Getting a Horse to Eat Supplements

My pony takes five supplements. I cannot get him to eat them without adding too much grain to his diet. Is there something I could put in to make it taste better without making him too “up?”

—PB, New York

Dear PB,

Most horses and ponies will eat their daily supplements when mixed with sweet feed but I understand why in your case—and in Cushing’s, EMS and PSSM cases where the horse is supposed to be on a low-sugar diet–that might not be desirable. However, there are still quite a few things you can try with your pony that might make him gobble up his supplements.

First, I assume your supplements are all powders. Have you tried changing over to pelleted versions of the same products? There’s also a separate supplement that can be purchased called Yummy Flavored Pellets for Picky Eaters that comes in carrot flavor or apple flavor and is specifically designed to encourage picky eaters. Adding alfalfa pellets is another option, as most horses find them very tasty. You may also want to research the supplements you’re giving your pony to see if you can find the active ingredients in three or four products instead of five. That would cut down on the volume or bulkiness of his supplements.

The next simplest thing to do is add water or vegetable oil to his meal (I’m assuming he gets some sort of pelleted multi-vitamin/mineral supplement or ration balancer or low-starch grain as a base). A tablespoon or two of oil shouldn’t give him too many calories or too much energy but may make his supplements more palatable. Traditional add-ins to mask bad tasting medicine are apple sauce or apple juice, molasses, or flavored gelatin. Have you tried any of them? Another idea: some horses absolutely love beet pulp and it only takes 15 minutes of soaking for it to “fluff up” and be ready for feeding. I use it to soak up all the oil my horse gets, but it could also be used to soak up powdered supplements.

Finally, I want to share with you research done a few years ago in the UK on preferred flavors in horses if you need still more help. The study started with 15 flavors and narrowed it down to 8. Then they compared these 8 flavors to each other and come up with this ranked order:

  1. Fenugreek
  2. Banana
  3. Cherry
  4. Rosemary
  5. Cumin
  6. Carrot
  7. Peppermint
  8. Oregano

Environment can have a lot to do with how well and how much horses eat. For example, if she primarily eats meals in a stall where she can’t see any other horses, she may be either too stressed to eat or burning every calorie she’s taking in worrying about being alone. On the other hand, if she’s at the bottom of the herd pecking order and having to scramble for every morsel of hay and grain, she may be using up valuable energy scrounging for her food.

Word of caution: I know some people feed wheat or rice bran daily to get their horse to eat supplements or medication but this can be a dangerous practice. Unfortified bran is naturally very high in phosphorus and low in calcium. Feeding an inverted calcium:phosphorous ratio for a long time can lead to a condition called nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (also known as Big Head Disease or Bran Disease).

Lydia F. Gray, DVM MA, currently serves as the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other locations. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association and enjoys training and showing her trakehner Newman in her spare time.  Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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