By Suzie Middlebrook, BSc | Equine Nutrition Specialist
Sometimes it may seem like, no matter what supplements, feeds, or medications you’re using, your horse just isn’t looking his best. Despite the month long ulcer treatment plan or 6 well-long IntelliPack® of supplements, your horse may still be having difficulty holding weight or generally failing to thrive. Sometimes the best course of action in these cases is to re-evaluate your entire feeding program and cutting out anything that is unnecessary for your horse’s daily health. In many cases, an excessive amount of supplements and medications can overload the horse’s system since these can result in a nutritional imbalance or excessive stress of the liver and kidneys.
The first thing to do when revamping your horse’s feeding program is to examine the hay situation. The hay should be neither damp or dusty and mostly free of weeds. Horses find hay that is in mid-bloom to be the most appetizing and contains the most appropriate blend of sugars and fibers from a nutritional perspective. If this is a flowering hay, such as alfalfa, you should see a few purple flowers. For timothy and orchard, a mid-bloom hay would have ½” to 2” long seed heads. If the seed heads are longer, this could indicate that the hay is too mature and, consequently, less appetizing since this hay is higher in fiber and lower in fats, proteins, and sugars. While many tout a certain cutting being the most horse-appropriate, generally the hay’s maturity at time of cutting has the largest impact on nutritive value and macronutrient content than which cutting it was during the hay-growing season.
Many people are also very concerned about what species of hay is the best for a horse. Despite it being seen as a lower quality hay, it is entirely possible for a Bermuda grass hay to have a very similar nutrient profile to the most expensive timothy grass hay. The benefit of a cool-season grass hay such as timothy is that it has more consistent starch and sugar values throughout the growing season compared to warm-season grass hay like Bermuda, which can vary widely even during the same day. That being said, I have seen timothy grass with 45% NSC content, so it is important to recognize that more consistency does not mean safe for your average, sedentary horse. Generally, the best choice of hay is whatever hay your horse will eat, coupled with a small flake of alfalfa at lunch. Alfalfa is not appropriate as the only hay your horse receives, though incorporating small amounts into your daily feeding program can take advantage of the high vitamin A and protein quality found in this legume hay.
While your horse may be receiving the correct type and proportions of hay, the way you’re feeding it may also be negatively impacting the overall health of your horse. Most barns practice “meal feeding” where horses are given two large portions of hay twice per day. This strategy can often lead to boredom and a prolonged stagnation of the digestive tract, particularly overnight. Ideally, every horse would have access to forage 24 hours a day, though this isn’t always practical due to personnel logistics. While some barns are able to practice free feeding hay, this can waste significant amounts of hay and cause weight issues among some horses.
There are two strategies that can help address these concerns: nets and straw. Utilizing a hay net with smaller holes or a grate that goes over a hay tub to limit hay intake and waste. There are a variety of slow feeding net options on the market and numerous DIY tutorials for other slow feeding solutions on the internet. The benefit of using nets is that the barn can resume a scheduled feeding program without the horses going long periods without access to forage. The second option is using straw as a supplemental forage or even as bedding. Straw is a useful tool for easy keeping horses that do not need more calories, but may be susceptible to boredom or gastrointestinal issues. It can also be used to help solidify looser manure since it is high in indigestible fibers such as lignin and cellulose.
While forage is the most substantial part of your horse’s diet, the right grain can help balance your horse’s diet and add supplementary calories and nutrients that your horse might need for their workload. The main reason that grain was originally added to a horse’s ration was because a horse in a significant amount of work simply can’t ingest enough hay and grass in a single day to meet all of their nutritional needs. This ration should remain a forethought whenever you’re incorporating a concentrate into your feeding program.
Similar to meal feeding hay, many barns only give one grain meal per day. If your horse is being fed any significant amount of grain per day, this can cause a spillage of starch from the small intestine, where it should be digested, to the hindgut. The cecum and large intestine contain microbial populations that are best suited to digesting fibrous materials such as that found in hay and grass. When starch spills in the hindgut, this can cause a host of issues including hindgut acidosis, microbial die-off, colic, and laminitis. The simple solution to this issue is to split your grain meals into two to three feedings per day. A good rule is that a horse should not have more than 5lb of concentrate per meal.
When a horse seems to not be doing well, the owner should consider changing the feed from a performance concentrate to a more holistic choice. There are now several grains on the market that focus on whole food solutions to help promote overall well-being and re-establish a healthy microflora in the horse’s digestive tract. A grain high in fiber, low in fat, and flavored with herbs such as fenugreek and oregano instead of a heavy molasses coating would also contribute to reducing overall systemic stress.
By reducing the amount of “stuff” in a horse’s feeding program, any long-term systemic issues can be addressed. Many horses benefit from a simpler program on an annual basis, which often coincides with their few weeks off in the winter. Providing high quality hay and grain fed in a more continuous way can often lend to some dramatic improvements in your horse’s overall health, including more consistent energy, more stable body condition, and a healthier gastrointestinal tract. Combined with clean and fresh water, you have an unbeatable feeding principles that can be applied to any horse at any lifestage.
About Suzie Middlebrook, BSc | Cavalor Nutrition Specialist
Suzie Middlebrook is a budding equine nutritionist and lifelong equestrian. She graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA with her bachelor’s degree in animal science where she focused on equine and wildlife nutrition. While there, Suzie was instrumental in a number of feeding trials and experiments that looked at the fiber and mineral digestion in a number of different herbivorous species, including the red panda, the leopard tortoise, and the horse. Her personal project looked into developing an accurate and practical digestion model for the endangered red panda which she presented as an undergraduate at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums/Nutrition Advisory Group conference on Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition in 2011. Suzie loves talking and teaching about the peculiar nuances of equine nutrition and is able to do so as the Nutritional Specialist for Cavalor North America. When not “nerding out” on nutrition, Suzie enjoys competing her two horses in dressage and eventing, trail running, and playing with her boxer dog.