Take a moment to consider whether your feeding routine still provides the right amount of nutrients and calories for your horse.
Routines can be comforting. When balancing the demands of career, family and barn, it feels good to simply work your way through familiar chores---first the water, then the hay. Then a trip to the feed room, and with a can of this and a scoop of that, you’re done. Your reward, of course, is the sweet sound of munching in every stall.
But routines can be a liability if they keep you from updating your horse’s feeding regimen as his needs change over time. Advancing age, training schedules, turnout times, health and dental issues, injuries, even the seasons and weather can alter a horse’s nutritional requirements. And making small adjustments sooner can save you from having to cope with bigger problems later---after a horse has gained or lost a significant amount of weight or developed other nutritional or metabolic-related issues.
If you haven’t done so in a while, take the time to scrutinize your feeding routines. A little adjustment might be beneficial or even necessary to keep your horse as healthy as he can be. Of course, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before making any drastic changes in your horse’s diet. But here are some factors to consider as you start
When you see your horse every day, slow, subtle fluctuations in weight can be easy to miss, especially under a winter coat or blanket. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your horse’s body condition so you can catch developing changes earlier.
One of the most objective ways to evaluate a horse’s weight, short of walking him onto a scale in a veterinary hospital, is to learn to determine his body condition score (BCS), a method of ranking body fat on a scale from 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat) developed in 1983 by Don Henneke, PhD. When horses develop fat, they tend to store it in distinct places just under the skin where it can be easily seen and felt. And they lay fat in certain parts of the body in a particular order---first over the heart and the ribs, then over the rump and back, forward to the withers, and last over the neck. As a result, the specific location of stored fat can tell you how overweight the horse is.
If your horse has a “weight problem”---whether he needs to lose or gain---his feed ration will obviously be central to the solution. An overweight horse needs to consume fewer calories and/or exercise more. But simply cutting back on your horse’s regular feed is not a good idea if it means you’ll be shortchanging his nutrition. Instead, consider switching to a lower-calorie feed meant for easy keepers. Ration balancer products can help ensure your horse gets all of the vitamins and minerals he needs if you need to reduce or eliminate his concentrates. In addition, a grazing muzzle can reduce a horse’s consumption of pasture grass even as he enjoys the benefits of turnout.
Conversely, you may find that your horse is underweight. Weight loss may result from the need to burn extra calories to stay warm in cold weather, but if your horse begins dropping pounds for no obvious reason, ask your veterinarian to conduct an examination to look for underlying health issues. Gastric ulcers, pituitary0 pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) and a number of other diseases or conditions may be preventing him from deriving adequate nutrition from his feed and will need to be addressed.
To put weight back on a healthy but thin horse, you need to increase his calories without incurring a risky overload of starch or sugar, which can cause a number of problems, including laminitis. You can achieve that goal in a number of ways, such as increasing his hay ration or pouring up to a cup of corn oil over his feed each day. If you want to increase the portion of his existing concentrates, consider adding a third meal to his day rather than offering bigger servings all at once---this increases his overall caloric intake with less risk of a dangerous starch overload. Another safe option is to switch to a higher calorie, fat-based feed.
His activity level
Even when he’s just standing around, your horse is burning calories. The basic work of life---breathing, pumping blood, digesting food, etc.---requires energy. Of course, any significant exercise a horse gets burns energy beyond that baseline level, and one who works hard enough may need to consume more calories---in the form of grains, fats or concentrates---than he can take in from hay alone. That said, however, the average pleasure horse probably isn’t burning as many calories from exercise as you might think. The 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses, published by the National Research Council, classifies the weekly workloads of horses into four categories:
Light work is one to three hours of riding per week, including about 50 percent at the trot and 10 percent at the canter, with a mean heart rate of about 80 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes recreational pleasure horses, even with some showing, as well as those just beginning in training. These horses burn only about 1.2 times their baseline calorie requirements. Horses like these may still be able to meet all of their
nutritional needs from forage alone. They may need more---up to 3 to 3.5
percent of their body weight---but increased appetite will enable them to make up the difference.
Moderate work is three to five hours of riding per week, including
55 percent at the trot, 10 percent at the canter, and 5 percent of jumping,
cutting or other skill work, with a mean heart rate of about 90 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes some recreational and show horses as well as those engaged in polo or ranch work. These horses burn about 1.4 times their baseline calorie requirements. They ought to get no more than 25 percent of their feed ration (by weight) from concentrates.
Heavy work is four to five hours per week, including 50 percent at the trot, 15 percent at the canter, and 15 percent galloping, jumping or performing other intense skills, with a mean heart rate of about 110 beats per minute. This category includes horses engaged in more intense showing, ranch or polo work as well as those in low to moderate race training and low- to mid-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.6 times their baseline calorie requirements. They may need to get up to 40 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates.
Very heavy work can include one hour per week of high-speed work combined with six to 12 hours of slower work, with a mean heart rate of about 110 to 150 beats per minute. Most of the horses in this category are engaged in racing, endurance or high-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.9 times their baseline calorie requirements and may need to get up to 50 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates.
These are general categories, meant to be used only as a guideline. Your own riding schedule may vary or fall “in between” these divisions, and many factors---including climate, breed, general fitness level and the weight of the rider---can influence an individual horse’s energy requirements.
That said, if your horse looks good and performs well, chances are he is already getting the right amount of feed. But if his exercise levels are on the increase---because you’re entering a higher level of training, perhaps, or because you’re now sharing him with another rider---it might be a good time to reassess his needs. If you do not want him to lose weight, you might need to add a small portion of a concentrate formulated for active adult horses---but be sure to choose a product suited to his level of activity. Feeds formulated for high-performance athletes may provide too much protein and other nutrients for horses in light or moderate work.
Conversely, if your active horse is going to be taking some time off from training, you’ll want to scale back on his concentrates so that he doesn’t gain weight.
His dental health
The first step in good digestion is chewing feed thoroughly. When a horse has problems with his teeth that interfere with chewing, he is vulnerable to a number of problems, including colic, malnutrition and choke.
Aging horses, in particular, often develop uneven tooth wear, including sharp points and hooks, that can cause pain or otherwise interfere with the ability to eat properly. But don’t overlook the possibility that younger horses, too, may injure their teeth or develop infections or abnormalities that inhibit chewing and swallowing. Signs of trouble include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, swelling or pain in the cheek or jaw, weight loss, bad breath, long stems of hay or poorly digested feed in the manure, resistance to bridling or fussiness with the bit. Schedule a dental examination with your veterinarian right away if you have any reason to suspect a problem with your horse. Otherwise, routine examinations conducted at least every year, or every six months in aging horses or those who’ve had problems in the past, will help to make sure your horse’s teeth remain healthy and strong.
A horse with significant dental issues, including aged horses whose teeth have worn almost completely away, may require a change to softer rations. You may need to choose softer hays, or soak the forage to make it easier to chew. Another option is switching to pelleted or cubed forages, a complete senior feed or other foods that provide both roughage and nutrition in an easy-to-chew form.
The quality of your hay and pasture
Good-quality hay or pasture, water and access to a salt lick are the foundation of a horse’s diet. However, the nutritional content of hays and grasses can vary throughout the growing season and under different climatic conditions, such as drought.
Keep an eye on your pastures throughout the seasons. If you start seeing that the grass has been cropped short over wide areas and bare patches are starting to appear, your horses are overgrazing and will benefit from supplemental hay. When weeds and bare patches become chronic, it may be time to talk to an expert about reseeding for healthy growth.
Hay, too, can vary in nutritional content depending on when it was cut and what the climate conditions were when it was grown. When you purchase a new batch of hay, the only way to be absolutely certain of the nutritional content is to send a sample off to a laboratory for testing. But unless you have a horse with extremely strict dietary requirements, you probably don’t need that much accuracy for day-to-day feeding.
Still, you can tell a lot about the quality of the hay just by examining it. Poor-quality hay contains a higher proportion of indigestible woody stems and fewer leaves. Horses will tend to pick through it for the choicer bits and leave much of it behind as waste. Good hay has a softer texture, with finer, more pliable stems and more leaves. Here are some other basic indicators of highly nutritious hay:
Lift the bale above your knees and drop it onto a solid floor. Good hay will make a muffled sound and bounce. If it doesn’t, the hay may have gotten wet and developed mold.
Cut the twine open. Good hay will “spring” open. Moldy or poorer hay holds its shape.
Check the aroma. Good hay smells fresh and sweet. Any acrid or musty odors can indicate mold.
Squeeze and twist a handful. Good hay is soft and flexible. Poorer hay feels harder, and the stems will stab your palm.
High-quality hay that is stored properly---not exposed to the sun, rain or other moisture---will retain its nutritional levels almost indefinitely. Any losses of dry matter---including nutritional content---will be limited to the first month or two. After that, the nutritional content will remain largely unchanged, although the field-fresh smell may dissipate. One exception is carotene, the precursor for vitamin A. Carotene levels will continue to decline in stored hays. If you are relying on hay that has been in storage for more than a year, you may need to add a carotene supplement.
If you’re concerned about whether hay and pasture alone is meeting your horse’s needs, talk to your veterinarian about adding a vitamin/mineral supplement or a ration balancer product, which adds balanced nutrients, including amino acids, without a lot of extra calories.
New feeding options
New feed products and supplements are being introduced to the market all the time, and manufacturers are also modifying their existing formulas as new research yields insights into equine nutritional needs. If it’s been a while since you took a wider look at what’s currently available, you might find something that offers a better fit for your horse.
Although all horses require the same basic nutrients, those in different occupations or stages of life may need higher or lower amounts of many proteins, vitamins and minerals. High-performance athletes, for example,
benefit from high-calorie feeds with added nutrients, such as vitamin E, that help muscles recover from intense work, while weanlings need more amino acids to help their bodies grow healthy and strong. A number of products are available for all stages of a horse’s life---from youngsters to seniors, with specialized formulas for broodmares, high-performance athletes, easy keepers and others with special needs. You’ll also find the feeds offered in a variety of formats, with different ingredients for palatability, or different forms. Some horses love pellets, for example, while others prefer textured feeds.
As you look around, be sure to keep the big picture in mind. If you need a low-sugar feed, for example, zeroing in on the bag with the smallest amount of sugar may not be the best idea if the rest of the formula does not meet your horse’s needs. If you have questions about a particular feed, look on the bag for a toll-free telephone number for a consumer information line; ask to speak to a nutritionist who can provide you with information. And, of course, your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist can help guide your choices.
For an animal who eats mainly grass, horses can require complicated feeding regimens. The good news, though, is that feed companies have already done the hardest work of developing formulas that provide appropriately balanced nutrition. Once you’ve chosen the right product and determined the correct amount to provide at each meal, you can slip back into your comfortable routines, confident that your horse is getting the best you can offer at every meal.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.