When it comes to feeding horses, there is no shortage of myths and old wives’ tales circulating through feed rooms. Many of these feeding myths stem from traditions passed down through generations of horse owners. While some of these traditions are still useful, many are outdated or can even be detrimental to the overall health of the horse. Most myths that are still around today are the result of a lack of understanding of general equine nutrition and the specific anatomy of a horse’s digestive tract.
The old saying “it’s always been done that way” can make change difficult, but we now have scientific evidence that disproves some of the most common traditions surrounding feeding our horses.
Myth: Bran mashes are beneficial for horses.
Weekly bran mashes have long been used because they were thought to have a laxative effect and could flush out a horse’s digestive tract. However, current research has shown that wheat bran, the ingredient commonly used in bran mashes, does not have any laxative effect and does not cause softening of the horse’s manure. Some owners claim that their horses have larger manure piles after a bran mash, so the bran mash must be working. However, this is due to the fact that the fiber in wheat bran is not very digestible, so the horse is forced to excrete all of that indigestible feed in his manure.
Weekly bran mashes may actually be detrimental to your horse. Horses are very sensitive to dietary changes, and any abrupt change in diet can disturb the normal population of microflora that live in the horse’s hindgut. Suddenly changing the horse’s diet by giving a bran mash, can kill off some of the horse’s natural bacteria and cause digestive upset and diarrhea, which can lead to colic. Many owners will see this diarrhea and believe that it is caused by the bran’s laxative effect, but it’s really a result of a digestive upset.
In addition, wheat bran is much higher in phosphorus than calcium. High levels of phosphorus in the diet can interfere with the absorption of calcium, copper and zinc, and cause bone health problems. This is especially true in young, growing horses.
Take home message: Bran should be used only as an ingredient in a well-balanced, fortified commercial feed and should not be offered in a weekly bran mash. If you are concerned about adding water to a horse’s diet to help him stay hydrated, it is a better idea to simply soak his regular feed or hay than to add a weekly mash.
Myth: Protein makes a horse “hot.”
If you surveyed equine nutritionists throughout the United States, this would be the myth that they would say is heard the most. There is absolutely no research that shows a connection between protein levels in the diet and horse temperament. We know today that it is sugar and starch, not protein, that has the most dramatic effect on horse behavior. It is extensively documented that diets high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), such as sugar and starch, are closely related to excitability and a lack of focus in horses. When horses eat diets high in NSC they experience a dramatic rise in blood glucose, and this essentially places them on a sugar high. These elevations in blood glucose can lead to hyperactivity or jumpiness in many horses.
Also, research has shown that overfeeding grain will also increase “hot” behavior in horses, because this creates a calorie excess. If the horse is consuming more energy than is needed to fuel normal metabolism and his current workload, that excess energy will have to be used somehow…many times in ways that the horse owner does not appreciate!
Take home message: If your horse is too hot on his current diet, lowering the protein content will not help. Look instead for a lower NSC concentrate, and make sure you are not feeding too much grain for your horse’s needs.
Myth: Beet pulp must be soaked before feeding.
There is a persistent idea that if beet pulp is not soaked before feeding, it will absorb saliva and swell to block the esophagus or rupture the horse’s stomach. However, there is no way beet pulp could absorb enough saliva or gastric fluid quickly enough to expand to such a size that would cause problems. In addition, the chewing of beet pulp before swallowing decreases the ingredient’s particle size. Once the beet pulp reaches the stomach, it is in much smaller pieces then when it was fed.
In fact, research has shown that large amounts of beet pulp can be fed without soaking without any danger. Studies have fed dry beet pulp at anywhere from 30-55% of the total diet with no incidence of choke or stomach rupture. Choke with beet pulp is associated with rapid eating and improper chewing, not whether the beet pulp was fed dry or soaked.
While beet pulp does not have to be soaked and can be fed dry with no problems, soaking does give some benefits. Soaking beet pulp makes it easier to chew, which is beneficial for older horses with poor teeth. Also, soaked beet pulp can be a great way to hide supplements and medications and is a good method to use to increase a horse’s water intake.
Take home message: If you feed beet pulp, do not feel that you have to soak it. Soaking does provide several useful benefits that may work in your favor, but there is no safety risk to feeding dry beet pulp.
Myth: Pellets cause choke.
Choke is a behavior problem, not a problem with the physical form of feed. Feed or hay do not cause choke; horses that eat too fast cause choke. If horses become overly hungry due to long periods with nothing to eat or feel threatened in a group feeding situation, they tend to become aggressive while eating and bolt their feed. Horses can choke on any food source, whether it is grass, hay, grain, or even treats. If a horse does not take the time to chew his feed properly, he will choke.
The key to preventing and managing choke is to change how you manage the horse. This can be done by offering free choice grass and/or hay, giving smaller portions of feed at one time, soaking the feed to make it softer, and removing the horse from a group feeding scenario. Feeding the aggressive horse in a shallow tub with large rocks can also prevent the horse from bolting his feed.
Take home message: If you have a horse prone to choke, the most important management change you can make is to provide free choice forage so that the horse does not become overly hungry from long periods with nothing to eat. You can also follow the management guidelines listed above, making sure to wet down the feed at each meal.
Myth: Letting a hot horse drink is dangerous.
It has widely been thought that horses should not be offered water during or directly after exercise. People believed that letting a hot horse drink would cause founder or colic. However, we now know that this is not only false, but a real detriment to our performance horses. During exercise, a horse can lose 5-10% of his bodyweight in sweat, and this amount must be replaced by water. Exercising horses have water needs that may increase to up to 300% of their normal water intake. Research performed all over the country has shown that not only does offering horses water frequently during strenuous exercise not create founder or colic, it is actually the best way to help them rehydrate.
A working horse that has lost too much water can quickly develop heat exertion, which can be fatal if not addressed. Heat exertion can be prevented by offering water before, during, and directly after exercise. Offering water after exercise is key, as a horse’s greatest thirst occurs directly after he is done working. If we wait until the horse is cooled out before offering water, he may not feel thirsty even though his body is dehydrated.
Take home message: Allow horses free access to water at all times, even during and right after exercise. Do not limit the amount they drink, as this is the best way to prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Myth: Horses that practice coprophagy are missing something in the diet.
This is one of those myths that is untrue in 90% of cases. Cophrophagy, or eating feces, is common in young foals as a way for the foal to populate his digestive tract with the bacteria necessary for a fully functional digestive system. It is not normal, however, for adult horses to eat feces. Horses in starvation situations or those that do not have adequate forage have been known to eat their own feces as a coping mechanism, but it is extremely rare for a horse on a properly balanced diet to consume his own feces for nutritional purposes.
If your horse has access to an adequate amount of good quality forage and is fed a well-balanced, fortified concentrate but is still eating feces, the cause is probably boredom. In this case, increasing turnout, providing a companion, or increasing exercise may alleviate the problem.
Take home message: If your horse is eating feces, the first thing to do is to make sure you are feeding enough forage and the recommended feeding rate of a good quality concentrate. If you are, the feces consumption is probably due to boredom and is not nutritionally related.
Myth: Coastal hay causes colic.
Coastal hay is by far one of, if not the most, popular hay in the southeastern United States. The greatest proportion of horses in the southeast are fed coastal, most of which never have any problems with colic. However, coastal has gained a bad reputation in causing impactions. This reputation has partly come from a handful of studies performed in Georgia and Louisiana. These studies examined the horses admitted into a university for colic treatment and looked at what hay the horses were fed. They found that most of these horses suffering from colic were fed coastal hay. However, there is a strong population bias in these studies because of the popularity of coastal hay in these areas. Since the horse population of these states was already skewed toward the feeding of coastal hay anyway, it is impossible to make a clear connection between feeding coastal hay and incidence of colic.
With coastal, as with any other hays, it is important to make sure the hay you feed is good quality and the correct maturity stage. Immature coastal hay can be very fine in nature, and this can create a problem if the horse does not chew it properly or does not drink enough water. However, this idea holds true for very mature stages of other hays as well. There is no evidence to say that an immature coastal is more dangerous than an overly mature grass hay of another species.
Any hay can lead to impaction. This is especially true if you combine the factors of poor water intake, weather changes, rapid change of hay type, or a horse with poor gut motility. Even moving a horse from pasture into a stall (perhaps as a result of cold weather or injury) and feeding the same type of hay can increase impaction risk, as the stall confinement will change the horse’s eating behavior and gut motility. Also, eating out of round bales can cause trouble, since horses will stand and gorge longer without drinking.
Take home message: There is no concrete scientific evidence to support the idea that coastal causes impaction colic. However, care must be taken to ensure that the coastal hay you feed is not immature and fine in texture. Also, as with any hay, it is important to make sure your horse is drinking an adequate amount of water and staying hydrated.
Myth: High protein diets cause developmental problems in growing horses.
If there is one nutrient that has been shown to not cause growth problems in horses, it is protein. There are many studies that definitively tell us that high protein diets do not cause any growth problems. There are many causes of developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) in horses. Nutritionally, imbalances in minerals, energy, sugar and starch have been linked to bone growth problems in horses, not protein. Feeding high levels of protein does not increase the growth rate or compromise bone growth.
Overfeeding energy, on the other hand, can result in developmental problems, especially if the other dietary nutrients are not increased in proportion to the energy. Additionally, high dietary sugar and starch have been shown to increase the incidence of DOD. High sugar and starch feeds cause a disruption in the hormones that control bone formation, and can therefore result in bone abnormalities.
Take home message: Growing horses need a good amount of protein in their diets to lay down correct muscle and bone, so it is very important to provide protein in the diet. The most important dietary consideration to make with growing horses is to ensure that energy, protein, and minerals are balanced. Feeding a low starch and sugar feed can also reduce the risk of DOD as your horse grows.
Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS
Did you know that the symptoms of stomach ulcers in horses can be so subtle and nonspecific that they are easy to miss? Did you know that ulcers can affect any horse, regardless of use or age? The term “equine gastric ulcer syndrome,” or EGUS, is used to describe ulcerations of the end of the esophagus, the stomach, and the beginning of the small intestine. Gastric ulcers can be caused by many factors and are one of the most common ailments suffered by horses today.
Gastric ulcers have an estimated prevalence in 50% to 90% of adult horses. These ulcers occur most frequently in horses that perform some sort of physical activity such as racehorses (90%), endurance horses (70%) and show horses (60%). However, even recreational horses and foals can suffer from EGUS.
Does My Horse Have EGUS?
The symptoms of EGUS can be very subtle and vague, oftentimes presenting themselves in a slight attitude change, a reluctance to train or a decrease in performance. In fact, the majority of horses with gastric ulcers will not show any specific clinical signs but will often show more subtle indicators such as:
The only way to definitively diagnose gastric ulcers in horses is through gastric endoscopy. This involves placing an endoscope into the stomach and examining the tissue surface for irritation and lesions. Scoping can be used to determine the presence of gastric ulcers, and it can be used after treatment to determine if ulcers have healed adequately for treatment to be discontinued. Some owners choose to treat their horses for gastric ulcers without endoscopy and simply look for a change in clinical behavior. While this can be helpful, the only way to truly know if treatment can be discontinued is to scope the horse to ensure that all ulcers have healed.
Why Is EGUS So Prevalent?
According to Pet Checkers, the main reason why horses are so susceptible to gastric ulcers is due to their stomach anatomy. First, the horse’s stomach is much smaller compared to other animal species, so it cannot handle large amounts of food at once. Horses are built to eat small, frequent portions of feed over extended periods of time. Because of the natural grazing situation of continuous intake a horse evolved in, a horse’s stomach constantly produces a steady stream of acid to digest the continuous feed intake. A horse’s stomach produces acid 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This can amount to up to 9 gallons of acidic fluid per day, even when the horse is not eating!
In a natural environment, this stomach acid is buffered by the continual intake of grass and forage. However, in today’s environment where horses are fed in two to three larger meals a day, the stomach is subjected to long periods of time with no feed to neutralize the acid. If there is no feed present in the stomach for the acid to work on, it will begin to eat at the stomach lining itself.
In addition to stomach anatomy, the types of feed we incorporate into our horse’s diets today can increase the risk for EGUS. Diets high in non-structural carbohydrates, like sugar and starch, greatly increase ulcer risk because these diets produce volatile fatty acids upon digestion. These volatile fatty acids can contribute to ulcer development.
There are several other factors that can contribute to a high risk of ulcer development in horses. Physical and environmental stressors, such as transport stress, stall confinement, and lack of exposure to other horses, can increase a horse’s risk for EGUS. In addition, chronic use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Bute or Banamine can increase the risk of EGUS. Lastly, exercise and training can greatly increase the prevalence of EGUS, as exercise increases the production of gastric acid. Also, many horses are exercised on an empty stomach, which gives the sensitive stomach tissue no protection against this increased stomach acid.
EGUS Prevention and Treatment
While a veterinarian can recommend the best medical treatments to address EGUS, there are several feeding and management practices that can prevent and manage the occurrence of gastric ulcers.
Take Home Message
While EGUS is extremely common in today’s horse population, and most of our horses experience at least one strong risk factor for the disease, an ounce of prevention goes a long way in reducing the chances that our horses will ever suffer from gastric ulcers. Many times, making just a few small dietary or management changes is enough to keep our horses healthy and comfortable for years to come. It’s important to remember that not all horses are the same, so it’s up to the horse owner to determine which recommended approach works best for their specific horses. If you have any questions about managing your ulcer prone horse, it’s always best to consult with a certified equine nutritionist and your veterinarian to create an individualized program that maximizes your horse’s comfort and health.
Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS
Why Is Forage So Important?
Horses have evolved as grazers, spending as much as 16-18 hours a day grazing on pasture grasses and local forages. A horse’s stomach is quite small but his hindgut is quite large, making the horse an ideal animal to ingest large amounts of fibrous material throughout each day. In fact, this fibrous material is what keeps a horse’s digestive tract healthy and functional.
A horse’s hindgut is made up of the cecum, colon, and rectum. Together, the cecum and colon can hold up to 32 gallons of fibrous material, and this material slowly ferments over 2-3 days. All of the fiber a horse eats is fermented or digested, by billions of good bacteria and protozoa that live in the horse’s hindgut. These microorganisms break down the fiber a horse eats, producing volatile fatty acids that provide an important energy source for the horse. Horses can actually receive about 70% of their energy needs just from these volatile fatty acids alone!
Besides being an important energy source, the fiber in a horse’s diet is vital in keeping the horse’s digestive tract functioning like a well-oiled machine. A horse’s overall health and well-being is directly tied to the health of the bacterial population in the hindgut. When the fiber digesting microorganism in the gut are damaged or killed, they release toxins that can cause colic, founder, or hindgut acidosis. Feeding a diet rich in good quality fibers is the best way to keep a horse’s hindgut bacterial population healthy and active, and therefore keep the horse’s overall health at the best level possible. On average, mature horses need to consume 2.0-2.5% of their bodyweight in good quality fiber every day.
What Form of Fiber Is Best?
Now that we know how important fiber is in our horse’s diet, let’s look at how we can supply this dietary fiber. The most natural way for horses to receive fiber is through grazing on pasture grasses. However, due to limited space, poor quality grass or less than ideal grazing management, many pastures at today’s horse farms are used more for exercise and horse recreation rather than a means of getting nutrition into the horse. Also, changing weather condition and grass growing patterns mean that pasture grasses aren’t present all 365 days of the year. In these situations, most horse owners look to replacing pasture grass with hay.
Hay can be supplied through square bales or round bales. Square bales are smaller, easier to handle, and provide more flexible storage. However, feeding square bales can be labor intensive. Round bales, on the other hand, require much less labor as you can set them in an area and horses can eat on them for days. They are also usually less expensive on a per ton basis, but storage can be an issue and there is a potential for mold if the round bales are subjected to the elements. Perhaps the greatest drawback of round bales, however, is that horses may waste more when eating from a round bale. Because round bales are fed outside and affected by rain and mud, horses may not want to eat the entire bale. Using a specialized round bale feeder can help manage hay loss.
Another consideration when choosing hays is grass versus legume. Grass hays can be divided into two categories: cool-season and warm-season. Cool season grasses include timothy, orchardgrass, ryegrass and fescue, while warm-season grasses include Bermuda grass (sometimes referred to as coastal or Tifton 85) and bromegrass. Legume hays include alfalfa, clover and perennial peanut hay. In general, legume hays tend to be higher in protein, energy, calcium and Vitamin A than grass hays. However, legume hays tend to be a bit lower in overall fiber content than grass hays. These attributes make legume hays an excellent option for hard working performance horses, growing horse, and breeding stock. Grass hays, on the other hand, are excellent fiber options for most mature adult horses.
The decision to feed either square or round hay bales, legume versus grass hay or a combination of both, depends on the specific management considerations of each horse owner and the horses they care for. However, no matter what form or kind of hay you choose to feed, it’s important to make sure you choose the highest quality hay possible.
Many people purchase their hay based on how it looks and smells, and these are actually important factors to look for when choosing hay. Ideally though, you want to look at the inside of the hay bale when determining quality, not just the outside. Good hays should be green and vibrant in color, although a slight discoloration on the outside of the bale is normal. The hay should be leafy, soft to the touch and not coarse stemmed. It should also smell fresh and not moldy or musty. High quality hays will be free from weeds, leaves, twigs, dust and other foreign material.
Hay maturity is also a factor that determines overall quality, and you can measure hay quality by a quick visual inspection. When looking at hay, we know that most of the nutrition is in the leaf – this is where you’ll find the protein and highly digestible fibers. In young hays, there is a high leaf to stem ratio. As a plant ages, the percentage of leaves decreases and the hay will become mostly stem. A hay that is mostly stem with very little leaf content will be less digestible, and many times less palatable to the horse.
The most accurate method of determining forage quality is to have a forage analysis done on your hay. This involves taking a representative sample of the forage and sending it off to a laboratory to be chemically analyzed. A list of forage testing laboratories can be obtained from local feed companies or extension agencies. The laboratory can provide instructions on how to prepare and send your hay sample.
Once the hay sample has been tested, you will receive a detailed analysis report. At first glance, this report can be intimidating and hard to understand, but there are a few simple things you’ll want to look for to determine if your hay is providing enough nutrition to your horses. Three of the most important things to look at when examining your forage report are acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), and relative feed value (RFV).
ADF is made up of poorly digested fiber components, such as cellulose and lignin. The higher the ADF, the less digestible a hay is. Hays with ADF levels higher than 45% will have little nutritional value. NDF is a measurement of insoluble fibers, and high NDF numbers in a hay sample means a horse will want to eat less of the hay. Hays with NDF values above 65% will probably not be readily eaten by most horses. Together, ADF and NDF are used to estimate RFV. RFV was originally developed for cattle, but we can use it today to determine the expected digestibility and level of consumption of hays fed to horses. Hays with a high RFV will have higher quality, a greater intake, and be more digestible. Basically, as ADF and NDF increases, RFV will decrease. In general, an average quality hay will have an RFV of 100.
Take Home Message
Every horse owner’s goal is to meet their horses’ nutritional requirements as practically and economically as possible, and providing a good fiber base in the diet is the first step in accomplishing this task. Good quality forage can not only provide the bulk of a horse’s energy and nutrients, but horses are healthier when fed high forage diets. It’s vital that as horse owners, we spend just as much time examining and choosing our hay source as we do looking at commercial concentrates.
We all want the best for our horses, as we do ourselves. Good nutrition, a comfortable place to live and good medical and dental care are all required for a healthy lifestyle. No matter if you have owned horses for 30 years or just purchased your first horse, you need to make informed decisions regarding equine dentistry. The reality is that equine dentistry involves working in the mouth, an enclosed area that is mostly hidden from the outside world. Unlike the farrier, whose work is out in front for everyone to see and critique, the work of anyone who is doing dentistry is literally out of sight. So, let’s start with the ability to see what is going on in your horse’s mouth.
1) Examination: A normal adult horse with a full set of canines and wolf teeth has a total of 44 teeth, which means there are 32 teeth that are behind the front teeth or incisors. Your horse should have the same complete exam as your family dentist does on you, with a light and your mouth open, prior to beginning work. Anyone who is doing equine dentistry without a full mouth speculum and a good light source has a very real chance of missing problems and irregularities. If you can’t see or feel these problems, how can you fix them? A dental exam includes looking for damage from sharp teeth, such as ulcerations in the cheeks, and irregularities that affect the chewing surface such as hooks, ramps and waves. The incisors, premolars and molars should be checked for malocclusions, which is when the teeth don’t meet properly, and for irregular angles. A complete examination is the first essential step to keep from “floating” in the dark.
Dental exams should start within a few days of birth to identify any defects that may require early treatment. Most horses get their first real exam and dentals as late yearlings or early 2 year olds. I recommend that all horses get their first dental at least 2-4 weeks prior to putting any type of bit in their mouth. The horse will be much more comfortable and responsive when the teeth have been equilibrated and the wolf teeth removed. After that, exams and dentals should be performed every 6 to 12 months depending on the horse, use and age.
2) Instrumentation: During the past 19 years, the field of equine dentistry has changed significantly for the better. Human dentistry has evolved from the days of the Wild West with a tooth extraction in the barber’s chair to today’s crowns, veneers, restorations and a variety of anesthetics. Equine dentistry has had more advances in equipment, procedures and research than ever before. We better understand how different dental irregularities affect the ability to chew, gain weight and the horse’s overall comfort while being ridden. This information has provided knowledge on how dentistry can enhance the performance characteristics in the equine athlete.
It is often difficult to break free from old ideas and habits that have been ingrained in our minds. The important thing to note is that your horse deserves the same quality treatment as you do. It is important that all horse owners seek out competent professionals who perform equine dentistry, as the concept of doing complete equine dentistry is very important for your horse. There are a few factors to know to understand the significance.
First is “floating”, which is rasping or blunting the sharp points that form on the teeth through normal wear as horses eat. These points are usually located on the cheek side of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth. These sharp points can cut, abrade and pierce the surrounding soft tissue. The horse has an upper jaw that is wider than the lower jaw and so it is offset and has a table or chewing angle of 10-15 degrees. This “floating” is the first step, which can be done with motorized equipment or hand floats.
The use of motorized equipment is a very safe and effective means to perform equine dentistry when used properly. Just as you or I don’t want to sit in a dentist’s chair any longer than necessary, your horse’s patience also runs out if the procedure goes too long. With the motorized equipment I can do a cleaner, less irritating, more efficient and quicker procedure that result in overall comfort for your horse.
3) Young Horse Dentistry: It is very important to remember that a horse has what is called hypsodont teeth, meaning that the teeth wear and erupt continuously during their lifetime. Even though a foal is born with some teeth, the real active time of tooth growth is between 2 years 6 months of age and 5 years. This is when most irregularities start to form in the mouth due to imbalances and uneven eruption of new incisors, premolars and molars.
It is very important to have quality professional dentistry performed on young, growing horses. Correcting a mouth’s balance is essential in establishing a comfortable and efficient horse. There are three main areas of interest regarding balancing: the incisors, the premolars/molars and the TMJ or temporomandibular joint. The TMJ is where the lower jaw or mandible hinges on the head for jaw movement. For the mouth to be balanced there must be even contact with all the teeth including the incisors. It is important to make sure that all three areas are working together in unison.
4) Sedation: It is my opinion, to SAFELY perform a complete exam followed by necessary dental procedures, sedation is a must. Dentistry can be very difficult and potentially dangerous since your horse probably dislikes the dentist as much as you do. If you create an environment that is as relaxed and as safe as possible, then it is a better experience for all parties involved. Today’s sedatives have a very good safety record and do a very good job of relaxing the horse. A relaxed horse allows for more accurate examination and dentistry which results in a better quality result.
Equine dentistry has greatly improved over the last two decades. The knowledge, equipment and research recently gained in equine dentistry has allowed us to help our horses eat more efficiently, perform as a more balanced athlete and led an overall more comfortable life. We all want to be good stewards for our horses and quality equine dentistry is an essential part of that.
Toots A. Banner, DVM, from Micanopy, Florida, firstname.lastname@example.org owns Riverside Equine Dental Services, a practice specializing in equine dentistry serving the state of Florida.
With so many horse feed options available to us today, it can seem like a daunting task to pick the one that’s best for your horse. While the decision of choosing a horse feed can sometimes feel difficult and confusing, there are a few simple questions to ask in order to simplify the process and ensure you choose the feed that is not only best suited for your horse, but the highest quality as well.
Does the feed match my horse’s forage?
Forage, such as grass and hay, is the most important part of the horse’s diet. Horses should consume about 2.0% of their bodyweight in high quality forage per day. This means that a 1000 lb horse should eat at least 20 lb of grass/hay per day to stay healthy. The type of forage your horse consumes will impact what kind of feed you select. If you have access to high quality, calorie rich forages, then your horse may do best on a lower calorie commercial feed or ration balancer (depending on the horse’s activity level). Horses eating lower calorie, more mature forages may need to be fed higher calorie, highly fortified grain mixes to make up for the nutrition lacking in the forage.
Does this horse feed support my horse’s physiological state and activity level?
There are many different physiological states that a horse can be in, such as pregnancy, lactation, growing, performance and maintenance. Horses that are breeding, growing and performing will have different nutrient requirements than horses at maintenance. They will require feeds with higher calorie content, higher protein and higher vitamin and mineral fortification. In addition, a horse’s activity level will affect how he needs to be fed. Performance horses can be separated into activity levels of light, moderate, heavy and very heavy. Energy needs dramatically increase in proportion with activity levels, so horses in the heavy and very heavy activity levels will need higher calorie feeds than those working at light or moderate levels.
Does my horse need a feed formulated for a special age group?
Horse’s nutritional requirements are greatly affected by age. Younger horses have much higher nutritional needs than adult horses, as they are growing and need a higher plane of nutrition to support bone, tendon and muscle development. Typical growth feeds are between 14% and 16% crude protein with lysine levels of at least 0.8%. They will also have increased vitamin and mineral fortification. Along with growing horses, older horses will have special nutritional needs. Since older horses cannot digest nutrients as efficiently, senior feeds will often have higher levels of protein, vitamins and minerals to ensure good senior horse health. Senior feeds should also be easy to chew and higher in fiber, since many senior horses have dental problems that lead to them not being able to properly chew and digest forage.
Does this feed match my horse’s ability to maintain weight?
Just like people, horses will have different metabolisms. Some horses seem to stay plump on the air they breathe, while others struggle to maintain weight no matter how much they are fed. It is vital that a horse’s feed support his individual metabolism. Easy keepers, or those horses who have no trouble holding good bodyweight (and may even be overweight), should be maintained on feeds that are lower in calories so that they do not cause obesity. On the other hand, hard keeping horses will require commercial feeds that are energy dense and provide the calories needed to keep weight on these horses. Ideally, feeds for hard keepers will be high in fats to provide calories that are safer than those from sugar and starch.
Is this feed low starch and sugar?
It is well documented in equine research that diets low in starch and sugar are safer for horses and reduce the risk of many physical problems. Too much sugar and starch, or non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), is directly linked to laminits, insulin resistance, ulcers, colic, diarrhea and behavior issues. Because of these potential dangers, quality horse feeds will use energy sources coming from fat and digestible fibers, as these calories are safer and do not bring the health hazards that soluble carbohydrates do. In general, feeds that are higher in fat and fiber and lower in sugar and starch are healthier options than those that are high in NSC. Commercial feeds that have a high content of cereal grains will be much higher in NSC than those that are based on ingredients such as beet pulp, soybean hulls and rice bran.
Are the ingredients in the horse feed high quality?
It’s often been said that “you get what you pay for,” and this has never been truer than in commercial horse feeds. In order to keep feed costs low, many feed companies will use inferior ingredients in their formulations. An inferior ingredient is one that is less digestible, which results in a feed that cannot maintain a horse’s bodyweight or perform as expected. Examples of some lower quality ingredients that you may find in commercial feeds are oat mill by-products and distillers dried grains, as well as peanut and rice hulls. Oat mill by-product is a lower quality fiber ingredient that is not entirely digestible. Distiller dried grains are a lower quality protein source that is highly variable, so can create problems with consistent amino acid content and palatability. Soybean meal, soy hulls, beet pulp, and rice bran are some of the highest quality ingredients we have for commercial horse feed formulations, so it is best to choose feeds that have high levels of these ingredients.
Is this feed fixed formula?
There are two methods that feed companies can use for product formulation: least cost and fixed formula. Least cost horse feeds are those where the company takes ingredient cost into account when formulating the feed, therefore producing a feed using the least cost ingredients possible. The problem with least cost formulation is that feed ingredient prices vary dramatically from week to week. As the cost of basic ingredients change, so will the formula. While the nutrient guarantees on the tag won’t change, the ingredient combination in the feed most certainly will. The horse’s digestive system is very sensitive to abrupt changes, so least cost formulations can result in the horse going off feed, gas and even colic. Fixed formula feeds, on the other hand, are made from formulations that do not change no matter what the ingredient market does. In general, fixed formula feeds are those that do not have a sewn on tag on the feed bag – the ingredients are printed directly on the feed bag itself. Also, fixed formulation feeds will not use general terms such as “grain products” or “molasses products.” They will list each specific ingredient individually.
Are the grains in this horse feed optimally processed?
One of the hallmarks of a good horse feed is that it will provide the horse’s nutritional needs without creating digestive or metabolic upset. Processing feeds, such as by pelleting or extruding, has been consistently shown to decrease digestive upset in horses while increasing nutrient digestibility. During the pelleting process, feed ingredients are ground into fine particles before being heated by steam. The ingredients in a pelleted feed are not cooked however, as that would destroy vitamins and minerals. The steam used is just high enough in temperature to break up complex starch molecules, making them more digestible, but not damage any other nutrients. Extrusion, on the other hand, uses high pressure temperatures much higher than those used during the pelleting process. Extruded feeds look very different than your typical horse feed in that they usually are in a kibble form. Both pelleting and extrusion increase ingredient digestibility, especially of starch. However, extruding a horse feed can create a few issues. For one, the high heat used during extrusion tends to destroy some of the feed’s natural vitamin content, forcing the feed company to add extra amounts of these vitamins to compensate. This extra vitamin supplementation adds increased cost to the end consumer. Additionally, extruded feeds have been shown to actually have a negative effect on the horse by increasing the glycemic response to that feed. The glycemic response is a measure of the rise in a horse’s blood glucose after a meal. This can be detrimental to horses that are sensitive to changes in their blood glucose levels, such as those suffering from insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease or EPSM. Also, this high glycemic response can lead to behavior problems such as hyperactivity. To further complicate matters, extruded feeds are less dense than other feed types, so a scoop of an extruded feed may be equal in weight to only half a scoop of a pelleted feed. This means that you may need to feed more of an extruded feed to get the same amount of nutrition. While extruded feeds show promise, at this current time no one has shown that there are any benefits that cannot be found in a pelleted feed.
Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS
The goal of most breeding programs is to produce a sound athlete, whether for the show ring or the trail. Nutrition plays a big role in the proper development of the young horse – a process that begins with nourishment in the womb and continues until they reach mature size. This article will address feeding the mare during pregnancy and lactation, as well as feeding programs for nursing foals, weanlings and yearlings.
Over 60% of fetal growth occurs during the last 3 months of pregnancy. However, the mare’s requirements for protein, energy (calories) and minerals begin to increase in the 5th month of gestation and remain elevated until she foals. Therefore, the diets of pregnant mares need to be adjusted, particularly for the last half of pregnancy, to account for the increased nutrient demand by the growing fetus.
To enable proper bone and cartilage development in the fetal foal, minerals are perhaps the most critical of nutrients to ensure are provided in sufficient quantities to pregnant mares. Whereas protein and energy requirements increase 30% during mid- to late gestation, calcium and phosphorus requirements of the pregnant mare almost double by the last trimester.
Example diets for pregnant mares are provided in Table 1. Total dietary intake usually ranges from 2.0 – 2.25% of body weight. Mares in healthy body condition (score of 5-7 out of 9) who are also not simultaneously lactating (due to overlapping gestation/lactation cycles) often do not need concentrate until the middle of gestation. Instead, good quality forage can often meet their protein and energy requirements. However, forage alone usually cannot meet the higher mineral and vitamin needs of pregnant mares. In such cases, a concentrated mineral-vitamin supplement could be used to complement the forage. Because intake from a mineral block or free-choice mineral feeder can be erratic, a better option is to feed a fortified “ration balancer” pellet each day. Ration balancers typically contain a higher concentration of protein (24-32%), calcium (2-4%), phosphorus (1-2%), trace minerals, and vitamins than a traditional feed, and thus can be fed in smaller quantities (1-3 pounds per day). When good quality forage is not available, then a traditional fortified concentrate may be necessary to meet the requirements of mares in early to mid gestation. In late gestation, a fortified concentrate is often necessary to meet the mare’s elevated requirements. A concentrate formulated for broodmares should be selected, as they usually contain higher levels of protein, energy and minerals compared to feeds formulated for other types of horses. The same concentrate can also be used to feed the mare during lactation, so beginning its use during gestation will help make the transition to lactation easier. If the mare is fed at least 0.5% of body weight as concentrate (~5 Lbs for most light breed mares) in late gestation, then the ration balancer supplement can be discontinued.
Many mares are rebred within 30-60 days after foaling. As a result, the early gestation period can overlap with lactation. In such cases, the mare should be fed as a lactating mare (Table 2)
Once the foal is born, he is reliant on the nutrients in milk produced by the mare. The foal also begins to eat solid foods at a relatively young age, including sampling the mare’s feed. Therefore, it is important to understand how to best feed a lactating mare in order to support continued growth and development of the foal.
Development of the udder along with production of an average of 4 to 5 gallons of milk per day presents a large drain on the reserves of the mare, and dictates the need for daily replenishment of nutrients from the diet. With the onset of lactation, the mare’s protein requirement increases an additional 75% and energy requirement increases an additional 50% over what she needed in late pregnancy. Lactation also results in the need for additional vitamin and mineral intake, including a 64% increase in calcium and 46% increase in phosphorus compared to late gestation
Example diets for lactating mares are provided in Table 2. Total dietary intake for most lactating mares will exceed 2% of body weight and some will consume more than 3% of body weight. The feeding of a fortified concentrate is generally necessary to meet the very high nutrient requirements of a lactating mare. Again, a commercial feed formulated for broodmares should be used, because of the higher protein, mineral and vitamin concentrations associated with these products. Even better, a concentrate suitable for growing horses should be fed to lactating mares, since the foal will begin sharing the mare’s concentrate as early as a few weeks of age. Most feed companies offer a single formula suitable for feeding broodmares and foals (ie, “mare and foal” formula). It is also helpful if this product was the same one used during late gestation, so the mare is already adapted to it after foaling.
The feeding of high quality forages to mares will help lessen the need for large quantities of concentrate. Depending on the time of year, the first few months of lactation (when milk production is highest) may or may not coincide with high quality pasture availability. When possible, early to mid-maturity grass/legume mix hays or mid-maturity legume hays should be utilized for lactating mares and their foals. Greater amounts of concentrate (> 1% of body weight) will likely be needed when grass hays or lower quality, late-maturity hays are provided as the forage source. Such high intakes of grain-based concentrates are associated with an increased risk of digestive disturbances. When high concentrate intakes are necessary, the concentrate should be divided into two or three meals per day. In addition, all increases in concentrate to accommodate lactation should be made gradually to reduce the risk of colic and other digestive problems.
The body condition of the mare has been shown to impact fertility and reproductive performance. Non-pregnant mares in good body condition (score at or above 5) at the onset of the breeding season will generally have higher conception rates and will require fewer cycles to conceive. Mares in thin body condition have a longer anovulatory or transitional period, resulting in delayed or unsuccessful breeding in the spring. Pregnant mares that foal in a thin body condition at the onset of lactation may also have reduced reproductive efficiency. Therefore, feeding programs for lactating mares may have to be adjusted beyond that listed in Table 2 to minimize weight loss and/or encourage weight gain if the mare is to be rebred. Ideally mares (pregnant or lactating) should be fed to maintain a body condition score of 5 to 7.
Milk makes up the majority of the foal’s diet for the first few months of life. However, at about 2 months of age, a discrepancy starts to develop between the amount of nutrients provided in milk and the steadily increasing requirements of the rapidly growing foal. This phenomenon may be nature’s way of prodding the foal to seek out and consume solid foods to make up the difference for what’s lacking in milk. Ultimately, it is important for nursing foals to have access to high quality forages and concentrates that are compatible with its requirements.
Many foals will share their dam’s concentrate and forage – this is why it is a sound practice to feed the lactating mare a commercial fortified concentrate that is suitable for foals. However, the foal may not be able to compete with the mare (or the herd) for an adequate amount of feed. In addition, given their smaller body size, yet higher nutrient requirements, foals require a more nutrient-dense ration than adult horses. So many feeds that can meet the needs of mares and other horses the foals might be housed with are not suitable choices for foals.
Creep feeding is a management practice whereby the foal is given exclusive access to a nutrient-dense concentrate. It can be accomplished with a special foal feeder (with adjustable bars big enough to admit the foal’s nose, but not the mare’s) placed in the stall where the mare and foal are fed. Alternatively, a creep feeding station can be constructed in the pasture with simple materials (eg, setting a board rail at a height to admit foals but not mares in one corner of the pasture). Ideally, the creep feeder would be placed in a location where mares and foals spend the majority of their time. This allows foals to “creep” in and nibble on feed whenever they want, essentially mimicking a pattern of frequent nursing with small meals of concentrate. By comparison, use of a creep feeder in a stall where mares and foals are brought in twice daily for feeding forces the foal to eat larger, more distinct meals, which may have undesirable metabolic side effects.
To counterbalance the nutrient deficit in milk, creep feeding should begin when foals reach 2 months of age. As a rule of thumb, a foal should be offered 1 pound of creep feed per month of age. Fresh creep feed should be put in the feeder daily and older, uneaten feed removed regularly to encourage intake. Frequent monitoring of creep feed consumption can permit timely intervention when a foal is consuming more than desired, particularly when groups of foals have access to the same creep feeder.
Ideally, the feed used in the creep feeder should be a product designed for this purpose. In most cases, a commercial fortified feed formulated for broodmares and growing horses will work well (“growth” or “mare and foal” formula). If this is the same feed the lactating mare receives, it has the added benefit of being familiar to the foal, which encourages intake. Many of the larger feed companies also offer “transition” feeds that are used to transition orphan foals from milk replacers to more traditional concentrates. These transition feeds also work well as creep feed, particularly for very young foals.
Some horsemen have concerns that creep feeding promotes a more rapid rate of growth and may predispose foals to developmental orthopedic disease. Properly done, creep feeding can actually reduce the risk of problems with skeletal development. Creep feeding offers several benefits, the most important of which is to bridge the nutrient gap created by declining milk quality, as well as seasonal fluctuations in pasture nutrient content. Keeping foals on a consistent plane of nutrition helps to promote a steady rate of growth, thus avoiding growth slumps, which are often followed by growth spurts. Uneven or disturbed rates of growth are thought to increase risk of developmental orthopedic disease. For mares that are poor milk producers, creep feeding is even more important, giving foals an outlet to obtain the necessary nutrients for proper growth. Creep feeding can also make weaning less stressful by encouraging significant consumption of solid feed before weaning. And if the same feed used for creep feeding is fed to foals after weaning, the foal will be more familiar with its new diet.
Young growing horses are the most sensitive to dietary nutrient supply, making it essential to pay close attention to their feeding programs. The high nutrient requirements, yet smaller digestive capacity in young horses necessitate the feeding of a very nutrient-dense diet compared to the average adult horse. Every effort should be made to provide weanlings and yearlings with a high quality source of forage. When hay is offered, use of early- to mid-maturity grass/legume mix hays or early-maturity grass hays will go a long way in helping to meet the nutrient demands of the young horse. Ideally, the young horse should be offered all the forage they want to eat, with an expected range of intake between 1-2% of body weight (on the lower end for weanlings, the upper end for long yearlings (Table 3).
Offering a suitable concentrate will also be necessary to support growth. Commercially available fortified feeds that have been formulated for growing horses (“growth” formula) generally contain higher levels of protein (14-16%), lysine (0.8%), minerals (0.9% Ca, 0.6% P) and vitamins than feeds formulated for mature horses or performance horses. In many cases, the product may be marketed as a “mare and foal feed” where it can be fed to the lactating mare, used as creep feed for the nursing foal, and later used to feed the foal once weaned. The amount offered will vary based on age, forage quality and desired growth rate (Table 3).
Lori K. Warren, Ph.D., PAS
Associate Professor, Equine Nutrition
Department of Animal Sciences
University of Florida, Gainesville
Horses that are in work have vastly different nutritional needs than horses that are inactive. However, it’s the level of activity that determines how to best feed our performance horses. Horse activity level is divided into four categories: light, moderate, heavy, and very heavy. Horses in light activity are those used for events like trail and pleasure rides, where the work is mainly done at the walk. These horses generally work 1-3 hours per week. Those in moderate work include school horses in a lesson program and those used for frequent showing, but in disciplines that are less strenuous. These horses usually work for 3-5 hours per week. Looking at the heavy work category, we start to see horses that work for 4-5 hours per week but undergo strenuous speed or jumping work during their training — polo horses and those in low to medium level event training, for example. Horses in very heavy work spend the bulk of their training doing strenuous activities including speed and jumping work and may work anywhere from 6-12 hours per week. These include elite racehorses and elite event horses. While these categories are general labels and every horse should be treated as an individual, they give us a good idea of where to start when feeding our performance horses.
Energy is the first nutrient that is required in higher amounts in the working horse, and energy needs increase as the level of work increases. The source of that energy is just as important as the amount. The first source of energy we see in equine nutrition products is soluble carbohydrates, also called non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), or sugars and starch. These are found mainly in grains, like corn, and sweetening agents, like molasses. When a horse digests soluble carbohydrates, the breakdown products are absorbed in the small intestine. The problem with NSC is that when digested they can cause an increase in blood glucose and insulin that can lead to metabolic disturbances and increase the risk for tying up and ulcers. It’s critical that we don’t feed too much NSC and overload the small intestine with them. If this happens, the starch that doesn’t get digested in the small intestine passes into the hindgut where it is fermented, which can cause acidosis, diarrhea, and even laminitis.
If starches and sugars can be dangerous when fed in high amounts, what can we substitute as a safer energy source? The answer is fats, and this ingredient is actually the preferred energy source of the horse. As we train our horses and they increase in physical fitness, their bodies shift naturally from using carbohydrates for energy to using fats for energy. Fats are also more energy dense, meaning that a small amount of fat can hold a much larger amount of energy. Like sugar and starch, fats are absorbed in the small intestine but do not cause a large metabolic disturbance, so they are safer than sugars and starches. Some excellent sources of fats in the horse’s diet are flaxseed and rice bran.
In addition to energy, water is another nutrient that is greatly affected as the horse starts to work. Performing horses lose massive amounts of water as they sweat, and this loss can lead to dehydration and heat stroke. In moderate climates, horses can lose 6-8 L of sweat per hour. In hotter climates, like what we see in a typical south eastern summer, this loss can increase to 15 L per hour. One L of sweat weighs about 2 pounds, so in a hot climate a horse can lose up to 30 pounds of bodyweight per hour.
There is a common myth in the horse industry that says we should not let a hot, tired horse drink directly after work because it will make him colic or founder. Actually, withholding water is the worst thing you can do when your horse is hot or tired. Research has shown that your horse has his greatest thirst immediately after exercise. If we withhold water until the horse isn’t hot anymore, he may not feel thirsty but could still be in need of rehydration. Numerous studies have shown that letting a hot horse drink will cause neither colic nor founder. In fact, letting a hot horse drink is the best way to help him cool down. As a rule of thumb, allow your horse water at all times, whether he is hot or not.
Electrolytes are another class of nutrients that working horses need. All horses should have free choice access to a salt block, but performance horses need a little extra in terms of electrolytes. There are many choices of electrolyte supplementation available, and the first is top-dressing, or adding an electrolyte powder directly to the grain mix. You can also dissolve electrolytes in water. Some electrolytes are available in paste form, or you can create your own paste by mixing a commercial electrolyte powder with applesauce or plain yogurt.
Along with electrolytes, vitamins play a large role in the health of the performance horse. Fat soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E and K. Vitamin D is made by the skin in response to sunlight, and Vitamins A, E and K come primarily from fresh, green forages. Water soluble vitamins include the B-vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin and Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a nutrient we’re beginning to realize is very important in the performance horse. Vitamin C works closely with Vitamin E as a significant antioxidant and is important for good muscle health.
While the performance horse does have increased vitamin requirements, these needs usually increase in proportion to energy. In other words, if we feed our horses better grain and hay, or increase the daily amounts fed in the horse’s diet, generally we are already meeting these vitamin needs. The one exception to this may be Vitamin E, which is critical in protecting the body from oxidative damage. This is increasingly important in the working horse, as the muscle breakdown and rebuilding these horses go through can increase the oxidative products in the body. Vitamin E is found mostly in fresh green grass, so if you have a hard working horse that has little or no access to pasture it may be a good idea to feed a supplemental Vitamin E.
The next nutrient important to working horses is probably the most misunderstood in the horse industry – protein. Performance horses do have elevated protein needs over those horses who aren’t working, but the increase is not huge. What we actually see now in the performance industry is horses being overfed protein. Excess protein is detrimental as it can stress the liver and increase fatigue and dehydration. Since excess protein cannot be utilized for energy in the body, it is excreted in the horse’s urine as ammonia. Urine high in ammonia has a very bad smell when it builds up on the stall floor and can cause respiratory problems in horses.
With protein, it’s all about QUALITY, not quantity. Horses need grams of amino acids, not just a percentage of crude protein. Providing a high quality protein source (such as soybean meal) is vital in giving the horse the building blocks he needs to build strong muscle and bone. It doesn’t matter how much protein we give them - if this protein is of poor quality and doesn’t have the correct amino acids, the horse can’t use it and it will leave the body as waste in the urine.
Feeding the Equine Athlete
Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS
Older Horse Challenges
As horses mature into their senior years, there are many physical attributes that can be easily seen. These include weight loss, loss of muscle over the topline, graying of the coat, and a hollowing out of the grooves around the eyes. While these changes may be obvious, there are other internal changes happening in the senior horse that we can’t see. These physiological, unseen changes will greatly affect the horse’s nutritional outlook.
There are three main characteristics of older horses that will affect their nutritional health, the first being dental condition. As horses age, they may develop dental problems such as tooth fractures, sharp points, or abnormal wear patterns. Since a horse’s teeth basically grow until they’re gone, older horses will also often have tooth loss. All of these dental problems can lead to a decrease in chewing function, which results in reduced food intake, weight loss, and in some cases a total inability to eat grass and hay. Signs that a horse may be losing the ability to chew include wadding hay in the mouth before spitting it out, or quidding.
A second characteristic of senior horses is that they become less efficient in digesting and absorbing nutrients. Some horses will have scarring in their digestive tracts from internal parasites, while others experience hormone and metabolism changes that interfere with the ability to digest feeds. Whatever the cause, some older horses just can’t utilize essential nutrients in their feed. Protein, fiber, and phosphorus are three nutrients that are particularly hard for an aged horse to digest.
The last characteristic we find in senior horses is a changing metabolism. This means that older horses may develop problems maintaining a correct bodyweight. The horse that was always pleasantly plump may suddenly become thin and a hard keeper, while the horse that was always thin may become overweight and an easy keeper. Some senior horses may fluctuate drastically between too thin or too heavy within a single year.
What Does the Senior Horse Need?
The goal in feeding a senior horse is to maintain an optimal body condition score of 4 to 6 on a 9 point scale. Since aging is such an individual process, there are no clear cut nutrient requirements for aged horses. However, because of the physical changes happening in an older horse’s body, we do know there are some general specifications for what an older horse needs in his diet.
First, and most importantly, a senior horse needs a high quality supply of highly digestible fiber that is easy to chew and digest. Forages should be the foundation of all horse diets, and it is important to ensure that the senior horse is eating at least 1.5% of his body weight in forage per day. In an older horse with good quality teeth, pasture grass and/or long stemmed hay should be able to meet the forage requirements. In an older horse with missing teeth or poor quality teeth, the ability to graze and chew is limited so we must supply a forage alternative. Hay cubes, chopped hay, and beet pulp are a few options we can use to replace the dietary fiber that would come from hay and grass. These products can be soaked to make them easy for the aged horse to eat. In addition, many commercial senior feeds have elevated fiber levels to replace a portion of forage in the diet.
After a senior horse’s forage needs are met, the next step is to provide enough good quality protein in the diet. Because older horses can’t digest protein as efficiently and they tend to experience muscle wasting, providing a high quality protein source becomes very important. Not all protein sources are created equal – many protein sources will have an amino acid profile that is not ideally suited to the horse. An excellent source of protein that is ideal for the older horse is soybean meal, because it has an outstanding amino acid profile and composition.
Similar to protein, the quality of the minerals in an older horse’s feed need to be of the highest quality so that the senior horse can absorb them. Senior horses should be fed a diet containing chelated minerals. Chelated minerals are minerals attached to an amino acid or sugar, making them more digestible to the horse and more easily absorbed. In addition, a senior horse will have an elevated need for phosphorus because they can’t digest the mineral as easily. Calcium requirements, on the other hand, will stay at maintenance levels.
Aged horses can also benefit from antioxidants and prebiotics in their diet. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E may benefit a senior horse’s immune system. Since older horses often have problems maintaining a healthy digestive tract, it’s a good idea to provide nutrients that can aid in digestive health. Prebiotics, specifically true yeast culture products, can help increase digestive efficiency and the overall health of the horse’s hindgut.
Choosing a Senior Feed
Just about every feed company has its own version of a senior feed, and choosing between them can seem like a daunting task. We can simplify this decision by keeping a few guidelines in mind. First, a good senior feed needs to be in a form that is easy to chew. A soft pellet, or a mix of a softer pellet with processed grains, is a good form to go with. The feed needs to be processed in some way to make it more digestible. A good senior feed should also be dust free so it does not aggravate an older horse’s respiratory tract, and should create a nice mash when soaked.
In order to help maintain a good topline and decrease muscle wasting, a good senior feed will have at least 12% protein. That protein should come mainly from soybean meal. The feed should also have a high level of fiber (minimum of 10%). Remember, many older horses will have dental problems and will not be able to chew grass or hay, so a good senior feed needs to have enough fiber to help replace this forage. Excellent sources of fiber to look for are beet pulp and soybean hulls. A good senior feed will also have a low level of sugar and starch, or NSC. Older horses are more susceptible to metabolic disorders and are more at risk for metabolic problems, so we need to keep the sugar and starch of their diets as low as possible. If the senior horse is one that is on the thin side and needs more calories, a quality senior feed will be supplemented with fat to add safe energy. In addition, quality senior feeds will contain digestive aids like prebiotics and yeast culture to help keep an aged horse’s digestive tract healthy and working properly.
Who Can Eat a Senior Feed?
At their core, there are two things that make a senior feed special – the feed is easy to digest and higher in digestible fibers. These are qualities in a horse feed that will benefit any horse, regardless of age. Properly formulated senior feeds can easily support the nutritional needs of both the growing and working horse because they are well fortified with quality protein, fiber, and minerals. Many barns will use a senior formulated feed as their “all around” feed, because it can fill such a wide variety of needs. Knowing this, there is no harm in switching an older horse onto a senior feed before they show the physical signs of aging. In fact, sometimes moving a horse onto a diet formulated for the senior early in his life can prevent problems down the road. The end goal of managing a senior horse is to keep them healthy and comfortable into their golden years, and feeding a quality senior feed is part of the management program that can achieve this goal.
Feeding the Senior Horse
Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS