Starvation / malnutrition in a very young horse

Hi all, I’m new here!
If this is already asked and answered, I apologize. Most of the info I found pertained to adult horses.
There is a group of horses being auctioned off by our local sheriff soon. They are advertised as quarter horses, with unknown ages and no papers. I had pictures emailed to me from the sheriff, and the secretary that sent them commented that the horses looked much better in the pics than they did when first seized. They are still in very poor body condition- it’s hard to say for sure due to their heavy winter coats, but I’d say most are '1’s and none are above a ‘2’ on the Henneke scale. It’s hard to even image them skinnier. There is a young colt that could be a real looker (maybe), but I’m very concerned about how the malnutrition will affect him as he ages. I don’t want to bug my vet about a horse I haven’t bought- does anyone have info on how this might affect his development? I’d guess he’s no more than 2 years old, though it’s hard to say when he’s in such poor condition. I’d be immediately working with my vet on refeeding if I end up purchasing him, but I’m worried refeeding will only do so much…

How long were they below a Henneke 3/10? One month or one year?

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I really don’t know, I was able to search the criminal case records and find the prior owners name. Her facebook posts show horses in good condition as recently as July of last year, but who knows if they were current pics or even her horses. Is it possible for a horse to go from a good condition to flat out starved in that amount of time? I’m in the midwest, and my area saw drought last summer followed by a rainy cold winter. I’m guessing these guys needed a lot of extra hay they just didn’t get.

Horses can get scary thin in a month or two if they don’t have food. Young horses too.

A lot of seizures happen over the winter. Horses on a field, fine all.summer and fall then times get tough and owner isn’t able to get hay out, hopes they will make it through on sparse pasture, some winters ok others not. Drought would totally do this


Hay prices got crazy here-especially in the fall. I cussed the whole time we were putting up small bales last summer lol- but now I’m thankful we had the option to put up our own. I really thought the cost of upkeep would bring down the horse market in our area, but it hasn’t. I had to retire my gelding due to a knee injury so now I’m hunting for a young project- which this definitely would be!

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We had a feral horse we got at five that had bad knees.
Our vet assumed that was from having gone thru a poor nutrition drought as those were closing as a long yearling, rickets he called it.
He was serviceable sound all his life, as long as we didn’t work him too long or hard.
Work was best for him the vet said, would keep his joints more flexible than retired to pasture.
We did have to retire him about 15 and let him go at almost 20.

Poor nutrition at a very young age may be easy to overcome, or may leave a horse with some growth problems, best to ask your vet what his experience on those situations has been and what he thinks on this case.

I would guess if this is a vet that you use regularly, they would love to give you information to help you make an informed purchase instead of having to try to fix something once you have bought it (if that is the case).


Without knowing how long he’s been in the current condition, or his actual age, there’s really no way to know what the long-term effects could be.

If he’s been truly malnourished for most of his life, the odds of a long (or even any) sound using life is fairly small. If he’s closer to 2, and has only been this way for 6 months (for example) then the odds are much higher

You can’t undo past poor nutrition, like you can’t just load up on protein and catch up. All you can do is start a solid re-feeding program (very critical!) and nourish him for where he is now. UC-Davis’ Re-Feeding Protocol is good.

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Personally I’d rather take on an adult horse that had fallen on hard times in the last year or two, than a baby on the same timeline. Adults are more likely to bounce back to close to their previous level of physicality.

We have a mare in our barn now, a rescue, that we think was meant to be 16.1-16.2 genetically but MIGHT be 15.2 on a good day. She’s well proportioned and nicely built, but you look at her and go “you were supposed to be bigger. And beefier”. She was probably at least 2 before she fell into neglect, so she had some base of nutrition.

I would not think this baby has a phenomenal chance of being a sturdy workhorse, and joints are the first things to suffer, as I understand it.

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As others have said it’s hard to know. But if he’s still young, it may be possible to ‘fix’ some of the nutritional gaps.

A rescue that I follow once took in a whole herd that had been abandoned on a mountainous property. They had some grazing but it was not enough for all of them. Several of the animals were euthed immediately upon arrival. But there was a mare with her foal that made it. The foal was at least a year old at that point, but because no one had weaned it (and the bad conditions it had found itself in) it had kept nursing in addition to eating whatever it could find. Because of this, mama wasn’t doing so great, but the colt had almost no nutritional deficiencies when tested and grew up to be a healthy horse. They kept him for a few years before he went off to training and I believe was sold to a show home. Mama recovered too and went to a trail riding home.

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but you can’t know how big they were “supposed to be” based on the current look. Horses come in all kinds of proportions, from long legs that make the body look too short, long back that make the legs look too short, short back that make the legs look too long, etc.

At 2, the vast majority of growth was already done, so what you have is most likely her genetics.

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Yeah you’re right. Just one of those things where she looks like she’s stuck in “baby” build, but we are told she’s 8. If we didn’t know her history, I wonder what we’d think!

Thank you for sharing your perspective- When I look at pictures of this little guy, I immediately think he’s no more than two, but he doesn’t exactly fit the mold for a horse in that age bracket- I’m sure some of that is just being skinny, but now I wonder how much of that ‘off-ness’ is just poor development. I was worried about joint/ bone development the most, and a lot of the posts here are confirming that worry. As much as I’d like to give him a home, I’m not in a position where taking on a horse with a high risk of being unsound is a good idea for me.

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Actually I think you should go for it. I took in a starved horse, put him through the refeeding program and he was as sound as could be. He just blossomed with good feed and all the muscle filled in. You could not tell by looking at him that he was ever starved or to what extent.

Bone remodels throughout life. If you are really worried I would do x rays of knees and hocks. If there are major defects you could consider euthanasia before getting super attached. Joint formation occurs at an early age and foals tend to pull nutrition at the expense of the mare. So unless he was premature, he should have decent bone development. If his conformation looks good, I’m betting he must have had something to cover his early nutrition.

The only concern that I would have is that he might not grow as tall as he should have. If the growth plates are closed his height may be limited.

Your main investment will be feed/vet costs and probably a low purchase price which should cover some of your risk.

Most horses left on pasture (to starve) thrive during the summer and drop a scary amount of weight over the winter.

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Update: So I went to the auction and it was really hard to see horses in such poor shape. The person caring for them on behalf of the sheriff was there and was able to answer some questions. The previous owner had gotten into some legal trouble and just … left… as far as they knew, that was about 7 months ago. They had no idea of age or breeding on any of the horses. I was told they found dead horses on site, and some of those still alive had to be picked up with a forklift as they couldn’t stand on their own. It was so sad. The little guy I was looking at ended up selling to an acquaintance of mine from my local saddle club. I know she takes very good care of her horses and has experience with babies so I was really glad to see her bidding and didn’t want to bid against her. I’m hoping I’ll get to see him looking fat and happy sometime in the future.


I’m too late to answer your questions about that guy, but I do have experience with three young horses with questionable to neglectful backgrounds.

The first I got from an auction as a weanling. I walked by him several times, thinking he was an ancient small pony in bad shape, before I looked in his mouth and saw only baby teeth. I took him home and fed him and he grew into a very QH looking 14 hand pony. I always wondered if his growth was stunted. He had no issues at all, though. I sold him as a 12 year old and he had never been unsound or had any issues in the 11.5 years I had him. I know he was used in Pony Club after that but lost track of him (he’d be 29 this year if he’s still around).

The second was a yearling found at a place with dead horses, ungelded males, and pregnant mares. The pony they suspect was his mother had another brand new foal. Since he was probably nursing most of that year, he ended up fine, too. His mother appeared to be a Shetland, and most of the horses on the property were Arabians. He ended up 12 hands, which is taller than his mother. He’s been sound and healthy and is now 15.

The third was likely born into neglect and seized when she was 5. Another sound, healthy pony. I sold her at 10 and she died of colic about a year later. I wonder if a heavy worm load for the first 5 years of her life was to blame.

I wonder about range-bred horses, that have little feed or medical care in their early years except pasture and winter hay.

I did get a range-bred horse, a Morgan, who was under 14 hands as a four-year-old. He’d been handled for branding, gelding, and rudimentary halter-breaking, nothing else. No feed beyond some winter hay and no vet or farrier.

He grew about six inches in the first nine months I had him, and seemed healthy.

Typically mustangs do run smaller.

A range bred horse does have the advantage of (hopefully) excellent forage across mixed species, no vitamin E shortage. Good range for a growing horse is the best thing ever. A responsible rancher will put out good round bales when the snow gets too deep.

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