Saving Fern: Packing on the Pounds

Meet Fern, the Mare Nobody Wanted. She was purchased at an auction for $10 by a known kill buyer. Fortunately, she was saved by someone who thought there might be another option for her. Here’s the next installment as we follow along on her rehabilitation journey.

If you missed the first article in the series, you can find it here.

When Nicole first picked up Fern from New Holland Sales Stables, she was horribly malnourished. The vet put her at a 2.0 on the Henneke scale, which means she was considered very thin. According to the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition, a horse that scores a 2 on the Henneke scale is emaciated with “slight fat covering over the base of the spinous processes; transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded; spinous processes, ribs, tail head, tuber coxae, and tuber ischii prominent; withers, shoulders, and neck structure faintly discernible.” (You can read more about body condition scoring here).

To sum up, Fern was skinny… very skinny.

Fern at New Holland. Photo by Nicole Haas.

Naturally, most of us would want nothing more than to feed a horse that looks like this the minute we get them to our barn. After all, when a horse is this skinny, calories seem like the most important thing. But the truth is, there is some real concern when it comes to packing the pounds on any animal that has been severely under-nourished.

Rescuing a malnourished horse requires more forethought than simply bringing it home and feeding it until it regains body condition. A very real risk of trying to bring a horse back to weight is Refeeding Syndrome. According to the National Institutes of Health, refeeding syndrome is Refeeding Syndrome is “a potentially fatal condition, caused by rapid initiation of refeeding after a period of undernutrition. It is characterised by hypophosphataemia, associated with fluid and electrolyte shifts and metabolic and clinical complications.”

Although that definition relates to humans, it’s not much different for horses. According to Tribute, “Refeeding Syndrome happens when insulin in response to a sudden supply of glucose begins to take nutrients from the bloodstream and stores them in the cells. This leads to a quick and rapid depletion of key nutrients in the bloodstream.” Ultimately, this can lead to kidney, heart and respiratory failure in the first three to five days after the first feeding.

Going into her rescue mission with Fern, Nicole knew of the dangers of Refeeding Syndrome, so she approached Fern’s weight gain goals carefully. She didn’t want to shock Fern’s system, especially since she didn’t have any information on Fern’s background. Nicole reports that she began with free choice hay and a lot of fresh water. After three days, she began giving Fern 1 cup of presoaked alfalfa pellets twice a day. She would increase the amount every two days by one measuring cup at a time.*

After 10 days of Fern being home, Nicole slowly introduced a high-fiber, high-fat, high-protein concentrated feed. She purposefully chose one that was easily digestible and formulated for horses that need additional support. The introduction of this feed was incredibly slow as well. She began with one measuring cup twice a day, which was soaked along with the alfalfa pellets. Since concentrated feeds can be more of a shock to a malnourished horse’s system than anything else, she did not make made changes to the amount fed very slowly, only increasing by one measuring cup at a time every three days. Since Nicole was not certain of the status of Fern’s teeth, she soaked everything in order to make chewing and swallowing as easy as possible.

Throughout the process, Nicole was in constant communication with her vet. She knew that having Fern’s teeth checked and floated and having her treated for parasites was incredibly important, but she needed to get Fern to the point where she could be caught and handled well enough for the vet to treat her (more on this in an upcoming article).

The good news is that Fern has begun to pack on the pounds. Nicole’s refeeding program is working, and Fern is looking better by the day.

Photo by Nicole Haas

Fern still has a long way to go, but she is making progress. She is learning to trust and accepting that food will be coming at regularly.

*Nicole has worked with/volunteered at a number of horse rescues, so she’s familiar with how to approach refeeding a malnourished horse. There are ample resources available to assist rescuers in this process. Although this is not the specific program Nicole followed, UC Davis offers excellent advice on how to begin feeding starving horses. You can get more information here.

Although Nicole rescued Fern fully prepared and able to cover the costs associated with her rehabilitation, she is accepting donations from those who wish to offer them. If you want to aid in Fern’s journey, you can do so by contributing to her care via her GoFundMe page. Once Fern is permanently placed, Haas hopes to continue rescuing horses one at a time. Any leftover funds will go directly toward that endeavor. 

If you would prefer not to donate funds directly, Fern also has an Amazon wishlist