apparent cause, you should consult your vet immediately.

A vet will perform several tests and eliminate potential disorders to pinpoint the reason your horse refuses to eat. They may also put your horse on medication, recommend a workout plan, and make certain precautions.

How long can a horse go without eating?

A horse can’t go more than a few days without drinking water. However, like humans, their bodies can stay alive longer without eating, although in a fragile and cruel state.

Horses can go for two or three weeks without eating anything. However, starved horses begin to develop health complications in one to two days.

There are no studies regarding the exact time a horse can go hungry, though anecdotal evidence suggests that abused horses can survive for several days without eating.

As horses are naturally used to eating grass during most hours of a day, a hungry horse is susceptible to fatal medical conditions like gastric ulcers and colic.

A starved horse will gradually lose its muscle mass, and its immune system will become weak. As a result, its body will become vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections, developing poor blood circulation, and organ failure.

If you are aware of any horse abuse, you should immediately call your local animal welfare agency or contact 911. I posted an article that covers in detail the signs of horse abuse; you should read it if you suspect an animal being mistreated.

FAQ

Why do old horses stop eating?

Old horses are often finicky eaters and if hay or grain is bad they will refuse to eat it even when younger horses will. Old horses may also not eat if their feed tastes too salty or has even the slightest amount of mold.
An old horse could also be sick and refuse to eat. If it continues to avoid feed and hay you’re sure is good then call a vet.

Why has my horse stopped eating grain, but eats hay?

Horses recovering from an illness, might not want to eat grain but will eat hay or grass. Horses with equine gastric ulcer syndrome often do this. They typically start eating hay when they begin to feel better and slowly get their appetite for food back and eat grain again.