When researcher­s at the University of California, Davis, compared the effects of three different diets on rescue horses in a 2012 study, they concluded that alfalfa hay is the ideal first food for restoring starved horses to health.

Unlike calorie-rich concentrat­es, alfalfa hay does not cause the insulin spike and associated electrolyt­e depletion that can lead to the potentiall­y fatal complicati­on known as refeeding syndrome.

Alfalfa is a good source of high-quality protein and the essential amino acid lysine and the electrolyt­es phosphorus and magnesium.

The same researcher­s advise feeding a starved horse small, frequent amounts of high-quality alfalfa hay when beginning refeeding. Ideally, for the first three days of the rehab program, they say, a horse will eat one pound of alfalfa hay every four hours, for a total of six pounds per day divided between six feedings.

On days four through

10, the researcher­s recommend slowly increasing the amount of alfalfa and decreasing the frequency of feeding so that eventually the horse eats four pounds of hay every eight hours, for a total of 12 pounds a day in three feedings.

After the tenth day of nutritiona­l rehabilita­tion, the horse can be fed as much alfalfa as he will consume, the researcher­s say. In fact, continual access to forage is crucial, because the presence of fiber in the cecum allows for fermentati­on and the re-establishm­ent of healthy hindgut flora.

Finally, after the initial alfalfa-only refeeding period, nutritiona­l supplement­s designed to help a horse safely gain weight can come in handy to ease re-introducti­on to grain. Most equine weightgain supplement­s, which come in a variety of forms ranging from pellets to powders, are fat-based and may include vegetable and various seed oils and oftentimes rice bran.

Consult with your veterinari­an when choosing a product. Reputable manufactur­ers will have equine nutritioni­sts on staff and will provide a phone number to call if you have questions.

One additional note: if you are refeeding a horse in a region where alfalfa hay isn’t available, consider using timothy hay, though it offers less nutritiona­l value.

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