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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Feeding For Weight Gain

Feeding for Weight Gain


When your horse is too thin, whether it’s a short-term aberration or a chronic struggle, careful feeding can help to keep his weight up.


EQUUS
NOV 7, 2014


Overlooking subtle change is easier than it should be. When you care for your horse every day, you may not notice slight variations in his body condition. Then one morning it strikes you: Watching him turn toward you in the paddock, you can see a faint outline of every rib along his sides, and his haunches are looking a little less rounded, too. Clearly, your horse is losing weight. And suddenly the questions are flying through your mind: What’s wrong? Is he sick? Am I not feeding him right?

Take heart. Many thin horses are suffering from nothing more than “agroceroisis---a lack of groceries!” says equine nutritionist Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, DACVN, of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In other words, a horse loses weight simply because his caloric needs are not being met. Either he’s burning more energy than he’s consuming, or somehow he is not utilizing the feed that he does eat efficiently enough.

The next question, then, is Why? A number of underlying issues can cause weight loss in a horse, and to help him regain some pounds, you first need to understand and address what’s going wrong. Only then can you develop a plan to restore him to his proper weight.



Why horses lose weight


A number of factors, mental and physical, can cause a horse to lose weight, and in fact, his difficulties may stem from multiple problems. Of course, some horses seem naturally more prone to weight loss; a “hard keeper” may have a metabolism that requires more than the usual amount of calories for maintenance, or he may readily lose his appetite---and drop pounds---in response to even slight variations in management routine, weather or other factors. Likewise, a horse who is stressed by travel, intense training, herd squabbles or other disruptions may eat less and/or burn more energy and end up losing weight. But if your otherwise robust horse suddenly loses weight without apparent reason, ask your veterinarian to help you investigate the causes. Here are some of the possibilities:

• Illness. A number of diseases can lead to weight loss. Most will be accompanied by other obvious signs, such as diarrhea, colic, fever or lethargy---but in some cases signs of illness might be extremely subtle or nonexistent. “If your horse starts losing weight and his diet has not changed, get the veterinarian out ASAP,” says Ralston. “Check his liver and kidney function and screen for chronic infections.”

During the examination, your vet-erinarian may also suggest a fecal egg count and discuss your deworming schedule. A heavy parasite load can not only rob your horse of calories but also over time it may damage his intestinal tract to the point that it inhibits his ability to extract nutrients from his food.

Your veterinarian will also investigate possible sources of chronic pain, which can put a horse off of his feed. In fact, weight loss is one of the major signs of gastric ulcers, along with tooth grinding, a grumpy attitude and poor performance. Treating any underlying illnesses or injuries will likely be enough to get him gaining weight again.

In addition, the pain of arthritis can interfere with a horse’s feed intake by preventing him from walking to hay feeders or covering enough ground to graze sufficiently. Adding feed stations in strategic spots in larger pastures may make them easier to reach, and horses with pain in the neck or withers will graze more comfortably from a net or rack at shoulder height.

• Dental issues. Problems with a horse’s teeth can affect his ability to eat: Uneven wear can cause hooks, waves and other malformations that inhibit chewing, and cracked, broken or infected teeth can be painful enough to prevent a horse from chewing his food properly. In addition to weight loss, signs that a horse is experiencing dental problems might include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, bad breath, fussiness with the bit and unchewed grains and bits of hay in the manure.

Routine dental exams---annually for most adult horses, or every six months for seniors or those who have had problems in the past---can catch and address any developing problems early, before they affect a horse’s over- all health and body weight. By the time he reaches his late 20s or 30s, a horse’s teeth may wear down completely so that he cannot properly chew coarse feeds or hay. At this point, he’ll need softer foods, such as soaked hay pellets, beet pulp or senior feed, to maintain his weight.

• Social problems. Horses who live in stable herds develop distinct social hierarchies, and those at the bottom of the pecking order---often the very young, the aging or the submissive---may be chased away from the hay feeder and other sources of food. One solution is to bring the low-ranking horse in to a small paddock or stall where he can eat undisturbed. Another option for horses in turnout is to distribute hay around to multiple feeders, or to use one that the horses can access from all sides without getting trapped against a fence, so that everyone gets access to a share.

Don’t forget that a horse’s social status can change over time, and the addition or subtraction of other members can rewrite the whole equation. Keep tabs on conditions in the field to make sure none of the horses are being bullied away from the food or water.

• Personality. We all know them---those busybodies who spend their time running back and forth between window and door, nickering to other horses and soliciting attention from every person. These social butterflies may have a hard time focusing on their meals. It might be best to move them to a quieter location, or offer them their larger meals at night when the barn is more peaceful, so that they can settle down and give their full attention to eating.

Then there’s the picky eater, who pushes his pellets around or picks out the choicest bits of hay and poops on the rest. If this is your horse, you may have to get creative, experimenting with different types of forage or changing its form. Some horses who pick through hay will readily eat pellets or cubes. And sometimes the horse who walks away from an overflowing manger will eat the same quantity if it’s divided up into six smaller meals per day. Slow feeders---hay nets or other devices with small openings that allow a horse to draw out only small amounts of hay at a time---can keep a horse interested in “grazing” longer, with less waste.

• Environmental conditions. Horses burn more calories to stay warm in cold weather, but extreme heat can also cause them to lose interest in food.

In the winter, steps to help a horse who is having trouble keeping on weight include adding blankets and bringing him into the barn when temperatures dip. Make sure pastured horses have access to shelter that will shield them from prevailing winds. Free-choice access to hay will also help a horse to generate internal heat around the clock. Slow feeders can keep the hay clean while helping the ration last longer.

On the hottest summer days, bringing horses into a cool, well-ventilated barn with fans can help them cope with the heat, and deep, shady shelters are essential in turnouts---to provide protection from the sun as well as from biting flies. Horses can expend huge amounts of energy stomping, shaking and running away from pests like horseflies. If biting flies are a problem in your area, protecting your horse with fly sheets, sprays, traps and other measures can help him to focus more on grazing.

Ample fresh water, of course, is essential year-round---loss of appetite is one of the effects of dehydration. Installing heaters or taking other steps to prevent water buckets from freezing in winter is crucial, and in the summer moving some of the outside sources into the shade can help to keep it more palatable. Soaking a horse’s feed can sometimes encourage him to eat more, but never provide more in one meal than he can eat before it either freezes in winter or goes rancid in the summer heat.


Getting started


Once you’ve identified and addressed the most probable reasons for your horse’s weight loss, it’s time to develop a strategy to put the pounds back on. If you’re faced with an extremely thin horse---one whose vertebrae, ribs, and other bones are prominent---call in veterinary help right away. Introducing starving horses to too much food too quickly can cause serious digestive consequences that may be fatal. However, if your horse is only moderately thin, you can probably handle managing his weight gain yourself---just be prepared to call your veterinarian if have any questions or run into difficulties.

First, it’s a good idea to establish a system for measuring your horse’s weight as accurately and objectively as you can. You have several options (see “Two Ways to ‘Weigh’ a Horse,” page 32). Whichever method you choose, record your measurements in a journal, starting with a baseline, to keep track of subtle changes over time. Photographs, taken in good light while your horse is standing on level ground, can be a good supplement to your records. Just don’t rely entirely on your eyes and memory---you may have difficulty recalling details if you need to explain anything to your veterinarian later.

Also establish a good baseline measurement, in pounds, of what your horse currently eats. If you don’t have one already, buy a food scale and weigh out your horse’s normal ration. Even flakes of hay can vary in weight, and if you’re measuring out feed by volume---in a coffee can, for instance---you may discover that you’re feeding substantially less than a manufacturer’s recommended portion, which is usually given by weight. But it’s important to know how much your horse eats up front so that you can begin increasing his feed in an orderly fashion.


If your horse has been inactive, consider implementing a moderate exercise program. It may seem counterintuitive to make a thin horse burn calories to gain weight, but the work will help him to build muscles, and exercise will increase his appetite.

As you develop your plan, keep one rule in mind: Go slowly. All changes to a horse’s diet need to be made gradually. Your horse didn’t become skinny overnight, and he can’t safely gain weight in a hurry, either. Abrupt changes in a horse’s diet can lead to colic, laminitis and other ills.



First, the forage


Before you go shopping for new products, the first step is to gradually increase a horse’s current feed, and of course, the cornerstone of the healthy equine diet is forage. In fact, the average pleasure horse in light to moderate work can maintain a healthy weight on forage alone.

To sustain a healthy weight, a horse needs to consume a daily ration of 2 to 3 percent of his body weight each day; of that, at least 1.5 to 2 percent needs to be some form of forage. That means two pounds of total feed for every 100 pounds that he weighs, or 20 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse just for maintenance---more will be needed for weight gain.

To help your horse gain weight, assuming he was getting restricted amounts of good-quality hay, Ralston suggests increasing his current forage ration until his total feed reaches at least 2.5 percent of his desired body weight. In other words, if your horse currently weighs 1,000 pounds, and you’d like him to be 1,100, then your target would be 2.5 percent of 1,100, or 27.5 pounds of hay.

The quality of the forage matters, too. If your hay and pasture are poor, then your horse is filling his gut with fiber but not getting adequate calories or nutrients. An extension agent can help you assess the nutritional value of your pasture and hay. Since few areas of the country allow for high-quality grazing year-round, most of us must supplement our horses’ diets at least part of the time with hay.

You want to choose the highest quality hay you can find for your thin horse. That means leafy, green hay with a minimum of brown stalks and mature seed heads. One quick test of the quality of hay is to squeeze a handful. Stiff stalks that hurt your palm are not a good choice when you need a higher calorie feed. If you want a more scientific analysis of your hay, you can send a sample off to a laboratory to have the nutritional value assessed.

Blending a flake or two of good-quality alfalfa in with a ration of grass hay is another way to add nutritional value to your forage. Alfalfa is higher in calories and protein than grass hays, which makes it an excellent choice to help to add weight to a thin horse. If your horse tends to be wasteful with his hay, he may eat more when offered alfalfa hay cubes or pellets.

Another fiber supplement is beet pulp, which contains about the same digestible energy as good quality hay. Most horses seem to like beet pulp, and it’s a good matrix for blending in supplements or other feed additives such as oils or rice bran. Introduce it slowly, one pound (dry weight) per feeding, up to 0.5 percent of your horse’s body weight. Although beet pulp is a good source of calories, it is not a complete protein source, and it’s relatively low in vitamins and most minerals, so it works best as an addition to, not a substitute for, your horse’s regular rations.



Fats, for calories


Forage may be the cornerstone of equine nutrition, but it’s not a calorie-dense food, and there’s a limit to how much a horse will eat in a day. If your horse has been consuming all of the forage he wants, and he still is not gaining weight after several weeks, it’s time to add some more calories to the ration.

The safest way to increase the energy in your horse’s ration is to bolster the fat content. While carbohydrates and proteins offer around four calories per gram, fats offer a whopping nine calories per gram. If introduced slowly, horses can adapt to higher fat intakes, and you can reduce the concerns associated with really high starch intakes such as wide fluctuation in blood glucose and insulin levels seen with high-grain concentrates.

You’ll find a number of supplements and feeds on the market formulated to help horses gain weight safely. Most contain high amounts of fat as well as amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help a horse build and maintain muscle. Some of these products can be pricey, however, especially if your hard-working hard-keeper needs to stay on them long-term to keep his weight up.

One of the simplest and cheapest ways to add fat to your horse’s diet is vegetable oil from the grocery store, which can be poured over his regular concentrate ration. Corn oil is palatable to most horses, but you can also use canola, peanut or any other vegetable oil your horse likes. Although you’ll hear debate about the ideal ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in all of these products, when you’re trying to put weight on a horse, all fats are good fats. Like with other dietary changes, oil needs to be introduced slowly, starting with a quarter cup per day, and adding another quarter cup every few days, up to a maximum of two cups for an average size horse---less for small horses and ponies. Too much too fast, and your horse will develop diarrhea and steatorrhea (fatty stools)---his manure will have an oily sheen from undigested oils passing through his system. Another problem with oils is they can go rancid, so be sure to store the bottle in a cool place and give it a sniff before feeding.

Rice bran is another source of fat that most horses love, and it’s also rich in vitamin E as well as fiber. The biggest concern with rice bran is that it is also high in phosphorus, which can inhibit the amount of calcium available in the horse’s body. If you’re feeding a natural rice bran, you might want to add a calcium supplement or another calcium-rich food, such as alfalfa. To be safe, consider purchasing a rice bran product formulated for horses that contains added calcium to balance the ratio of the two minerals.

As with oil, rice bran needs to be added to the diet slowly, starting with about a cup at a time, working up to one or two pounds daily. Follow feeding instructions on the label for serving sizes for any commercial products.



Finally, concentrates


Grains, sweet feeds and other starch- and sugar-based concentrates had long been the high-calorie foods of choice for thin horses, especially those in hard work. They are convenient to use, but the benefits come with a price: Feeds that are high in starch and sugar can pose some health risks if fed in large amounts. When a horse eats more starch in one meal than he can break down in his stomach and small intestine, the undigested molecules ferment in the hindgut, which increases the acidity and throws the microbial population out of balance---not only may the horse’s gut become less efficient at digesting fiber, the resulting changes can lead to colic and crippling acute laminitis. Although some horses seem to be more sensitive to starches than others, says Ralston, “You can induce laminitis in any horse with a sudden grain/starch overload.”

Commercial concentrates, which are formulated for complete, balanced nutrition, can be a valuable source of calories for a thin horse, but they must be used wisely. First, select a product that is formulated for your horse’s stage of life and activity level. Then, follow the instructions on the label to introduce the feed slowly and carefully to his diet.

Never feed more than 0.5 percent of a horse’s body weight of concentrates in a single meal, says Ralston. That’s five pounds for a 1,000-pound horse. If your hard-keeper or athlete needs more than that to gain weight, break his portion up into as many small meals as you can manage, spread throughout the day.

No matter what type of concentrates and added fats you incorporate into your horse’s diet, remember to make sure he always gets at least 1.5, preferably 2, percent of his body weight in forage each day. He needs it to keep his gut functioning at its best.

The basic concept behind fattening up a thin horse is fairly simple: Feed him more calories. But the devil is in the details. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination of forages, fats and concentrates to keep your horse healthy and strong. If you have trouble bringing your horse back to his ideal weight, don’t hesitate to consult with an equine nutritionist. Keeping weight on a perpetually thin horse can be tricky, but the effort will be worth it when you see him moving out across the pasture looking fit, strong and healthy.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, November 2014.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When is a stumble something serious?

A misstep every now and again isn't much to worry about, but some types of stumbles warrant immediate attention.

CHRISTINE BARAKAT WITH MELINDA FRECKLETON, DVMJUN 17, 2016


A misstep every now and again isn’t much to worry about. Active horses, particularly those who work over varied terrain, are bound to stumble from time to time. Sometimes, however, stumbling needs to be investigated.
jog outs
Call your veterinarian if any of the following apply to your horse:

• He stumbles more often than he used to.
• He stumbles so badly that he feels as though he may fall or unseat you.
• He stumbles so frequently that you’ve come to expect it.
• He shows signs of incoordination or neurological weakness, having trouble turning in a small circle, for example.
Stumbling can have a variety of causes, from too-long toes to failing vision. A full physical examination may reveal the most likely cause. In some cases, hind-end “stumbles” are actually sticking patellas. The treatment in these cases is more exercise to strengthen the area. In addition, your veterinarian can also work with your farrier if a different trimming schedule or technique is part of the solution
You may hear that a stumbling horse is “not paying attention” or “lazy,” but the reality is most horses don’t want to stumble. A single stumble may indeed be inattention, but repeated stumbles most likely aren’t a behavior or training problem.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016. 

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.

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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.’”

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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.