Sarah Kearney BSc (Hons), Nutritional Advisor at Dodson & Horrell, talks us through tailoring your horse’s diet to suit the change into spring.
The days are getting longer and we are all looking forward to a busy summer with our horses. Spring is the ideal time to take a step back and critically assess your horse’s diet and make a plan for the year ahead. Keeping an eye on your horse’s bodyweight and condition is always important, but is particularly crucial during the spring when the calorie content of the grass can increase rapidly. It’s also a time of year when your horse’s workload is likely to change, bringing a whole new set of challenges.
The grass is greener
Horses and ponies are genetically predisposed to cope with fluctuations in calorific intake and you only have to look at their wild, natural diet of different plants, grasses and herbs to recognise that their digestive system has adapted to break down and absorb as much nutrition from their diet as possible. At this time of year, horses and ponies are usually at their slimmest so keeping an eye on their condition and on the grass is essential to stop them piling on the pounds during the next few months. Remember if your garden lawn is growing so is your field!
As spring gets going, there is a surge in grass growth and longer spells of sunshine lead to increased photosynthesis within the plant, and so the calorie content of the grass increases. It is now that we have to be careful that our horses do not suddenly start to intake too many calories as this can cause problems with weight gain in any horse, but can be a real problem for horses or ponies that suffer from laminitis. It is therefore important to monitor grass growth, reduce paddock size, use a track system or cross graze with other livestock to restrict the amount of grass available, without having to reduce the amount of time spent out. It is best to make these changes sooner rather than later so we can prevent weight gain before it happens.
In order to work out whether a change in management or diet is required, first we have to assess whether there is a weight imbalance. There are various ways to do this and in an ideal world, we would all have access to a weighbridge to accurately monitor fluctuations on a monthly basis. A more practical option however is through weigh taping; a process where a specifically designed tape is placed around the middle of the horse – at the lowest point of the withers and around the barrel as close to the elbow as possible. The point at which the tape ends meet should indicate an estimate of the total bodyweight. Although weigh taping is a really cost effective way of getting an idea of what your horse or pony weighs, it doesn’t take into account the amount of fat distribution on the neck and rump, neither does it help in monitoring fluctuations around these areas.
The best way you can get an idea if your horse or pony is over or underweight is to calculate its body fat score. This is much easier to do than it sounds and there are pictorial guidelines that you can easily access on the internet to help you – all you do is mentally divide the horse up into three sections; neck and shoulders, middle and ribs and back end. Each of these three sections you score from one – five (one being very thin and five very overweight) and depending on the genetic body type, you should generally be aiming for a three all round. Use your hands while you score each of these sections, feeling for excess fat along the top of the neckline and over the shoulder, looking for fat pads and how well you can feel the ribs, standing at the back end and assessing whether the spine is the highest point or not etc.
If you discover that your horse or pony does have a weight issue, then the next step is to try and tackle this through adjustment of exercise and diet. It goes without saying that there are exceptions to the rule; if your horse has a medical issue that restricts the dietary components you can give for example. There are however, general rules and tips you can try in order to help get your horse or pony’s weight back to the optimum.
If your horse is underweight, (once any possible medical conditions have been ruled out) the main aim is to increase the amount of calories ingested on a daily basis. As fibre is the main source of the horses’ diet, this should be the first dietary factor to adjust as your horse requires at least 2-2.5% of their bodyweight per day (e.g. 10-12.5kg for 500kg horse). In many cases where weight loss is an issue, simply increasing the amount of fibre you provide (in the form of hay or haylage) and going for a batch that has a higher nutritional value can help to rectify the problem. If it doesn’t, then this is the time to start making changes to the concentrate ration.
One option is to change to a feed that has been specifically formulated to pack the calories in, and has been designed for the purpose of increasing bodyweight; these come in the form of ‘conditioning’ feeds. Sometimes owners may be reluctant to change the diet if their horse is performing well or due to the possibility in a change of temperament and in these cases adding in an additional high fat, high oil supplement is ideal to ‘top up’ calorie content. If you have a horse that is sensitive to higher levels of starch and sugar, a typical conditioning feed may not be appropriate, however most feed companies should be able to offer you a low starch alternative.
Oil (usually soya or linseed) is a great way to include a real boost of slow releasing calories into the diet as it provides over two times as much digestible energy as the same amount of a cereal.
If your horse is overweight – apart from the obvious ‘increasing the amount of exercise’, there are steps that we can take in order to help control and restrict calorie intake, whilst still providing everything that is required on a daily basis. Again as previously mentioned, the fibre side of the diet should be the first aspect to adjust. The natural temptation as horse owners is usually to cut back on the volume being offered, which can cause digestive issues – all horses should have access to some kind of forage in order to help keep their digestive system functioning in the way it has evolved to. The general rule of thumb for a weight loss diet is to make sure that 1.5% of bodyweight is being provided in fibre per day and if we aren’t reducing the amount of fibre below this value then we need to adjust the quality of it. Going for a fibre that has a lower digestible energy value and higher fibre content will reduce the amount of calories that are ingested.
We can further decrease calorie content by soaking hay for twelve hours prior to feeding and although not always practical, lukewarm water is more effective. Most yards do not have the facilities to keep water lukewarm so you can give a good kick-start by adding a few kettles of boiled water at the beginning and by giving the net a shake every time you walk past. Once we have reduced calorie content, we can now reduce the speed in which it is consumed by double netting or using specially designed slow feeder nets. Using some of the grazing techniques mentioned earlier will also aid in reducing calorie intake-remember we want to increase the quantity of grass they can intake, not the amount of time spent outside moving around (and therefore burning calories!).
If you do go for a less rich fibre source then your hard feed needs to do a little more of the hard work, therefore add a high specification balancer to the diet in order to make sure that vitamins, minerals and amino acids are provided.
Regular checks in body fat score and weigh taping will help you to evaluate any changes. It can be really difficult to notice these changes when you see your horse daily so keeping a little diary of the condition scores, and re-assessing every few weeks will help you to judge whether you are seeing a difference. If you are able to take monthly photos and keep a record of these, flicking through them and looking at changes will also help you to keep track of progression.
Getting competition ready
Theoretically, your training leading up to the competition season should gradually increase in intensity and so what you put into your horse in terms of energy and calories should reflect that. The principle is the same with humans – when horses expend more energy, they need to consume more energy in order to compensate for the deficit created. If you do increase your horse’s exercise intensity without doing this, then you may see a reduction in available energy levels for exercise or a reduction in bodyweight. Increasing the amount of the current feed is the first step to take – up to the point of the full recommended feeding rates. If at this stage the energy level is not sufficient, then changing onto a performance feed with a higher digestible energy level is the next option.
If however you are not feeding to the full recommended amount, topping up the nutrient levels with a high quality balancer will help to make sure that the correct levels of vitamins and minerals are being provided. The quality of the dietary protein for a hardworking horse is also an important factor to consider; look for the inclusion of the amino acid lysine (a crucial protein building block) on your feed bag. Lysine will help to make sure that the exercise you do to build musculature is maximised and is usually included in a high quality complete feed at around 6g/kg.
Whilst at a competition it is important to still remember that hay or haylage should be available at all times. After the competition the main supplement to look at, especially at this time of year, is an electrolyte package. When horses sweat, they release electrolytes (body salts) and these levels need to be replenished in order to help with re-hydration, performance and minimising fatigue. Plain water alone isn’t as effective as rehydrating a horse who has been sweating, as this only serves to dilute the body fluids even further, so providing an electrolyte package alongside water can help to rebalance the isotonic levels.
It is important that with any change in routine it takes place slowly over a period of time and that your horse is monitored throughout. Always seek professional advice if you are unsure. For further advice call Dodson & Horrell’s dedicated Nutritional Helpline 0845 345 2627 or visit www.dodsonandhorrell.com
About the author
Sarah Kearney is a member of the experienced and friendly team working on the Nutritional Helpline answering feed enquiries and giving advice for the horse feed brands as well as the Dodson & Horrell dog food brands, Chudleys and Autarky. Sarah holds a First Class BSc (Hons) in Equine Science and is currently studying for a Masters degree in Equine Science.