How We Feed Our Horses Matters As Well as What We Feed Them

How we feed our horses matters: After a recent trip to a very large equine expo, I was reminded of the influx of information available regarding the feeding and management of horses. That combined with the mere presence of the spring grass growing threatening to founder my old mare yet again, I have sought out better ways to manage the feeding of my diverse group of horses that not only meets their nutritional and health requirements but also maintains some quality of life.

Evolutionary Background and Modern Challenges

Horses have evolved as grazing animals and thus their digestive systems have developed to accommodate a forage based diet, typically grasses, that they continually graze all day. They have a relatively quick passage rate allowing feed to pass from one end to the other much quicker than say a ruminant, such as a cow. In addition these wild ancestors would graze the lush grass in the summer, put on body condition and then lose condition over the winter as they paw and travel for food and water. Currently there are very few horses that live this life. Several horses face challenges, ranging from limited to no grazing or excessive access to lush pastures, minimal or extensive exercise, and either unrestricted access to feed or limited to one to two meals per day. Additionally, many find themselves housed in stalls, dirt pens, or small fields.

The old fashioned life of moderation is past. As a result we have seen a number of issues develop along with the domestication of horses, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, chronic laminitis, parasites, sand colic, gastric ulcers, behaviour issues (weaving, cribbing, fence chewing etc) only to mention a few. The challenges of the domestic horse are extensive, only a few ideas will be discussed here as they relate to feeding.

Dietary Management for Equine Metabolic Syndrome

In the last few years there has been extensive research on laminits in the horse and what is now known as Equine Metabolic Syndrome. These horses typically require a restricted diet limiting the amount of feed they ingest and often eliminating carbohydrates, particularly non-structural carbohydrates. These horses reside in dirt pens without grass access, receiving their nutrition through measured ‘meals.’ Similarly, horses in small pens or stalls undergo comparable management. When provided with limited amounts of feed during specific daily periods, these horses experience an unmet intrinsic need to graze, potentially resulting in behaviors such as fence/tree chewing or ingesting bedding and other materials from the ground.

The goal should be to increase the number of meals with decreasing the amount fed, difficult in many situations. Feeding more of a less nutrient dense feed is one option. Offering a hay net with very small openings simulates the art of grazing by limiting the amount of feed the horse can gather in each mouthful. This extends the time that the feed is available to the horse each day.

Managing Parasitism and Sand Colic Risk in Confined Horse Housing

Horses housed in a limited area, particularly when grouped with a number of others are at increased risk of parasitism. The majority of parasites commonly affecting horses have a fecal-oral transmission, meaning horses ingest the eggs in the feces during feeding/grazing on the ground and the worms develop inside the horse. These worms then develop eggs which are shed in the feces and the cycle continues. The proximity of horse housing increases the likelihood of a horse feeding on the ground coming into contact with parasite eggs.

In addition, horses housed in areas with sandy soil are at increased risk for sand colic, which can be quite serious, as they ingest sand while eating, the sand builds up in the digestive tract and fails to pass through, thus causing colic. It is thus recommended that horses not be fed on the ground if possible. Feed boxes are one option but need to be safe, maintained and ideally high enough that a horse can’t climb in. And if feeding a restricted diet the competition between horses surrounding one feed box may preclude the less dominant horses from eating enough.

Specialized Feeding Management for Horses

Offering free choice feed to horses in the form of a large round bale is common practice. However, there are a number of horses who struggle with obesity and laminitis who cannot feed this way.Previously, the recommendation was to permit these horses to graze for a maximum of four hours per day, followed by housing them in a dry pen. However, recent research has shown that these horses will consume the same amount of grass in four hours that a horse with full access to grazing will consume.

Thus the “fat and foundered” must remain without grass or free choice hay. Also horses with allergies, heaves, or other respiratory issues will often have worse symptoms when fed this way as the horse’s airway clearance mechanisms that eliminate irritants from the nasal passages function best when the horses head is in a grazing position, not buried in a round bale. For this group of horses, management, with respect to feeding, is key.

Navigating Modern Horse Feeding Challenges

The above mentioned issues are only a few that involve feeding the modern horse. To summarize the goals of feeding:

  • Feed multiple small meals per day, grazing if possible for optimal gut health
  • Feed up off the ground to reduce sand ingestion and parasite load
  • Limit access to bales where horse’s heads are buried to decrease irritants to the airways and lungs
  • Ensure a secure delivery method to minimize the risk of injury to the horse.

So given all these challenges and diversity within herds, how can one manage to meet each individual’s needs? Sadly there is no magic answer. With each feeding system there are pros and cons so do your research and find what works for your herd. Newly developed products are now available, specifically designed to address and accommodate these issues. If you have been feeding the same way for years and have recurring issues, maybe its time for a change.

Happy feeding!

– Dr. Melissa Hittinger, Stone Ridge Veterinary Services, LTD.

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