Introducing New Feeds and Supplements to Your Horse (or "salting the environment")
I originally wrote this for the Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance Group in 2007

Most of us are familiar with the concept of making feed changes slowly to avoid GI upset. But, when introduced to the “Emergency Diet” to address the problems that bring most new members to the Equine Cushings and IR Group, many radical changes are included in the guidelines or, as one member put it – ”It is intimidating! You have to turn your whole world upside down”. 

Often, in their enthusiasm to get started helping their horse to recovery, new members present their horse with a bucket of beet pulp with all the recommended “add ins” – an ounce or two of salt, some magnesium oxide, a tablespoon of cinnamon, [note - cinnamon is no longer recommended across the board as part of the initial diet] maybe an ounce or two of flax and some vitamin E gel caps. And their horse looks at them and asks “where’s my real food?” 

Some diet changes need to be done immediately for the horse showing signs and symptoms of insulin resistance (IR), Cushing's disease, laminitis or founder – removing as much of the sugar/starch as possible by eliminating pasture, grain, treats and high carb feeds. Often, this also includes removing the “taste tempters” that are packed into bagged feeds and most supplements. 

While many horses will dive right into their new feed, their inherent suspicion – which served them well in the wild – will cause some to reject the new “stuff” in their feed pan. Most, given enough time, will get used to the change. Just as we don’t “over face” a horse in training, we don’t want to overwhelm him in his feed bucket but allow his natural curiosity to help him figure it out. 

Start Small

When starting out, think in terms of "pinches", quarter teaspoons and half handfuls.
  • If your horse does take to beet pulp readily, with its high fiber content beet pulp is safe to begin in fairly large quantities (a half pound or more). 
  • If your horse is a beet pulp hold out, starting small may mean just half a handful. It might be mixed with or put on top of a tiny amount of his “old” feed or even sprinkled over his hay. He may pick around it for a while until the smell becomes familiar. 
  • Beet pulp is not a necessary part of the diet - it is meant primarily as a lower sugar/starch replacement for high sugar/starch feeds and is a useful supplement carrier. See You Want Me to Eat What? for some of the other useful properties of beet pulp.
  • Salt - horses simply can not get enough from a block to meet their daily requirements. This may also be his source for iodine. If your horse has never had salt added to his feed, start with just a pinch of ordinary iodized table salt and work up to the level he needs. A sprinkle over his hay and around his stall is a good way to get him more used to the smell and taste. You can put out little "piles" of salt here and there for him to investigate.
  • Mineral supplements may introduce a whole new array of tastes and smells.  Most, except for phosphorus, aren't that bad and "taste" usually isn't the cause of rejection - it's often the introduction of another new strange smell.
  • Flax or flax based supplements have a different “feel” in the mouth because of the fat. Plan on spending up to a week per ounce to let your horse become accustomed to it. Some horses will take to it immediately.
  • Flax plus the added minerals will usually need to be mixed into a "carrier" with some liquid or a little oil. The carrier may be soaked beet pulp, dampened plain hay pellets or cubes, or a little "low carb" feed.
Some horses will accept new feeds immediately but it can take two weeks to a month or longer for your horse to accept the changes, especially if his stable mates are still getting the old “familiar” stuff. 

Taste is In the Smell 

A horse’s sense of smell, like most animals’, is more sensitive than ours. They rely on smells to let them know what is going on in the neighborhood, who their friends are, and to help them determine what is “safe” to eat. 
  • Buckets or feeders with tall, steep sides (even a large “bath tub” feeder) will concentrate odors which can be overwhelming when something new is introduced, even in small amounts. Some may also obstruct vision – so the new “stuff” becomes doubly suspicious. 
  • A flat feed pan with low sides will allow new smells to disperse instead of remaining concentrated and will also help the new smell become a familiar part of the environment. They are easier to clean than large or “fixed” feeders, eliminating stale smells from old feed. 
  • Feeds can also be dumped directly on to rubber mats – after all, a horse’s “natural” food isn’t usually served up in a bucket.
  • Sprinkling salt and supplements over your horse's hay can help him get used to the different scents. 
  • Make sure old feed is cleaned out and thrown away.

Take the Time it Takes 

Persevere and don’t give up. As long as your horse is eating adequate hay he will usually be just fine. It’s often our own doubts, not the horse’s needs, that takes us back to the old familiar feed bag. If his nose is telling him that the yummy sweet stuff is still in the feed room, it might take longer. 

  • Introduce  new add-ins, feed changes and supplements gradually – it may take weeks, not days 
  • Experiment with small quantities – not a whole “serving”. 
  • Transition – introduce the new into the old, then slowly increase the new while eliminating the old. (This is not an option if your horse has acute laminitis symptoms and the "old" is high sugar/high starch.)
  • Remove temptation – from both your horse’s nose and yourself – by cleaning out old feed/grain if you can. If you’re using the old feed for transition, put it in the garage or other place away from the feed room/barn and bring only the amount you need to the barn. If boarding, try to have your horse next to another “hay only” horse. 
  • Don’t feel you’re depriving your horse. His sweet tooth is acquired; giving in will only delay his recovery. Your company for extra grooming, extra exercise. learning new things to challenge his intellect or just being there means more to him than what’s in the feed bucket. 
  • If you horse continues to be a hold out, investigate “taste tempters” – herbs or other flavorings or feeds which are below 10% NSC. 

Do It With Attitude

You don't think your horse is a mind reader?  Serve up his new eats with a positive attitude that you believe in!  If you dole out his feed with doubts and hesitation, he will pick up on that.  If you embrace the changes, knowing that he will most likely come to enjoy and benefit from them, he will pick up on that, too.  Like children, they will read below the surface and sense your intentions.

If Your Horse Stops Eating

Your horse needs 1½ to 2% of his body weight in hay daily for good gut function (15-20 lbs for a 1000 lb horse). If he’s overweight on this, try to find lower calorie (digestible energy) hay.

Most horses will begin to accept new feeds in a few days; there is no problem as long as he continues adequate hay intake.
Horses who totally reject their concentrate/grain meals but continue to eat hay may be showing signs of ulcers. This can be determined by having him scoped by your veterinarian, or a few weeks to a month of adding an antacid may be enough to bring back his appetite.

If a horse stops eating completely he can enter a state called hyperlipidemia where fat (lipids) begin circulating in the blood.  This is an emergency that needs veterinary intervention for IV or tube feeding - glucose needs to be provided to the cells to stop the release of lipids (which the body tries to use as an alternative fuel source).  

A Note on Cinnamon

Cinnamon is no longer used in the "Emergency Diet" for all IR horses as it can lower blood glucose levels too much for some. Cinnamon can help improve insulin sensitivity at the cellular level and may still be useful if tested blood glucose levels remain high (above 100 for most breeds).  Cinnamon can have a “bite” and horses have long memories – if used, make sure it’s well mixed and dispersed in his feed so he doesn’t get a clump of it in one spot.