Caring for Neglected Horses

As winter begins to approach (sorry for those of you still waiting for summer) the topics of feeding and caring for horses becomes top of the agenda. Already the prices of ponies and horses are beginning to drop as the increased costs of winter begin to be recognised.

Photo horse in winter
Winter time approaches( image found on Pinterest)


Alongside this there are numerous rescue stories and some heart wrenching tales of abuse and neglect that affect the equine world every winter, and unfortunately this winter will no doubt have more of its own.

Caring for Rescued Horses

However this article is focusing a little more on the positive side of neglect, if there is one, and that is the art of looking after a rescued horse. In particular the difficulties associated with a horse or pony that has suffered from malnutrition and other illnesses related to the neglect. For those of you looking to work with a rescued horse this year hopefully this article can provide some support and a list of resources that can help you during this rewarding, but often very difficult time.

In particular this article will look at some of the main points about looking after a neglected or rescued horse, and has been broken down into the following sections.

  1. Feeding and nutrition
  2. The older horse
  3. The foal
  4. The hooves
  5. Dental problems
  6. Rescue support

Horse Rescues

There is no doubt that the global recession affected the animal population as hard, if not harder than it did the human population. That doesn’t excuse in any way the harm that many horses have experienced and continue to experience, as a result of the expenses or lack of willing associated with looking after horses properly.

As an additional resource there is a list of some of the many, usually voluntary run, horse rescue charities are at the bottom of this article.


Feeding a Neglected Horse

All horses have a delicate digestive system but the challenge with a neglected horse is that their digestion is even more vulnerable than most. It’s important that the change in feeding is gradual, especially if the pony is very underweight.

picture underweight rescued horse
This horse was rescued and is clearly malnourished and underweight

The diagram here illustrates some of the more extreme cases. However after careful diet and care it is possible to bring them back into full health. This process takes time, up to 10 days to even get the horse to a stage where it can eat properly without having the feeding monitored every few hours

"He’ll need to be moved in and out of pasture throughout the day, 
fed hay nearly every couple of hours, 
and require frequent meals until he gets 
to where he can hold his own"

Horse Digestive System

The horse digestive system mainly operates between the small intestine and the colon, as you can see the size of the stomach is relatively small.

diagram of horse digestion
Diagram of the horses digestive system found on


Feeding needs to be introduced slowly starting with small amounts of good quality hay with short periods of turn out (30 minutes or so) at a time. A feeding schedule will need to be established which will include some or all of the following.

  • A probiotic will probably be needed to introduce bacteria into the gut and build this up until the hors is able to fully support himself eating hay or grass.
  • A salt block is important to ensure proper rehydration and minerals
  • Smaller amounts of hay or grass should be introduced frequently
  • Plenty of water available and slightly heated if the horse isn’t drinking enough
  • If access to grass is limited then additional food items such as carrots can be given
  • Older horses will probably need a vitamin C supplement

A full feeding schedule for undernourished horses can be found at equine wellness  Some experts may disagree over when and how often other foodstuffs should be given such as carrots and apples, in the equi med article they state that no other food other than hay should be given until the horse is well on the way to recovery.


In addition to a delicate digestive system it’s also common for some horses especially ex-racehorses, to suffer from ulcers. These can be reduced by allowing constant access to grass or hay and plenty of water, along with a low level stress environment.

All horses need to be fed carefully as the following infographic from the illustrates.

Infographic nutrition in horses
Nutrition and feeding for all types of horse

Older Horses

Older horses also have slightly different needs and need some additional support. One of the problems that may occur is that older horses may have difficulty chewing hay, especially if there are any teeth that have been lost. There are some products on the market such as hay cubes, which contain small cut up hay and can be soaked before being given to the horse.

Other products include beet pulp can which is soaked and are a good source of fibre although according to some experts this should only make up a maximum of 25% of their diet as the minerals are not well balanced.


Young Horses and Foals

Taking on a young foal can be especially challenging because normally they learn so much from their mother. The following clip taken from YouTube shows some of the challenges that rescue centres have to cope with, and the real power of a teddy bear!

picture of young foal and large teddy bear mum
A young foal and its surrogate mum

Feeding orphaned foals or foals whose mother (Dam) is not able to produce sufficient food can be a daunting task.

The initial food of a natural born foal is colostrum from the mother, but this can only be digested for the first 12 hours of its life, so time is an important factor in ensuring the newborn foal has the best chance. This can be milked from a mare that has just had a still born foal for the first 12 hours as one option, a mare that is supporting a foal can only provide a small amount additional.

  • Colostrum can be milked from a mare (that has had a still born foal) and stored for up to two years in a freezer bag (
  • Colostrum in some cases can be purchased from large breeding farms or there are some substitutes possibly available through the local vets.

After the colostrum the foal moves onto milk which can be fed either through a bottle or straight from a bucket. Many breeders prefer the bucket method because the foal can take the milk whenever they are hungry, however a full breakdown of a bottle milk schedule can be found here.

One of the disadvantages of hand rearing a foal is that they become overexposed to human contact. This can make it difficult for them to learn equine and herd skills and they can become quite spoilt and difficult to handle. Therefore it is important that they have regular contact with a herd environment and are able to socialise as soon as possible with other horses and foals.


Along with poor digestive systems most rescue horses will almost certainly have poor hoof conditions. The hooves are also involved in absorbing toxins out of the blood and into the hoof wall, so any damage to this process will have an overall negative effect on the horse’s general condition. For more information on the structure of the hoof wall a previous article on equine blog Ireland has some diagrams on the structure of the hoof, which can be read here.

photo wild horse hoof
Natural trimming as it occurs in the wild – photo courtesy of

Severe cases of neglect have seen horse hooves grow to over three feet in length however fortunately these cases are extremely rare. Trimming overgrown hooves needs to be spread out over a period of time so that unnecessary damage doesn’t occur. This work should be carried out by a professional who is used to dealing with horse neglect cases. An article in equine wellness magazine covers this in more detail, however some of the key points to remember are.

  • Avoid too many painkillers especially ‘bute’ which is yet another toxin for the hoof to have to deal with, when it is trying to heal itself.
  • Provide a companion to encourage the horse to move and interact socially while healing
  • Recovery of the hoof is also linked to diet and the horse’s general state of nutrition rehabilitation.
  • Try to encourage the horse’s hoof to heal as naturally as possible and use homeopathic painkillers if needed to avoid placing undue stress on the hoof.

Dental Problems

Neglected horses especially older equines may be suffering from some form of dental problem. Some of these problems could include the following;

Horse teeth
smile! Image found on
  • Decreased tooth enamel;
  • A decreased chewing surface;
  • Sharp points caused by irregular mastication (chewing) and resultant tongue and cheek ulcers or lacerations;

A full list of possible equine dentistry problems can be found here in this article at The on How to care for Aging Equids Teeth.


Hopefully this article hasn’t put you off too much! Caring for any horse is hard work and therefore as expected caring for an abused animal is going to be that much harder. But hopefully the rewards will also be that much more as well.

The most important point, once a safe feeding and heath regime have been established, is to provide lots of care, patience and support. This will help the horse to heal naturally faster, both physically and emotionally, from the trauma that it has experienced.

In the end whatever you decide, whether to work with a rescued horse yourself or support the work of a local charity I wish you all the best and would love to hear about your stories, so please drop a line in the comments section below and share you rescue tips and experiences with everyone else.

Horse Rescue Useful Links

The following links are just some of the many charities that operate throughout Ireland the UK to provide support and rehoming to neglected horses and donkeys.

Image found on Pinterest
Image found on Pinterest


Hungry Horse Outside is a horse rescue centre in county Longford that rehome horses and also provides information and education talks.

The Irish Horse Welfare Trust is based in county Wicklow they often deal with between 75 and 100 equines at any one time. They also run an ex-racehorse programme aimed at reintegrating former racehorses into ordinary equine life.

Sai Sanctuary is a donkey sanctuary located in county Sligo

The UK

World Horse Welfare is a UK based charity that has an interest in international horse welfare.

Henry’s Helping Hoof is a charity based in the UK that runs the Arc Rescue and Rehabilitation centre

Brownbread Horse Rescue is a UK horse rescue centre in East Sussex



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