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Tips for Caring for a Starving or Rescued Horse

rescued horse

By Dancing Cloud Farm Horse Rescue

rescued horseHere’s how to safely rehabilitate a rescued horse, or one that has otherwise been starving. First off, always consult your veterinarian and ask her/him to evaluate the horse for disease, issues with the horse’s teeth which may prevent it from eating, and to determine its overall bodily condition, including age of the horse.

We do NOT recommend deworming the horse at first until it puts on weight and is stabilized.  What the horse needs right away is good nutrition, a white salt block to lick, and plenty of TLC, and fresh water. We have found that every horse that has come to DCFHR in poor condition suffers from skin ailments due to poor nutrition.  This includes rain rot, “wormy hair,” or no hair.

As a starving horse’s nutrition increases, the horse sheds the hair down to bare skin and quickly grows a new, beautiful coat.  Any injuries and open sores heal much more slowly or not at all in a starving horse until the horse’s nutrition improves. As a horse starves, its body directs whatever nutrition it gets to the vital organs and away from the skin and muscles.  Therefore, as a horse regains strength when it finally receives food, its body rebuilds itself from the inside out.

starving horseUsually for the first two weeks or longer after a horse arrives at DCFHR, we do not see improvement.  Its hair falls out.  Its skeleton remains pitifully visible.  Frequently it shows no sign of “life.” Then the horse turns a corner!  We see pep in its step; it nickers to us in welcome; its hair begins to return; and the first sign of bodily improvement can be seen at the bottom of the rib cage. Our current feeding plan includes Purina Strategy feed and alfalfa pellets.  We have found that feeding alfalfa pellets cuts out 98% of a horse wasting feed/alfalfa.  The Purina Strategy feed gives the horse excellent overall nutrition and puts a shine on its coat.

Understanding REFEEDING SYNDROME  — a simplified version: After World War II, thousands of people — civilians, POWs, and concentration camps survivors – died from being starved for years and then suddenly having food.  The liberators gave them food, and what occurred was what we now call “refeeding syndrome.”  The sudden intake of good food high in carbohydrates and fat caused cardiac failure, seizures, and sudden death.  We killed them with kindness.

In humans, refeeding syndrome occurs in patients with anorexia, alcoholism, cancer, and after certain surgeries.  That is why a specific diet for rebuilding human bodies is required. The same thing happens with starving animals, and this is why anyone rescuing a starving horse needs to understand how an animal can be “killed with kindness.” During starvation, insulin secretion in the horse’s body decreases in response to the lack of carbohydrates in the horse’s diet.  Instead, the body takes protein from the muscles and all the fat reserves to produce the energy it needs.  The horse is reduced to a skeletal version of itself as its body first takes the fat and then the muscular protein and redirects those to keep the heart and vital organs functioning. A sudden intake of food, especially carbohydrates, can kill a starving horse.

That said, it is important to remember two things:

(1) Good quality pasture and hay, not sweet feed or oats, is a horse’s natural diet; these are most important to rebuilding a horse.

(2) Look at the ingredient tag on the feed you give your horse.  Buy feed with a high protein value.

When we receive starving horses, we feed them tiny amounts (a cup at a time) of high protein feed and maybe a flake of good quality hay every few hours.  Never, ever give a starving horse all it can eat or follow what a feed bag says is normal amounts of feed, which may be as high as one pound of feed per hundred pounds of body weight.  Giving SMALL amounts of feed every few hours is CRITICAL to saving the horse’s life. Even feeding a horse this way may cause it to colic.

Therefore, the first week a horse is with us, we are constantly monitoring its feed intake and its condition.  We keep the horse in our “Crittercal Care Unit,” which is a large stall with plenty of fresh air and clean bedding, where the horse can see other horses but is in a calm atmosphere easily accessible and visible to DCFHR workers.  In our CCU, the horse has fresh, cool water and a white salt block; as the horse gains strength, we add more and more fresh hay to the trough, but not necessarily more feed. Alfalfa pellets have 17% crude protein; Purina Strategy also has 14% crude protein. We use these two feeds because: #1 – this combination works well for us; and #2 – this is the feed most commonly donated to DCFHR.

Gus, adopted from the DCFHR
Gus, owned by Kimberly Cahill, adopted from the DCFHR

Of course, other feed companies have the same type/quality feed.  Whatever you feed your horse, always check the ingredients.  We stay away from sweet feed and any feed with less than 12% protein. WE COULD NOT RESCUE AND REHABILITATE THE HORSES IF IT WEREN’T FOR YOU.  Thank you so very much for your help, your encouragement, and your support.

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Reprinted with permission from DCFHR (Dancing Cloud Farm Horse Rescue)

Dancing Cloud Farm Horse Rescue, Inc., was established in July, 2008 when thirteen starving and neglected horses were rescued and brought to their farm.  Before this rescue, they had taken in eight previous rescues, brought in by owners who could no longer afford to keep their horses or by people who rescued the horses themselves but had no place to keep them.  With our world’s economy in trouble and with the number of home foreclosures, horses and other animals are being abandoned in great numbers; DCFHR saw the need for a horse rescue and sanctuary in Southwest Georgia and committed to using their farm to help horses. DCFHR is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization funded totally by donations of feed, hay, and finances. DCFHR prefers Jeffers Equine horse supplies.