The Rules of Feeding

It crossed my mind the other day how much feeding horses has changed even over the relatively short time I have been working with horses. Does this mean that the rules of feeding we learn so diligently by rote need modernising, or have they stood the test of time?

Let’s go through them one at a time.

  1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, level of work, level of rider. With all the modern complete feeds on the market I think it is easier to choose, and trial, a feed that will suit your horse and then feed it in the correct quantity. For example, you can buy feeds specifically designed for laminitics, veterans, excitable horses, endurance, stud, and any other factor you can think of. However, there is still a huge (excuse the pun) problem of horses being overfed. I feel this is more due to the quantity they are given, their grazing being too rich, and owners being unable to distinguish between healthy and overweight animals rather than the type of feed being unsuitable for them though.
  1. Feed little and often. This rule comes from wise observations of horses in their natural state, and as the digestive tract of a horse has not changed in the last century we can be sure that this rule is as relevant today as it was when the rules were first drawn up.
  2. Always feed good quality food. Just the same that we wouldn’t eat poor quality food, feeding poor quality food can lead to respiratory or digestive disorders as well as being a false economy as the horse will drop weight and under perform. Since the early 2000s the EU has passed many regulations on the quality of equine feeds, which I think makes it far harder to purchase low quality food.
  3. Feed plenty of bulk. This rule is based on the observation of a horse’s natural diet, and as I said before they haven’t changed physiologically in recent years we should still feed plenty of bulk. The knowledge of the average leisure rider has improved vastly so whilst this rule is no less important, it is done more autonomically. Additionally, the complete feeds that you now buy instead of having to mix various straight feeds, are all based on a mainly fibrous diet.
  4. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed. Again, as this rule is based on the horse’s physiology, so is still relevant today. I think the feeds on today’s market does mean that there is less change in a horse’s diet over the course of a year though. Because the off the shelf feed bags are complete feeds within themselves, a horse’s base diet stays the same throughout the year, it may just change in volume between seasons, or it may be supplemented during competition season in order to keep the horse’s performance levels up. When I was young I can distinctly remember our ponies diets changing quite radically between winter and summer. Matt always had to have the oats removed once he started living in, and barley added from September to help keep the weight on him. Nowadays, he has the same type of feed all through the year, but the ratio is adjusted if he needs to gain weight.
  1. Always use clean utensils and bowls. We don’t eat off dirty plates so why should our horses use dirty bowls? The move towards plastic feed buckets in recent years rather than the rubber ones does mean it’s easier to keep them cleaner to a higher standard. And of course you can write names onto plastic buckets more easily, which reduces the risk of cross contamination of illnesses and medicine. I think perhaps the importance of preventing horses getting the wrong medicine, or banned substances in their feed, has increased in recently years with the FEI having more stringent rules surrounding medicines in competition, and the fact there are more non-professional riders competing at the highest levels and under rules. Also more leisure horses are fed drugs for maintenance, such as Bute or prascend, which increases the risk of competition horses being exposed to the drugs.
  2. Feed at regular times daily. Horses are creatures of habit so thrive on routine, but equally having a frequent feed routine helps to keep the digestive system flowing. This helps reduce stress, which is linked to gastric ulcers. There seems to be more cases of ulcers nowadays, but whether that’s because of better diagnostic techniques and understanding of the equine body. Or whether horses have more stressful lives – in terms of routine, competitions, environment – yes, I know that’s a can of worms! So the rule is old and still relevant, but has the reasoning behind the rule changed slightly as our demands on the horse changed?
  3. Feed something succulent every day. This rule is to provide horses with variety to the diet and to provide extra vitamins. Now that complete feeds are scientifically balanced to provide the correct quantities of vitamins and minerals are carrots, parsnips, salt licks as necessary?
  1. Water before feeding. This comes from when horses were predominantly kept in stalls not loose boxes (think of Black Beauty) so didn’t have access to water all the time. This rule has changed in the revised textbooks to “provide a clean, fresh supply of water at all times”. So yes, it has been modernised!
  2. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise and longer before more demanding work. Just like we don’t swim an hour after eating to ensure blood is not diverted and away from the digestive system to working muscles leaving us with undigested food banging around our insides, it’s still not advisable to feed a horse just before riding. However, I do believe this rule needs expanding as now we are beginning to understand the importance of having a little bit of fibre (e.g. hay or chaff) in our horses stomachs when we ride to soak up excess gastric acid and help prevent the development of ulcers. Most people now give their horse a small haynet or a scoop of chaff while they are grooming for this reason.

In all, the rules of feeding are staying with the times and not becoming outdated, which is good news for us oldies! Are there any rules which could be added or expanded to, to make sure they’re more relevant to today’s stable management routines and the feed available on the market?

Another rule I can think of, which is fairly common sense, but still important with the numerous feeds that require soaking prior to feeding, is to follow the preparation instructions of compound feeds. The rules from the BHS textbook I looked at also did not mention about dampening feeds, which is vitally important in preventing horses bolting their food and getting choke.

I’d be interested on a nutritionist’s opinion on the original rules of feeding and their relevance to modern feeds.

Calmer Bites

A few weeks ago I had a slightly psychotic Phoenix on my hands. I think it was the transition from living out 24/7 to living in at night, combined with her getting fitter. I couldn’t fault her behaviour on the ground, or out hacking, or even in the school. She wasn’t spooky or naughty, just hot – like she was on a constant adrenaline high. A good, long workout didn’t take the edge off, so I knew it wasn’t an excess of energy. But she definitely wasn’t her usual self. I did wonder if she was stressed, but channeling it internally, so it came out as anxiety as opposed to bad behaviour.

I thought about calmers, but I wasn’t convinced they were the answer because her behaviour hadn’t changed, or at least she hadn’t become spooky. But I did wonder if she had a bit of a chemical imbalance, akin to people suffering from bipolar disorder. This would explain the uptightness and that a long workout didn’t tire her out.

I couldn’t see what stress factors she had as we’d not competed recently, her diet hadn’t changed and was low in sugars, and she’d seemingly settled into the yard and field happily, which made me wonder if she’d been stressed (perhaps the first week of living in) and the chemical levels in her brain had become a bit stuck at the incorrect levels. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this far better than me, but in layman’s terms that’s what I felt was going on.

I did some more research, and a friend told me about calmer bites. They seem to be a relatively new thing on the market, but basically they contain L-Tryosine which triggers the production of serotonin, which helps stabilise moods. They say it “takes the edge off” a horse’s excitability, which is what I felt Phoenix needed.

I think the instant calmer syringes work in a similar way, but as Phoenix is not the easiest horse to worm, I thought a bite size treat would be more effective – at least she’d ingest more of it! 45-60 minutes after administration, the seratonin levels should increase, and the horse becomes calmer. The effects last for three or four hours and you can “load” a horse with several cookies over a couple of days.

Calmer bites are commonly used the day before a competition and on the morning of to help calm a horse. Or for travelling or clipping. They don’t contain any FEI banned substances so are legal for competition use.

Now, I didn’t particularly want to end up relying on calmers or anything, but I did think that the calmer bites could help reset Phoenix. I tend to think that if a horse is stressed and needs “calming” there is a problem somewhere in their management, diet or training, so by feeding calmers you are not addressing the cause, merely masking it. However, if it would get Phoenix back on track I thought it was worth a shot.

It was a bit of a gamble, as there have been mixed reviews on the calming cookies products (as with any calmer but I think that’s down to the cause as much as anything) but I fed Phoenix a calmer bite twice a day for three days as a loading dose, and definitely found that she was calmer. Probably a better explanation is that she wasn’t on high alert and over reactive to my leg aids, or as anticipative to canter and repeat canters during a schooling session, which made her much more rideable. As she had maintained her perfect manners out hacking and on the ground, I couldn’t say that they had had a positive impact, but I definitely liked her more relaxed attitude towards schooling.

Phoenix had the calmer bites for three days and since then she seems to have remained more level headed, so I think that they will have helped normalise her seratonin levels, which had dropped for whatever reason. The most likely cause I can think of is the transition from her summer routine to her winter routine. Which she seems to have accepted now, as she’s not pulling her rugs onto the floor, tossing hay from her haybar, or spilling her water in the mornings as she waits to be turned out. It will be interesting to see how she transitions next year.

For now though, I’ll keep the rest of the calmer bites and try using them when she’s next clipped to see if it keep her more relaxed, acting as a mild sedative so that she is more accepting of the clipping process.

I would say that calmer bites are not the answer to a horse being stressed, but they could be used as an aid to training. For example, if a horse has had a bad experience travelling then they may be useful the next time they travel to help give them a good experience and overcome their fears. But a horse will only truly overcome their fears by their carer taking the steps to build their confidence during transportation.

The calmer bites I used for Phoenix are made by Equine Science, and can be found on their website.

Feeding Succulents

One of the rules of feeding is to feed something succulent to your horse daily, and the most thought of options are apples and carrots.

As a bit of a domestic goddess now, well only once or twice a week when I batch cook and freeze baby sized portions of food, I’ve generated lots of vegetable peelings. Add into the equation that a lot of baby recipes say “half a beetroot” or “one and a half bananas” and the fact I don’t want to pile on the pounds by finishing off all her leftovers, we have some food leftovers.

Whilst sweeping the carrot peelings and tips into a bag for Phoenix, I suddenly wondered if she could have the beetroot left overs. Yes, I know they eat sugar beet which is a relative, but still I thought I’d better check.

A quick ask of Google, and I found a list of equine friendly fruit and vegetables. Some I knew (Otis is partial to a banana), and some I didn’t know about.

  • Apple
  • Apricot
  • Banana (can be fed with the peel)
  • Blackberry
  • Coconut
  • Grapefruit
  • Orange
  • Peaches
  • Pear
  • Pineapple
  • Plum
  • Strawberry
  • Watermelon
  • Beetroot
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Parsnip
  • Swede
  • Turnip

With this knowledge, I proceeded to add the remnants of the celery stalks to Phoenix’s bag.

The only safety issue with all these different vegetables is making sure that they don’t pose choking hazards. It’s a bit like having a baby around really. When I was young, it was drilled into us to cut carrots lengthways, not into discs, as it is less of a choking hazard. Unfortunately, it’s a rule that often gets forgotten, as many times I’ve seen well-meaning, naive riding school clients feeding their favourite horse some carrots cut into discs. I was particularly worried about the beetroot, so I roughly chopped that up before adding it to Phoenix’s bucket. Then I have halved the tips of the carrots and cut the celery into chunky sticks ready for tomorrow.

I wonder what Phoenix made of the beetroot she had in her dinner tonight…

Just like humans, some horses are quick – both athletically and mentally. They’re always alert, might be a bit spooky, fast, and quick in the air. Others take life at a slower pace; take things in their stride, don’t feel the need to gallop flat out in open fields.

Both have their merits, and whilst you’ll never make a sprinter out of a marathon runner, there are various things you can do to slow down a quick horse and speed up a steady horse.

Let’s talk about the steady horse.

A quieter, laid back horse has the confidence giving qualities most amateurs seek in a horse, but it can mean that you end up struggling to get the horse forwards; either in a dressage test or round a course of jumps. Which can end up being frustrating. Because you feel that you were carrying your horse around!

So what exercises will help?

Firstly, it’s important that the laid back horse still responds to the aids. This means you don’t end up nagging constantly, and he respects the leg. Transitions help here – use lots of transitions throughout schooling sessions and hacks, bearing in mind that you’re only going to ask him once. And he should and will react. This may mean the first couple of upward transitions need “loud” aids, perhaps aided by the voice, but as your horse begins to take you seriously you can ask with quieter aids until it’s one squeeze and he’s off. Be strict with yourself, and over a few sessions there will be an improvement.

Talking of transitions, they’re also useful for switching the brain on. It’s not that steady horses are stupid, but rather their brains work steadily like their body. Think of transitions as being the equivalent to mental maths. Direct and progressive transitions, along with lots of different school movements in quick succession will help to get this sort of horse thinking. He’ll be more focused on his rider and not thinking about the dinner waiting in his stable. As he starts thinking more he’ll be quicker to react to the aids too.

Fairly early on in a schooling session I would have a canter, then utilise walk to canter transitions to wake up this sort of horse. Depending on the horse, a hack before going into the arena may be beneficial as horses are often more alert and forwards out in the open.

I would also use poles to provide a very varied schooling session, and keep sessions short and to the point. You don’t want the steady horse to become bored or tired because then his rider has to do even more work! If fitness is an issue then use hacks to build it up; in company to make them more exciting for the horse.

With jumping, steady horses can often lack the agility needed for combinations or jump offs because, quite simply, it involves a lot of effort! Improving their gymnastic ability with grids will help get them a bit quicker at folding their legs up over fences and again help get their brain ticking a bit faster so that they’re better able to think on their feet through combinations and better able to get themselves out of trouble. When schooling on courses I’d also use some transitions to keep them thinking; for example, if you have a fair distance between two jumps then collect the canter after a fence, or even make a downwards transition, and then lengthen the canter before checking that they’re balanced towards the next fence. This keeps them listening to you so you can keep them in front of the leg before the fences.

In terms of managing a steady horse, a lot of owners want to input some energy. Traditionally, this is done with oats, but there are some many energy mixes available now it’s probably worth ringing an independent nutritionist and trialling feeds until you find the right energy level without any silliness added in. Some steady horses benefit from being kept in the night before a competition, or even just an hour before they’re ridden. So again it’s worth finding out the best routine and time of day to exercise your steady horse which will be the most energetic and productive.

I am by no means trying to convert the quiet horses into whizzy athletes, because I value, and think many more people should place emphasis on the reliable and trustworthy nature of the cooler blooded equines. But it is nice to know how to get the best out of them so it’s most enjoyable to the owners.

The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.

Self-Medicating

I was reading about self medication a couple of weeks ago, and have got myself a new addition to my dictionary … zoopharmacognosy. What a mouthful! It is the official term for the innate ability an animal has to recognise what medicinal plant they need. This doesn`t just apply to horses, it applies to all animals. I guess humans have this instinct, although it may be long buried, because we sometimes crave certain foods (this is especially noticeable during pregnancy). Zoopharmacognosy is known as the oldest therapy in existence, because many years ago only nature`s medicines were available. Our conventional drugs are still based on medicinal plants. For example, opium is from poppy seeds and was historically used as a pain relief. Nowadays, it is used in the production of morphine.

In the wild, horses roam over vast areas, and if they become unwell they seek out specific plants, herbs, algae, essential oils, clay and other natural remedies to supplement their normal diet, which helps to restore them back to good health.

Interestingly, the medicinal plant tastes sweet and palatable if the body requires it, but if the horse is healthy then they will be deterred from eating it because the same plant will taste bitter. This ensures the survival of medicinal plants and prevents over consumption, which could cause the body to become ill again. This is over dosing in nature!

We are inhibiting these innate needs and abilities when we domesticate horses by managing paddocks; spraying them for weeds, limiting access to woodland or hedgerows, which restricts a domesticated horse`s access to medicinal plants. This means that our horses develop conditions such as sweet itch or laminitis.

There`s a growing movement amongst horse owners called Applied Zoopharmacognosy, which is when horses are offered a selection of medicinal herbs or plants. If a horse needs a particular herb or plant then they will show interest in it; eating, sniffing or rubbing on the remedy. How many people leave a salt lick out for their horse and find that it is ignored for a few weeks, and then used intensively for a couple of days, and then ignored again?

Offering horses a selection of herbs, instead of putting what we feel they need into their diet, reduces the risk of over dosing and wasting money by feeding unnecessarily. Some say that recovery is speeded up because the horse is selecting the herbs that will be most effective to their condition, and eat the correct amount. It would also reduce food wastage when your horse decides that they don`t want to eat the supplement you’ve added to their breakfast! A couple of weeks ago my Mum was telling me about some horses who had selenium toxicity. You can buy vitamin E and selenium supplements, which is an anti-oxidant, performance enhancer and improves muscle functioning. Horses with a deficiency to selenium, often due to soil deficiency, are prone to tying up. However, over feeding selenium causes gait abnormalities, muscle tremors, laboured breath, and death.

You can now buy self-selection packs, which contain small quantities of a variety of herbs and remedies which you can offer to your horse. Packs can be themed; respiratory, or urinary for example, which means that if you notice that your horse is having respiratory difficulties (after speaking to the vet of course) you can offer a small selection of remedies that will specifically target and support the respiratory system.

I haven`t personally used any self selection packs, but my Mum has often led Matt along the hedgerows to let him graze and self-select herbs. It would be interesting to know if others have tried this and how they’ve got on. If you google applied zoopharmacognosy there are hundreds of articles about it. I also looked for a list of medicinal plants and what they do, but most lists were inconclusive. The best list I found can be viewed here. I saw on social media a while ago a photo of a whiteboard that a yard had in the tack room, which had an extensive list of the plants and their properties that they had available for self-selection.

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Hay vs Haylage

Anyone else spend hours agonising over whether they should be feeding hay or haylage? Halfway through the winter there’s usually a panic as our horses develop coughs, behaviour changes, or put on weight.

To help you decide, I’ve put together some pros and cons.

Hay -pros

  • Hay that is harvested later in the season, with a more straw like appearance has a lower energy value and contains more indigestible material so is a good forage choice for a good doer.
  • Hay harvested in May and June has a high nutritional value, so is a good choice for performance horses.
  • Hay can be stored for longer with less risk of mouldy developing.
  • Hay has a lower nutritional value than haylage so is suitable for good doers.
  • Hay is cheaper to buy than haylage.

Hay – cons

  • Can be dusty so horses may develop a dry cough and other respiratory problems. Hay can be soaked or steamed to reduce the dust content, but this is time consuming and soaked hay is very heavy.
  • If hay hasn’t been dried properly, because it was rained on after it had been cut, then the grass leaf can shatter, which leads to a loss of nutritional goodness because two-thirds of the energy and three-quarters of the protein are stored in the leaf.
  • You cannot guarantee good hay making weather, which means that the quality of hay can vary immensely year on year.
  • A poor doer, or horse who needs to improve condition, won’t benefit from being fed hay as it is a lower nutritional value than haylage.
  • Often a feed balancer needs to accompany the hay diet to ensure that the horse requires the correct balance of vitamins and minerals.

Haylage – pros

  • Has a higher nutritional value than hay due to it consisting of younger plants so is a better feed for horses prone to weight loss. It has higher levels of digestible energy, fibre and protein.
  • Is more palatable than hay so fussy eaters usually benefit from being offered haylage.
  • Haylage is usually “cleaner” than hay in that it has less dust or mould spores because the higher moisture level means the spores swell and stick to the stalks.
  • The production of haylage is less weather dependent so crops of haylage are more consistent in quality.
  • Haylage bales from propriety brands have nutritional analysis labels on each bale which helps you determine the exact quantity to feed.
  • Specifically developed “high fibre eye grass haylage” has an energy level comparable to hay but retains the sweet smell and appeal of hay, so is a suitable option for fussy laminitics.

Haylage – cons 

  • Has a higher sugar content than hay due to it consisting of younger plants. This means it can cause excitable behaviour and isn’t suitable for horses with laminitis or PPID.
  • Is acidic, which can upset the gut pH, and means it may not be suitable for horses prone to stomach ulcers.
  • Because Haylage is more palatable than hay it isn’t suitable for good doers as they will gain weight rapidly.
  • Some horses can develop diarrhoea from haylage due to the water content, which can lead to weight loss.
  • The moisture content of haylage has an inverse relationship with the levels of  protein, energy and fibre, so it can be difficult to ascertain if you are feeding enough haylage.
  • If a haylage bale is left open for too long it dries out and becomes mouldy. Likewise haylage that has been in the manger for too long will dry out, the dust spores shrink and are inhaled, causing respiratory problems. You shouldn’t use haylage bales that have been damaged.
  • Haylage is more expensive to buy than hay.
  • Due to the higher water content in haylage you should feed more quantity of haylage compared to if you were feeding hay to the same horse.

Obviously some of these comments are pros and cons, depending on your horse’s individual needs, but hopefully it has helped you in deciding whether you should feed your horse hay, haylage, or even a combination of the two! 

Working on an Empty Stomach 

As I write this, in the car, between two jobs eating my peanut butter sandwich, this subject seems very relevant.

In the rules of feeding, which we all learn diligently and follow religiously, it says that horses should never be worked for an hour after being fed.

This seems a simple rule, but as I’m sure many of you have discovered when you went into the big wide world, there are lots of grey areas and blurred lines.

For example, horses shouldn’t be starved because it’s bad for their digestive tract, yet this is what the rule suggests. So it’s finding the right balance.

If the horse is going around a cross country course then a full stomach of hay will not be comfortable, neither will half most probably. However, if they’re going on a slow and steady hack then a tummy full of hay is quite comfortable. 

The same goes for bucket feeds. Most people feed a predominantly fibre based bucket feed nowadays, and if you’re horse only has half a scoop of dampened chaff then it’s similar to having access to a haynet, and the horse would most likely be fine for a steady ride out.

That’s not to say you should feed breakfast as the saddle is going on, but the hour wait can be relaxed a bit. However at the other end of the scale, a horse with a predominantly carbohydrate bucket feed (that is, oats or barley for example) should be allowed an hour to digest their feed regardless of the size of the feed or the workload as there is a higher risk of colic because carbohydrates are all digested in the stomach which has a reduced working capacity when a horse is exercising, so undigested food matter is likely to be passed into the intestines, where it cannot be made smaller so is more likely to get stuck and cause colic. Fibre is broken down in the hind gut so it is not as important if it passes quickly through the stomach as it will be broken down later on in the digestive tract.

Recently there has been a study into the problems caused by riding a horse on an empty stomach; most noticeably gastric ulcers, under performance, and poor behaviour resulting from abdominal pain – I know I don’t ride or teach at my best when the hunger pangs kick in!

So owners with horses on restricted diets are now being told to give a small haynet or a scoop of chaff half an hour before exercising their horse to ensure stomach acid is not sloshing around and causing all sorts of problems.

But can it work the other way? So if you have a horse who needs ad lib forage and tends to scoff it, should you be removing the source of food half an hour before you ride so that they aren’t bloated or over full and uncomfortable when working? Because surely, in a similar way that we lack lustre when replete, a horse’s performance or work ethic can be affected?

There’s some food for thought for a Friday. Perhaps feeding in relation to work is more complicated that we think! 

Feeding Rations

Here’s a good article I read which should be useful for anyone with native ponies – http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/13-tips-for-feeding-natives-in-the-winter-415979?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

I had a think about my horses diets, as I do every so often, and as the nutrition in the grass is decreasing their hay ration needs increasing, but not too much otherwise they will get too fat.

At the beginning of October, when there was the autumnal flush of grass there wasn’t a huge amount of grass in the field and I didn’t want them to overgraze and stress the field, possibly pulling grass out by the roots as the ground was softer and thus jeopardising next years growth. So I began feeding hay in the field in the afternoons. Then once this routine was established I also started letting them graze the track outside their field for a couple of hours in the morning. This meant that they had two forage meals as well as their hard feed. 

It’s always easy to tell with  Otis if he’s hungry. He’ll march over to me as soon as I come into sight when he’s peckish, and when you bring him in he tries to eat the grass on the way in.

So I kept this routine, with two large slices of hay in the afternoon. Each slice weighs approximately five kilograms.

Then last week I upped the boys’ hay ration and stopped them eating on the track. Mainly because there wasn’t much grass, but I also couldn’t spend as long there in the mornings to supervise them.

Instead of giving the horses a larger hay ration in the afternoon I’ve started taking five kilos to them in the morning and then the rest in the afternoon.

Now I’ve reached the point that I think the grass has a negligible nutrition content so I wanted to do the maths to see how much I was feeding compared to their requirements.

Let’s start with Otis. He weighs 600kgs and is in moderate work so I feel he needs to be fed 2.5% of his body weight. He is not a horse that gets fat easily and he was rather slim and svelte in September, so I don’t want him to burn any fat off.

2.5% of 600kgs is 15kgs. The horses get 7.5kgs of hay each, providing they share it equally. They share hay piles amicably so that isn’t a concern of mine. Otis’s hard feed consists of approximately 3kgs. So I am providing 10.5kgs of food a day. At the moment I think he can get the rest from grass in the field, but I need to keep a close eye on his weight and adjust his rations.

Llani on the other hand is a good doer. At 500kgs he’s always looking on the chubby side. He doesn’t work as hard as Otis and had a good covering in the summer, so I feel he only needs 2% of his body weight in feed – 10kgs a day. His hard feed is negligible as it is more of a thank you gesture after he’s been exercised, and the hay ration is 7.5kgs. Again, this is a slight deficit to the suggested amount, but I’m sure he is getting enough food, as well as utilising some late growing grass.

The important thing at this time of year is to be critical of their weight all the time, and be ready to increase the forage immediately because it is incredibly difficult to put on weight in winter, much easier to maintain it. Adjusting their rugs so poor doers aren’t burning calories keeping themselves warm, and good doers are burning calories to generate body heat.

When I think the grass has stopped growing – when the temperature drops and we have a frost, the horses will start to have as lib hay in the field. I find that once they have gotten used to constant food they don’t gorge, and tend to self limit their intake. I hope to then be able to reduce Otis’s hard feed slightly as I only need to worry about providing energy, not so much forage.

I’ve also just purchased a multi vitamin supplement, mainly for Llani. As he has so little hard feed I was concerned that he might have a slight imbalance of minerals or vitamins going into winter, so this powder can be added to his handful of chaff. The supplement also contains linseed, which I’ve been wanting to give Otis, so he will have some too.

With all this organised in my mind, I think I’m ready for winter!

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Haynets

Recently I was catching up with an old friend a few weeks ago and she was telling me about her daughters mare, who had recently been in hospital with a severe parasitic infection in both eyes.

The infection was caused by your every day black fly, which just goes to show how important it is to check out your horse`s eyes in summer and to provide them with a fly mask. Luckily, the mare pulled through.

The hospital that this horse stayed at for six weeks had a strict “no haynets” policy, due to the high incidence rate of horses being admitted due to haynet related incidents.

When a horse eats from a haynet long stalks of hay are precariously close to their eyes, and if there was a thick, or particularly rigid stalk then they could easily poke themselves in the eye. If some dust or seed was caught then an eye can easily become infected. An alternative problem is that the hay stalk can scratch the eye, which can cause an ulcer, which when left untreated can cause all sorts of problems.

My friend was telling me that the equine hospital feed hay on the floor, which I agree with as it is so much better for the horse`s respiratory system – dust is caught by mucus and gravity pulls it down the nasal passages, away from the lungs – feeding from the ground encourages correct muscular development. As a result, my friend has had a haybar fitted into her mare`s stable, and won`t be using haynets for her other horses. The filly isn`t allowed haynets anyway because she chews at them, unties them and then tries to tie herself up in them!

The hospital also recommends not using haynets when travelling horses. I can see their point – the trailer or lorry is a cramped environment so horses cannot escape any long stalks. Additionally, the movement of the vehicle can sway the haynet close to the horses eyes. Given all this, we should still remember that eating can help keep horses calm when travelling, and when you are travelling multiple horses it can stop bickering in the ranks. Perhaps it is better to use the haybags that are available, or small holed haynets, haylage or hay with soft/short stalks. I always tie my haynets to the front of the trailer, so that Otis has to reach forwards to eat; when it is tied next to his lead rope it is very close to his eyes and he has to twist to snatch a bite, which I think is detrimental to his balance. I would always travel him with hay though, as he gets worried by travelling and I feel eating helps destress him – I back up this theory by the fact that every time he travels with a haynet, eating happily, he arrives dry. When he leaves his hay, he is white with sweat.

I was watching Llani eating from his haynet soon after seeing my friend, and you could really see the jerking, snatching movements he made with his neck as he tugged the long stems out of the net. The next day I put Llani into Otis`s stable, with the haybar, and you could instantly see the more natural position of his eating. He held his neck relaxed, and chewed through the hay in a very calm way. There was no sudden jerking of his neck. I can only gather from this that eating from a pile of hay is much better physiologically for the horses than eating from a haynet, as they are less likely to tweak a muscle by the snatching motion and their eyes are further away from the hay stalks.

I`m not sure on other people`s feelings on haynets, but I think they should be used with discretion and when alternative options are available use them to reduce the risk of injury to the horse.