Showing posts with label EQUUS Magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label EQUUS Magazine. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Language of Horses

It takes time to build a language both you and your horse understand. But by rewarding small steps in the right direction, you will advance your goal, and pretty soon you’ll be having a great conversation.


Have you ever been awestruck by the sight of horses running together, galloping, synchronized side by side and turning together as one? For me, communication between a rider and horse should have that unity; it is all about becoming a herd of two.

My first impressions about how horses communicate with each other in the herd began on the ranch when I was a teenager. I didn’t know or understand it then, but the “cavvy” (the cowboy’s herd of riding horses) and its interactions would set the groundwork for my lessons in intent and change the way I saw horse training forever. Back then, I didn’t get the subtle communication happening be-tween the horses right in front of me, let alone apply their valuable lessons when I tried to communicate with a horse. However, what I saw then influences how I play with horses today, now that I can interpret what the cavvy was saying.

As a working cowboy, one of the most memorable and exciting things I did each day was to “jingle” horses. Jingling the horses simply means to go round up the cavvy before sunrise to get them ready for the day’s work, and it is a job often given to the newest member of the crew. Our cavvy was a herd of 40 horses pastured on 200 acres. Morn-ings at a ranch come early, with breakfast at 4 a.m. The rule was that horses were always fed before people. So that meant whoever was jingling went out even earlier to make sure the horses were at camp ready to be saddled before breakfast. On many occasions, that cowboy was me.

I can still clearly remember riding out those mornings on the one horse left at camp, the “jingle horse,” who was used to help round up the cavvy. When I was there, the jingle horse was often an older one named Illahee. He was always keen to find the herd after a night alone at camp. Illahee and I would walk along quietly, trying to listen for the jingling bells that were tied to a few of the horses’ necks to signal the herd’s location. It always seemed like the herd stayed extra still then be-cause they knew if they were found, they were going to work.

When we would finally track down the cavvy horses, I would let out a few hollers to get them all moving in the direction of the camp. In a very short time, it would turn into an exhilarating, eye-watering run down the side of the mountain. There was one left-hand turn that I knew I had to get the herd to make. If I could get on the herd’s right side and create enough energy, I could get the lead horse to flick her ear left. Then, all of them, at that very second, would flick their ears left and move as one toward the corrals. If I couldn’t get it done, they would slip off to the right and beat me to the turn. Then, it would be another 20 minutes to catch up and turn them back to camp. And, all the cowboys waiting for their mounts---having breakfast---would know the horses beat you.

Looking back at the unbelievable interaction between all those horses running down a steep hill, dodging the trees, jumping the ditches, they operated as one using only intent. It was amazing to be a part of that each morning. Loving the rush of it, I wish I could have seen what was right in front of me. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to look left and have my horse go left just because of my intent to turn that way? Horses can clearly be that sensitive.

Yet I would mount my horse for the day and pull on the reins with tens of pounds, like a plow, and think nothing of it. I thought that was just the way horses were---dull.

It was years before I could see what was right in front of me: that the horse I was on was just as sensitive as that herd of horses and had the potential to listen that closely to me if I could be that sensitive to him. He was already so good at communication that while galloping down a hill in the dark, early morning hours, he could read a subtle ear flick of another. Horses learn this subtle communication right after they are born and use it with each other their whole lives. Yet, many have to put up with an ignorant person on their back who never realizes how sensitive they are.

However, I like to think of horses as “Masters in Waiting.” The amazing part about a horse is, if his human gets better, he gets sharper. So, the horse you are on---even if he is seemingly thick, disconnected and dull at that moment---is actually a master just under the surface. It is up to you to access that sensitivity that every horse was born with. Liberty training can help you take that next step, enabling your horse to go from waiting on you to communicating efficiently with you.

Leadership: For enjoyment and safety

The way to true enjoyment with horses is leadership. It’s not just for increasing entertain-ment value; it’s also a safety issue. It’s great to have fun with a horse, but along the way we can get kicked in the head, bucked off, run over and put in the hospital. So it pays to be safe by learning to lead the conversation with your horse.

Long-term equestrians will likely know what I’m talking about. We have all had our fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Dealing with horses is a dangerous sport and no trainer or person can say that, with this technique or that technique, safety is guaranteed. But we can take steps to set ourselves up for success, including learning how to commu-nicate and how to be the leader.

The risk with prey animals, like horses, exponentially increases when they don’t have the security of a good leader: When taken away from their home environment or away from their herdmates, it takes good horsemanship to help them become trusting and con-fident. A horse is not looking at the outfit you wear but what you can offer him to curb the prey-animal survival instincts. He is looking for someone to reassure him that he is safe and take care of him, leading him through any danger.

Leadership is the most essential ingredient to successfully playing with horses in close proximity: on the ground, under saddle or at liberty. Without structure and respect between you and your horse, any horse activity has heightened danger, including liberty. Leadership is the path to a strong relationship and communication.

There are no equal peers in the horse world. Horses naturally look for a leader. As prey animals, they survive by forming a herd and quickly determining the hierarchy. Through position, speed and sometimes force, they find their place among all the other horses.

This hierarchy serves them well when trouble arises. With radar antennas for ears, and eyes on the side of their head to see almost every angle around them, each horse begins to zero in on his herdmates, to make constantly changing decisions that keep him up with the herd and away from danger, “Where is the leader in the herd? How fast are we going? When do I eat, rest and get a scratch?”

Every cue comes from the lead horse down the chain, with all the horses finding comfort in knowing whom to follow, and whom to cue next. It is quite a remarkable interaction between individuals---and among the whole herd. Even more incredible is that the lead horse can be a different one depending on the circumstance. When these split-second decisions happen, it gives the horse a focus, the same kind of focus a rider needs.

In the wild or at pasture, every daily event revolves around the herd: each horse paying attention to the little cues, so as a herd they can sync. That is when things are at peace in the herd. The premise of human leadership is that I want my horse to look at me in the same way he looks at and keeps track of his herdmates. My goal is to win his trust in me to make the right decisions.

Basic survival instincts

Horses don’t just prefer a strong leader and a herd dynamic; they crave and need them. Without them, they are frightened and lost. Imagine a herd of horses out in the wild. If you take one away from the others to a different side of the mountain, that horse doesn’t remark on the tall green grass and the nice “alone time.” Instead, he uses his first set of basic survival instincts to get back to his herd.

The first set of basic survival instincts, in order, are:

1. Perception. He looks for the missing horses and becomes sensitive to anything that could hurt him while he’s alone.

2. Flight. While he’s in this heightened state of sensitivity, he will spook at anything that rustles or represents a danger to him.

3. Herd bound. Finding his herdmates, he will run back to the comfort of the group.

You know your horse is without leadership when you take him away from the safety of his barn or yard or a herdmate, and those ears go out like radar antennas. Suddenly, some-thing your horse may have seen even a 100 times is scary and spooky. He begins to whinny and magnetically pulls back to the barn or jigs toward the horse trailer.

This is a horse who is screaming for leadership. When he is in this state, he is at his most dangerous, because now he’ll go to a second set of survival instincts:

1. Fight. The horse pushes into pressure and resists.

2. Flight. Again, this instinct appears: He runs away. He uses full strength to leave, charging off with his rider and possibly running over bystanders in his panic.

3. Freeze. This is a way that a horse will use pent-up energy and explode all at once. It is probably the most common way horses gain control and the one that is most over-looked and misunderstood by people.

A horse’s desire to be with the herd, you’ll note, is a major difference between him and us. He never wants “alone time.”

Horses use flight, fight or freeze in an attempt to keep safe. They are not trying to be naughty or teach someone a lesson or embarrass people. It is instinctual, and they do it in order to survive. It is important to understand that horses in this mode are looking for help, looking for a good leader with the right attitude.

What sticks out to me the most about the best horsemen and -women I know is their similar attitude about horses. They don’t take things personally. The horses they handle and train don’t dictate their emotions. They remain in control, even optimistic and friendly, when things are not going their way. They are also able to be surprisingly firm but not mean, and their horses can tell the difference.

Learning to be sensitive and caring to a horse in one moment, then firm to establish a boundary in the next, can be really hard for some people. It feels to them like it is going against their nature. Some don’t want to be kind to a horse because they think they’re going to be looked at as weaklings. Others don’t want to be firm because they think their horse will hate them.

I can tell you from my own experience that if we are to get anywhere with a horse we must find that balance in ourselves. And I know that each person with enough desire to truly excel with horses can do it.

I also know with absolute certainty that no great horseman I’ve met was ever born with all of these qualities in perfect balance. They worked at it, studied horsemanship and took responsibility for each session, and the next time they walked into the pen with a horse, they tried to be better.

Comfort Zone— The “Sweet Spot”

Once a hierarchy is established within the herd, the herd operates as a single unit. They seem to move together by intuition, flawlessly changing direction and speed as a group. You can view a similar phenomenon in a flock of birds or a school of fish.

The herd unit is comfortable to the horse. He wants to know where he fits inside it. That way, he knows how to react to each individual: whom he needs to listen to and who will listen to him.

Of course, people do not naturally operate as a single unit like a herd of horses, flock of birds or school of fish. We must teach ourselves to communicate like a horse and to always have a sweet spot in mind for the horse to find. If he cannot find a sweet spot, the horse will revert to his base survival instincts, becoming either oversensitive or dull in self-defense.

Imagine a rider pulling on the bit, kicking with his legs, and pump-ing with his body to tell his horse to go. But when the horse moves, the rider doesn’t let up. To the horse, this means he hasn’t done the right thing. So he tries going sideways and backward; but no matter what he tries, he gets no relief or reward---there’s no sweet spot offered. Eventually, he gets upset because he cannot find any comfort at all. The rider thinks the horse is being bad, when really he is just confused and miserable.

Unable to find a sweet spot, the relief, a sensitive horse will get spooky and nervous, often bolting, rearing, prancing or generally seeming unable to stand still. A quieter horse is the opposite: He becomes unresponsive and disconnected, balky, even bucking when you ask him to move forward. If quiet horses are presented with enough pressure to get through their dullness, they often overreact and explode.

But with good leadership and a sweet spot for your horse to get to, you and your horse will come into sync---into unity---just like in the herd. It’s a truly “wow” moment the first time a horse connects with you in unity. You move effortlessly together like the herd or the flock of birds.

The more moments of unity you get with your horse, and the longer they become, the more your horse will trust you and come to find you as a place of comfort. He will learn that you are the source of his comfort and his sweet spot, and that people can supply him the unity of the herd---that things are being done with him instead of to him. Best of all, when he is faced with a scary or uncertain situation, he will look to you for guidance instead of reverting to his survival instincts.

There are a number of things that can take a horse out of unity:

Poor leadership. Without leadership, the horse will operate on his own plan and instincts.

Bad timing of the aids. This can be confusing to the horse and make him frustrated.

Ill-fitting tack or pain. If the horse is in pain, he won’t be able to find comfort.

Micromanaging the horse. If you are always applying pressure to the horse, he will never get comfort.

To achieve unity, you must offer comfort the moment a horse is doing what you want, so he senses the relief of being in sync. Then those moments of unity can grow. This applies to every moment you are with your horse, whether on the ground or riding.

Feel: An invisible connection

“Feel” is a word that comes up often around horses. It’s notoriously difficult to teach and it can also be difficult to understand. Teaching it to students I liken it to holding a bird: If you grip too tightly, the bird suffocates; if you don’t hold tightly enough, the bird flies away.

I think feel is in every person, but it can be elusive to find---sometimes very hard to dig out! I haven’t been able to teach it to everyone I’ve met, but it must be present to get anywhere with a horse. Feel is the single most important ingredient when communicating with your horse, and it binds everything together: For the person, the horse will never fully connect without you knowing feel. For the horse, he is born with feel in every cell, and he is just waiting for you to catch up.

So what is feel? In short, it is an invisible connection. Feel gives you a subconscious understanding of what your horse is telling you at each moment and how to best commu-nicate with him. With feel, you know what aid to give, how strong it needs to be, the precise time to give it, and exactly when to release to reward the horse. Feel helps you know when you need to approach something differently and when your horse is ready to move to a different exercise or to a new challenge.

The amazing thing about feel is you can give two people the exact same exercise with the same horse. With one person the horse softens, connects and gets the lesson. And, with the other, the horse gets tense, disconnected and thinks about the barn.

I believe feel can be taught, or I wouldn’t teach my methods. It took me years to learn true feel, even after I had been riding and interacting with horses for decades. I had to dedicate myself to truly understand the horse and what he needed from me. Like communication, feel goes both ways. We need to learn to feel for him, and only then can we teach him to have a feel for us.

For humans, though, feel can be difficult because we are dealing with a different species with a different energy and nature from our own. Also, many people won’t adjust, or don’t know how to adjust, to tailor what they’re doing to offer an individual horse better com-munication. They think there’s one way to give a command, and the horse will have to put up with it.

If you are a dancer, you’ve experienced “good feel” and “bad feel” on a night out. Some dancing partners make you feel like you’re dancing on a cloud, and time flies by, while others make you feel as if you have cement shoes, and the end of the song can’t come quickly enough!

Horses sense and have an opinion about the feel they are being offered at all times. Some-times it might be too heavy, dull and behind their movement. Other times it can actually be too light, not giving them enough to connect to. With sensitive horses, either way, poor feel drives them crazy: Whether too heavy or too light, they will become overreactive and frustrated with everything, including the brush you pick to groom them.

Moving in harmony

When playing at liberty, I think of feel as a “string” running between my horse and me---it’s a connection without any rope. With good feel, we can move in harmony, keeping the string connection slightly taut and communicating easily. But if either my horse is or I am lacking feel, the string will either go slack or get too tight and break, and neither of us will understand what the other means. I believe that horses get irritated if we are always breaking the string of communication.

To advance your feel, you must focus on becoming a master of communicating using in-tent. Remember, intent is the subtlest of aids, as if the horse is reading your mind. In reality, the horse is reading the slightest changes in your body language, right down to how you shift your focus---the same way a horse reads his dam as a foal or reads the other horses in his herd.

It’s important to understand that intent is not your energy level. Communicating “louder” or “bigger” does not make you easier to understand. If someone spoke to you in an alien language, would his jumping up and down and screaming the same words make you un-derstand their meaning any better?

Clear communication with a horse starts in your mind. That thought be-comes a certainty through your body that the horse will read. Certainty is a feeling that comes out of you. It is a sureness that you are going in that direction and are going to do what you intend. It is backed up by your aids. Eventually your thoughts get to the horse sooner because you become easier to read and more believable. That is when your intent is starting to work. Now you are communicating like a horse.

An intention is different from a hope. It is something that is going to happen. You may need to adjust and help the horse in another way, but in the end, you are going to arrive where you intended.

It will take time for you and your horse to build up a language that you both understand. Remember that you never go from complete darkness to complete light immediately; there are plenty of degrees of brightness in between. Keep your eyes open for the slightest change on the horizon and you are sure to get there.

Many times, especially early on, we miss opportunities to advance because we are waiting for a big change and we don’t notice our horse has already made a small step in the right direction. Because we don’t notice and don’t release, our horse concludes we must not have asked for what he tried to do; he may become confused and agitated because of it.

If you can advance your feel to where you can recognize a mental “try” in your horse and see those small changes, you will find you can advance at a much quicker pace. When you reward sooner, you will see enormous changes ---more than you would have thought---and pretty soon you will be having a great conversation.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Equus Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Does your feeding program measure up?

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 the conversation.

Body condition


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.



Monday, April 24, 2017

Does your feeding program measure up?

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
the conversation.

Body condition

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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

When Your Horse's Neck Hurts

Your horse's neck plays a critical role in his balance. Here are some tips for identifying injury or discomfort there.

When you find your horse in distress and unwilling or unable to move, the list of possible causes seems terrifying and endless. Your first step, of course, is to call the veterinarian. But take comfort in the fact that many cases of immobility are traced back to a simple problem: neck pain.

Because a horse uses his neck to balance with each step, he may refuse to move if he bruises or strains the muscles there. Consider these distinctions between neck pain and other similar-looking problems:

  • A horse with a serious limb injury will favor a sore leg, resting his weight on the toe or holding the leg in the air. A horse with laminitis will dramatically shift his weight back to ease the pain in his forefeet. A horse with neck pain, on the other hand, will usually bear equal weight on all four limbs.
  • A painful limb may also cause a horse to throw up his head as he moves in an effort to protect an area of his body. A horse with neck pain will usually hold his head still and low, even as he attempts to walk and turn.
  • If a horse has a neurological issue, he drags his toes or shows signs of incoordination. He may also have lax tail tone or facial asymmetries, with a drooping ear or eyelid. A horse with neck pain moves more or less normally when forced to but is simply reluctant to do so.
  • Tying up causes extreme cramp-ing of the large muscles of a horse’s hindquarters. The area will feel very hard to the touch and you may even be able to observe the muscles clench on their own. An injured neck will not cause such cramping of the hindquarters. 


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Probiotics Explained

Although much still needs to be learned about supplements that contain “friendly” bacteria, their potential benefits for ill or stressed horses are widely accepted.

  • You’re preparing your horse for a 200-mile trailer ride to your new home. You know the trip will be stressful, but you plan to wrap his legs carefully, make sure he’s up to date on his shots and even give him a preventive dose of antiulcer medication. Is there anything else you can do to safeguard his health during the trip?
  • The cut on your mare’s chest was deep and dirty, but your veterinarian arrived quickly. The wound is now stitched closed and your mare is on a course of antibiotics to combat infection. During the weeks of nursing care to come, can anything else be done to support her overall health as her body mends?
  • Your schedule couldn’t be any busier this fall. Each week, it seems, you’ll be at a different show, clinic or event. Your horse’s new routine will be no routine at all. What can be done to help prevent his hectic, constantly shifting schedule from dragging him down?
In each of these scenarios, one relatively new option may be helpful in safeguarding the horse’s health: probiotics, dietary supplements that contain beneficial live microorganisms, usually bacteria, but also sometimes yeast and other fungi.

Credit: Simko/www.visualsunlimited.com
Probiotics have been studied for more than a century, and their use is now common for food animals, such as cattle. For the past decade or so, veterinarians have been administering them to horses, too, to aid recovery from serious intestinal illnesses. Described in academia during the 1960s and ’70s as any organism or substance that benefited the intestinal microbial balance, the generally accepted meaning today is “a live microbial supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance.”

However, how probiotics can help horses is still under study. “We are honestly at our infancy of understanding how we can use probiotics to benefit the horse,” says Kelcey Swyers, head nutritionist at Ranch-Way Feeds in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a PhD candidate at Colorado State University. “While research does not yet have a solid recommendation for probiotic supplementation in the equine diet, it cannot be disputed that an owner might see a benefit from offering probiotics to their horses in a real-life setting.”

Billions of bacteria, protozoa and fungi, often referred to as the intestinal flora or microflora, live in the horse’s gut. These organisms break down foodstuffs to make nutrients available, prevent growth of harmful bacteria and produce vitamins and amino acids. Probiotics are administered "to manipulate the normal intestinal flora in such a way that is beneficial to the health of the horse," says equine nutritionist Kelcey Swyers.

Probiotic bacteria colonize the mucous layer of the equine intestines.

Intestinal flora

“The main goal of administering probiotics is to manipulate the normal intestinal flora in such a way that is beneficial to the health of the horse,” Swyers says. “With that said, researchers are looking for ways that we can use probiotics to improve the digestibility of feedstuffs, reduce the incidence of digestive upsets that could lead to colic or diarrhea, and act as a natural alternative to administering antibiotics, just to name a few areas of interest.”

The inside of a horse’s gut is home to colonies of bacteria, protozoa and fungi, often referred to en masse as the intestinal flora or microflora. “It has been estimated that there are approximately five billion organisms per gram of digestive fluid in the mammalian digestive tract,” Swyers says.

These tiny organisms are engaged in the usual activities of life: consuming one set of substances, excreting another and reproducing. Together they create a complex, symbiotic web. The excretions, called metabolites, produced by one organism may feed another, which in turn produces a third that may be a nutrient necessary to the horse’s life. For example, the complex molecules in starches and cellulose cannot be directly absorbed by the horse’s intestine—they must first be broken down by the flora into components that he can use.

Credit: Eric Erbe/USDA In addition to producing many of the vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients the horse needs, the intestinal flora help keep potentially damaging bacteria, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli, under control.
In addition to producing many of the vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients the horse needs, the intestinal flora help keep potentially damaging bacteria, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli, under control. They do this in several ways, including colonizing the gut wall---by attaching themselves to the epithelium0, they block spaces that might otherwise be occupied by invaders. Some of the bacteria also produce lactic acid, which maintains the local environment within a narrow zone of acidity that is comfortable for the beneficial bacteria but hostile to the pathogenic ones.

Maintaining a balance

Intestinal microflora function in a delicate but constantly fluctuating balance. For example, if a horse who usually eats mostly hay gets more pasture grass one day, the organisms who thrive on that particular mix of foodstuffs thrive while their counterparts decline. Most of the time, these fluxes are harmless and self-correcting.

At other times, however, the balance can be tipped in a direction that can cause harm to the host. The classic example is the horse who breaks into the feed room and gorges on grain: Suddenly, there is too much starch to be digested in the stomach and small intestine, and it passes into the hindgut. There it fuels accelerated population growth among certain microbes, which results in greater volumes of lactic acid and a lower pH, killing off other good bacteria in the vicinity. This can begin the cascade of events that leads to devastating digestive-related illnesses, including laminitis.


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But there are many other factors that can alter the microbe levels in the gut. “Anything that changes the pH, interferes with gut motility or affects the fluid levels---all would change the balance,” says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research. In addition to sudden changes in diet, specific events that can upset the microflora levels include the administration of oral antibiotics, dehydration, fever and ingesting feed tainted with molds or bacteria.

Even stresses, such as those associated with travel and competition, can have an effect. Going on the road tends to disrupt the horse’s routine: He may not drink as much, he may be getting different hay or grasses, his anxiety may keep him off his feed entirely for atime. Also, stress produces measurable changes in levels of hormones, body temperature, immune responses, heart rate and other functions, all of which may cause the populations of beneficial bacteria to drop.

These fluctuations, too, would likely self-correct in time, but meanwhile the horse might be somewhat “off,” perhaps enough to affect his performance, to inhibit weight gain, or to contribute to digestive upsets. “[Another] goal of giving probiotics to a horse is to add organisms—seed organisms—to form new colonies and rebalance the beneficial bacteria,” says Crandell. The thinking is that by helping to restore the populations of beneficial bacteria sooner, the probiotic supplement will offset any potential negative consequences of the disruption to the microflora.

Credit: Miloslav Kaleb/www.visualsunlimited.com Probiotics contain living organisms. The bacteria may be in a dried, dormant state, but they can still die if mishandled. Heat is the biggest threat: "Don’t let them sit on the dashboard of your truck on a 100 degree day," says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research. Even some tackrooms might get too hot—if you can, keep your probiotic refrigerated. Light can also be damaging. Keep the product in its original (opaque) container out of direct sunlight and even away from bright indoor lights. Finally, don’t forget the expiration date: Make sure you purchase the product well ahead of the "use by" recommendation.

Does your horse need probiotics?

Although research into probiotics for horses is still ongoing, there is general agreement that they can be useful in the following ways:

  • To give young digestive systems ahead start. Foals acquire their intestinal flora from their environment—that’s one reason why they sometimes eat manure. A probiotic may help populate the young digestive system more quickly.
  • To aid recovery from illness or infection in horses who have received oral antibiotics. Medications that kill harmful bacteria sometimes do collateral damage to beneficial organisms. After the course of antibiotics is finished, a probiotic may aid in faster recovery.
  • To compensate for the effects of stress. Dietary changes, travel and/or competition can put stress on a horse’s system. To give the probiotics time to colonize, it is best to start administration two to three days ahead of the stressful event and continue until it is over.
  • To reduce digestive upset in horses susceptible to chronic diarrhea and/or mild colics. Probiotics may stabilize the microflora and promote a healthier environment in the gut. They may also be a good preventive measure in horses who have experienced serious colics.
  • To help old or unthrifty horses better utilize nutrients. A probiotic may improve the efficiency of digestion and aid nutrient absorption in aged horses and others who have trouble maintaining weight.

Consult with your veterinarian about giving your horse probiotics, just as you would when making any other dietary change. If your horse is not holding weight or has frequent mild colics or diarrhea, a probiotic may well be part of the solution, but you’ll also want to address any underlying medical issues.

On the other hand, says Crandell, giving a probiotic to a healthy stay-at home horse can put unnecessary stress on your wallet. “There’s no reason to give a probiotic if your horse is healthy, he’s not traveling, he’s holding weight, etc.,” she explains. “Sometimes horse owners will not see a benefit from offering probiotics, and this can simply be because their horse is already healthy on his normal diet, so no additional benefit can be realized.”

On the market

A wide variety of probiotic products for horses are now available. Some are pure cultures with only one or two bacterial species; others contain up to eight or more; many are mixed with other substances, including vitamins, yeasts, electrolytes, enzymes and prebiotics.

Living microorganisms include any of several species of bacteria, often Lactobacillus spp. as well as Enterococcus spp., Bifidobacterium spp., Lactococcus lactis, etc. Sometimes bacterial species are listed individually on the label; other products will identify only the class, such as “mixed lactic acid bacteria.”

Yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Aspergillus spp.) offer well-established dietary benefits, including improved performance during exercise and the production of better quality milk in mares; yeasts are often included in regular horse feeds.

Prebiotics are nutrients that aren’t necessarily absorbed or utilized by the horse but instead “feed” the beneficial bacteria. You’ll often find these identified on the label as some sort of oligosaccharide, but bacteria themselves can also have a prebiotic effect if they produce by products that in turn nourish other bacteria.

Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist may well have experience with specific formulations and can advise you about which ones might best suit your situation. For example, Crandell recommends that foals be given a product that also contains dried egg yolk antibodies and, in general, she believes that products with a wide variety of bacteria or a combination of probiotics and yeast are more likely to be effective. Once you’ve got that input, it’s a matter of choosing a product and keeping close watch on your horse to see how he does.

Swyers advises caution with products that might promise too much: “Probiotics are not considered a drug, so be leery of marketing claims that state a probiotic supplement will do specific things for your horse, such as‘reduce your feed costs, reduce the potential for your horse to get colic, or enhance the performance of your horse.’”

Credit: Michael Abbey/www.visualsunlimited.com (center) www.fotolia.com (bottom)
If your horse does not respond to one product, he may do better with another. Even if the bacterial species are the same, there may be other ingredients in the formulation that affect how the product works. But keep in mind that you may not see results right away: “The benefits of administering probiotics to horses can only be seen when given for a prolonged amount of time, and generally when administration of that supplement goes away, so do the benefits,” Swyers says. “So feed according to the manufacturer’s label, and feed for the whole amount of time that your horse could benefit from it.”

And, she says, “like anything, just because giving ‘some’ could be good, giving more is not necessarily better. No matter what supplement you might give to your horse, it is a good practice to always follow the manufacturer’s feeding or dosing instructions as indicated on the label. And, if there are any concerns, to consult a trusted veterinarian or nutritionist.”

The next few years ought to bring more answers about the best uses of probiotics in horses. In the meantime, if a probiotic is helping to keep your horse happier and healthier, there’s no reason not to keep offering it.


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.



Thursday, January 12, 2017

Increase your horse's strength with exercise

Any horse can benefit from a simple strength-training routine. Here's how to safely build your horse's muscle power.



Strength training for horses isn't just limited to heavy draft breeds competing in pulling contests. Any horse in any discipline can benefit from a strength-building regimen, and any rider can put together a systematic, safe program to muscle up her mount. Try these simple tips to increase the muscle power of any horse. Stamina has to be in place before strength can be increased, so put some endurance-building mileage on him before beginning power trips.

Undulating terrain is the best equine gym, as a horse must lift his own body weight with each stride when traveling up- or downhill. Start with jaunts up gradual slopes, and increase the grade and length of time spent in "climbing" as the horse becomes more muscular. If your horse has a particularly weak side, negotiate the ups and downs on the diagonal, with his weaker side toward the crest. The "high" side of the body has to exert more muscle to maintain balance. Flatlands riders can use man-made "hills," such as dry drainage ditches, in place of natural terrain; or they can practice jumping or pulling in a harness (drags and harrows, not easy rolling carts), even if their horses don't otherwise use those skills.

Monitor your horse during his strength training: Heavy blowing or trembling muscles indicate that he needs a break, Next-day soreness tells you that you pushed him too far; scale back next time out.

Strength develops slowly, but after a few weeks of power tripping, the first changes will become visible as increased muscle mass along the spine and greater tightness and trimness of the belly. Your horse's ridden performance will improve as well, with a greater reach in his gaits, more bounce in his jumps and increased control in his turns.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue # 231.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

7 Myths About Equine Nutrition

To help you formulate your horse’s diet based on the best information available, we debunk 7 common myths about equine nutrition.


In 2008, veterinarians at Tufts University Hospital for Large Animals conducted a survey of horse owners. A total of 67 people who brought their horses to the facility for treatment answered general equine management questions, as well as four designed to gauge their understanding of proper equine feeding practices.

The results were unsettling: Less than half of the owners knew the daily hay requirements for an average horse, and 69 percent were mistaken about the proper role of complete concentrates in the equine diet.

Misunderstandings about feeding aren’t unique to this group of horse owners, say the Tufts clinicians who wrote up the survey results in a veterinary journal. And they don’t stem from lack of concern---most of us do our best to feed our horses properly. The problem, in part, is that horsekeeping is rooted in tradition and, as a result, outdated ideas tend to persist, even when disproven by modern research. Add to that outright incorrect information, disseminated quickly in an era of Internet search engines and blogs, and it’s easy to mistake myth for fact when it comes to feeding horses.'

To help ensure your horse’s diet is formulated based on the most up-to-date information available, we’ve laid to rest the top seven horse-feeding myths. Armed with the truth, you can do best by your horses when mealtime rolls around.

Myth 1: Concentrates or grain form the foundation of a horse’s diet; hay is secondary. This might be one of the biggest misconceptions out there about feeding horses. Ideally, a horse’s diet will be structured around hay rather than concentrates or grains. In fact, retired horses and those in light work may do fine on a hay- or pasture-only diet. Concentrated energy feeds are necessary only for hardworking equine athletes, lactating mares and other horses with higher energy demands, or when the hay available does not provide sufficient calories.

Nonetheless, in a balanced equine diet, concentrates will never comprise more than half of a total ration’s weight (“How Much Grain?” page 42). Although individual requirements vary somewhat, most horses do well if they receive about 2 percent of their body weight in forage per day. Excess intake of concentrates and grain can lead to obesity, colic and laminitis.

Keep in mind that if you are feeding a “complete” pellet---one that contains roughage---according to the manufacturer’s instructions, your horse gets his daily requirement of forage as part of his concentrate. Although these feeds are helpful for horses who are unable to chew hay or have respiratory conditions aggravated by the dust in hay, they may not be the best choice for horses who do not need them. Not only does munching hay help keep a horse occupied, discouraging stall vices, but the bulk this forage provides helps keep his digestive tract working properly.

Myth 2: Bran mashes have a laxative effect and help keep a horse warm. There’s certainly something satisfying about preparing a bran mash for your horse on a chilly winter’s day. There’s also a certain peace of mind that comes with offering a bran-based slurry to a horse who tends to have digestive troubles. What’s more, most horses relish bran mashes. But modern research has shown that these mixtures have no laxative effect and do not prevent colic. Nor do bran mashes offer a lasting “heating” effect for a horse. In fact, overzealous feeding of bran can do more harm than good, because its high phosphorus content can lead to serious mineral imbalances.

Myth 3: Horses must be fed at the same time every day. Our horses may have helped perpetuate this myth. Anyone who has heard the ruckus horses can kick up five minutes before breakfast is due can be forgiven for thinking feeding times are critical, but in reality they are not. Horses fed at regular intervals are conditioned to expect meals at certain times, but there is no physiological reason to stick to a strict schedule. A horse fed only two meals a day, with restricted forage in between, may be extremely hungry by the time his meal arrives, but he will not be harmed if it’s an hour earlier or later than usual. It’s better, however, to mimic a horse’s natural feeding schedule as closely as possible, by allowing your horse free-choice hay throughout the day. Not only will he more patient if you’re a bit tardy with his dinner, but his gut will function better and his risk of colic and laminitis will be dramatically reduced.

Myth 4: Alfalfa is too “rich” to be safely fed to horses. This seems to be a regional myth: Many horses in Western states happily and safely eat the very alfalfa that some East Coast horse owners are afraid to include in equine rations. Alfalfa does contain more protein, digestible energy and calcium0 than grass hays, but it is usually lower in soluble0 sugars. Its reputation for being “rich” may stem from the highly nutritious leaves, which are more digestible than most hays and can contribute to gastrointestinal upset and even colic if introduced too quickly into a horse’s diet.It’s wise to gradually introduce alfalfa hay to your horse’s diet, just as you would acclimate him to lush pasture grass. Most horses would get obese if fed good quality alfalfa free-choice, so it is usually best fed in limited amounts, supplemented with grass hay that provides adequate “chew time” to ward off boredom.

Alfalfa’s higher protein and calcium content do result in increased urine output (and water intake) but are not at all harmful to a healthy horse’s kidneys. In fact, it has been reported that the addition of alfalfa to rations of horses confined to stalls and fed limited amounts of forage actually protects against ulcers, probably due to the buffering effects of the higher protein and calcium. Finally, contrary to popular belief, research has shown that alfalfa will not cause, and may actually prevent, developmental orthopedic disorders, such as osteochondritis dissecans in young horses.

Myth 5: Weight issues, such as being too skinny or fat, are solely related to how a horse is fed. It’s easy to look to a horse’s ration to explain weight gain or loss, and often that’s where you’ll find the answers. But sometimes a horse’s weight problem isn’t directly related to his feed ration. A horse who is too thin, for example, may have dental problems that prevent him from chewing his food properly. In addition, parasite loads or systemic illness can cause a horse to lose weight even if he is receiving adequate amounts of quality feed. Anytime a horse has trouble holding weight, a complete veterinary exam is needed to determine the cause. Likewise, an obese horse is obviously being fed more calories than he needs, but simply cutting back his ration is only part of the solution. Some horses have a so-called thrifty gene which allows them to “live on air” and gain weight even on sparse, forage-only diets. They may also be more susceptible to metabolic disorders and laminitis. In these cases, the best course is a weight-control program that integrates an exercise regimen---such as active riding four days a week---along with a restricted diet.

Myth 6: Corn is a “heating” feed. The misguided notion that feeding corn helps to keep horses physically warm probably stems from how behaviorally “hot” this ration can make some of them. A quart of corn weighs much more than a quart of oats, so owners may unwittingly be supplying a corn-fed horse with many more calories---and energy---than another feed provides in the same volume. Speaking in terms of temperature, however, any metabolic warmth generated by corn is minimal and short-lived. Corn has its place in the equine diet, but a far better “heating” feed for winter months is hay. This fibrous bulk is digested comparatively slowly, and the bacteria in the gut doing that work produce heat for a longer period of time.

Myth 7: Letting a hot horse drink cold water is dangerous. Although this myth isn’t strictly about feeding, it is so persistent and potentially damaging that it’s worth debunking as often as possible. Research has repeatedly shown that a hot, sweaty horse who drinks cold water is not at a greater risk of colic, cramping or laminitis. How this myth arose isn’t clear, but one expert postulates that years ago, before the physiological effects of exhaustion were fully understood, water intake may have been blamed for laminitis or colic in horses who were simply overworked. Withholding water can lead to dangerous dehydration. In fact, it’s best to allow your horse to drink when he is at his most thirsty, which is probably right after his workout. Waiting until he is “cool” may result in him drinking less, even if he is dehydrated.

This article originally appeared in EQUUS Magazine.