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Feeding the Fussy Eater

What do we mean by “fussy eater” or “picky feeder”, or even “he just won’t eat”? Are we talking about the same thing each time we mention it, or are there a number of underlying factors? After all we may simply be overfeeding our horse.

However there are other reasons behind feed refusal or selective feeding and in many cases this can be traced back to its intrinsic behaviour. With a recuperating horse or one which we know is poorly we can accept that normal behaviour is compromised and so don’t expect normal intake. But what about the horse that just does not want to eat everything that is put in front of him? What is up with his behaviour?

Eating is an extremely complex set of behavioural, physiological and biochemical cues that is reinforced by learned response. That is the foal learns what to eat from copying his mother and this is reinforced by a whole set of mechanisms.

Behaviourally horses will range; they arrive in an area and graze a favoured area. But they also roam this area trying different plants, returning to their grazing point for the majority of their feeding. It’s believed they are sampling different plants to “top up” the nutrition from possible shortfall of grazing grass. So how can they possibly know which plants will do this?

Enter the complexity of eating! The mainstay of a ranging horse’s diet is grass. In the wild this is poor quality compared with managed leys, and the horse must compete with other species – and it does this through it’s eating technique. The mouth and dentition of the horse is designed to prehend and nip off short lengths of grass, allowing it to either graze short (previously grazed by another species) or long (getting there before the other species) swards. It also allows it to be selective over what parts of other plants it chooses.

Chewing, again, is a complex process that forces moisture, acidity buffers and enzymes into the feed, whilst the texture, taste & smell and particle size all provide information for the brain – both to prepare the gut to receive the meal and to initiate feedback mechanisms that tell the mouth to accept or reject.

Once accepted feedback mechanisms control gut motility and monitor physiological and biochemical information. Basically the gut tells the horse what is working for it, and the body learns from this experience. It works both for maintaining nutritional requirements and also for avoiding future anti-nutritional factors, toxins and “off” material. So the picky eater may be telling us something! The headache we have is working out what we are being told.
It could be one of a number of things. As said at the beginning your horse simply may not be hungry as its metabolic needs have been met. Alternatively there may be a dietary imbalance and the horse reduces intake so as not to exacerbate it (Learned response!).

In the normal course of events, on a variable ley with plenty of species, a fussy eater would not present a problem, but in normal situations, such as a liveried animal or one on a single ley pasture, they do not have the choice which satisfies their behaviour, even though the diet will be nutritionally balanced. Horse owners sometimes go to unprecedented lengths to ensure that the nutrient balance is exactly right and relates to the horse’s type and level of activity as well as the season. And then the fussy eater refuses a particular feed, or leaves all the flaked maize from his mix at the bottom of the bowl, or suddenly decides he no longer likes his hay net.

So what can we do to firstly understand and secondly overcome fussy eating?


As said before the foal picks up its feeding technique from its mother. However, ranging behaviour is probably hardwired whilst acceptance and rejection is a learned response. If we limit the horse’s intrinsic behaviour we cause problems by relying solely on its learned response – and this may also be limited as its experience of learned responses may also be limited. In the majority of cases this will not manifest as the nutritional input (provided by the owners) will provide positive feedback and in itself provide a learned response, but in some cases it will be insufficient – the fussy eater.

Although a daily ration is perfectly sound – as evidenced by its success in general feeding – there is a behavioural barrier to by-pass before the nutritional learned response can be re-inforced. This is the organo-leptic reponse, which is basically smell, taste and texture. If a novel feedstuff has the wrong smell it will not be taken into the mouth, if it has the wrong taste or the wrong texture the aversion response will over-ride any subsequent positive impacts. Scientific research has shown that an animal will eat feed it doesn’t like, but only enough to just keep it alive!

Because we provide our fussy eaters with all the nutrients they require – good, clean forage, high quality straights or a balanced hard feed, it is apparent it is the organo-leptic cues we need to address. This is especially important when forage is in short supply (grazing in winter) or of poorer quality (long stored and a bit musty) and alternatives need to be offered. As the majority of the diet should be fibre based, and the horse will have developed its behavioural response on this basis, improving choice with fibre sources would be logical. However other factors should be taken into account.
 
Texture is all important; the horse evolved eating moist feed and offering this will re-inforce the “hardwiring”. Size is important; small bites mean short fibrous lengths. The mouth has to arrange feed into a compact, easily swallowed bolus and both texture and size will influence this. And finally taste: taste is not the same as flavour – flavour is a combination of smell and taste and flavour has to pass the horses sense of smell before it enters the mouth – but is the basic sensations on the tongue and common to all species a sweet taste is especially acceptable.

Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet have properties that fit neatly into this scenario. Caramelisation of the beet pulp during their manufacture imparts an attractive “taste” whilst the smell is very much foraged base. The soaked material is easily compacted and their form (flakes or lozenges) ensure small mouthfuls are possible. The organo-leptic attractiveness of these products mean that, even as a novelty, they are extremely acceptable and so a positive leaned response is achieved.

The nutrient profile and their fibre fermentation charcteristics will provide a positive physiological and biochemical feedback, further re-inforcing the learned response. In addition, by placing small bowls of these materials around the yard, the paddock or even the stable, you will help stimulate ranging behaviour and this will improve uptake of grass or hay/haylage. Using texturally improved materials like Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet, especially over the winter months, fibre intake in the fussy eater will be optimised and this will allow you to offer treats. And if these treats are based on regular ingredients they will help to initiate more positive feedback and improved learned response.

Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet may not cure fussy eaters, but they will improve the situation and enhance good, basic nutrition and be a platform for introducing small amounts of novel feeds, and so widen the platform of acceptable feeds.