Equine Nutritionist

There will be a few posts over the next week or so, which all link together to create the full story. So be patient.

I thought I’d share my experience with an equine nutritionist with you. It’s not something I’ve really thought about doing before, but it was surprisingly informative.

I’ve found Phoenix very tricky over the winter, in terms of her being very tense and reactive to ride – to the point that I can’t actually apply any aids. I was sorting the left hind muscular issue with physio, but she was still unhappy. When riding her, she was struggling to relax, but when I applied my right leg the whole of her right side was going rigid. It didn’t make sense. If her left hind was sore then she shouldn’t be resisting engaging the right hind. Her reaction was unlike any I’ve ever felt on a horse.

It was a puzzle, and when I stood back and looked at her, her stance was uptight, rigid; a horse in full flight mode. But nothing had changed. I did some thinking and asking around and then a theory came to me.

What is she’s suffering from stomach ulcers? Perhaps not full blown ulcers, but some form of gastric discomfort?

Phoenix wasn’t responding to the classic ulcer trigger points, and the only way to diagnose ulcers is to scope. Which involves sixteen hours of nil by mouth – a highly stressful situation for what is already a stressed horse. So I decided that I had nothing to lose by assuming she has them and coming up with a plan.

Then, with hindsight (isn’t that a great thing?) I realised that when she started living in at night she ate very little of her ad lib hay, and periodically had nights where she ate very little. She had been eating better recently though, upping her intake to what I would expect from a horse her size, except for the night before my epiphany.

Immediately I bought some haylage and started mixing it with her hay to encourage her to eat. A couple of days later, I thought her body language seemed happier. Which led me to wonder if I could improve her diet.

I didn’t want to go to a feed company and ask their advice; they have a product bias. I wanted someone independent to look at the whole picture. So after qualming slightly at the cost (but decided I could easily waste that amount on inappropriate supplements) I approached an independent equine nutritionist.

I had to fill out a lengthy form, answering questions about vet history, behaviour, current diet and management system. It was very in depth, but I did think it could be improved by requesting a photo because the condition scoring relied on my honesty, and me being knowledgeable enough to score her correctly.

A week later, I received a thorough report, which I thought I’d share the main points with you.

  • Phoenix’s behaviour suggested gastric discomfort, potentially ulcers, and is probably rooted in it being her first winter stabled overnight. The nutritionist suggested that it could take several seasons for an adult horse to acclimatise to stabling, which I didn’t realise. Whilst Phoenix didn’t show signs of stress outwardly, she probably internalised it, and her not eating hay overnight is a sign of stress. I should continue to mix in haylage to increase her forage intake. Again, with hindsight, I know that Phoenix will keep her worries to herself, so I have let her down here by not cottoning on quick enough, and her stresses have now bubbled over. The nutritionist suggested that I could offer Phoenix multiple different types of forage in the stable: different types of hay or haylage, a bucket of dampened chaff or grass nuts, which is definitely something to consider next year.
  • There was a paragraph, which I think is fairly compulsory, describing the importance of good dentistry and worming practice. As Phoenix is on a 6 monthly dental routine, and in her worm test last week had a clear result, I’m not concerned about these factors as a cause for her unhappiness, but of course everything needs to be considered.
    I am feeding Phoenix the correct amount of a suitable hard feed – 1kg of Pure Feed Fibre Balance – but the nutritionist found this to be lacking in zinc and copper, so I could either supplement these or change to a different feed.
    Again, there was another compulsory statement reminding me to ensure Phoenix has salt added to her diet when she’s working as feeds and forages don’t supply sufficient sodium.
    I was told to feed 20g of magnesium oxide – which is quadruple the recommended amount on my supplement tub – which is perhaps why I haven’t noticed a difference in her behaviour.
    I was also recommended to feed Phoenix a probiotic until she starts living out, and then again next winter. I’m currently using Protexin gut balancer, but a friend has told me that it isn’t that effective if a horse has an Alf-Alfa intolerance. So if I don’t find a difference in Phoenix, try a different brand.
  • The equine nutritionist also suggested that I could try a stomach supporting supplement or a calming supplement, but recommended that I made other changes first before exploring this avenue. She finished the nutritional report by saying that although I could end up feeding lots of different supplements they should all complement each other nicely.

What I liked about this nutrition report is that it wasn’t trying to sell me a product, it took into account her current lifestyle and limitations that I have with regard to yard rules or routines. The nutritionist had obviously taken on board my spiel about her behaviour, personality, physio, and adapted her recommendations to reflect this. I also felt I could go back with any queries, and feedback to her in a month’s time. She’s also given me a plan for next winter.

I’d definitely recommend speaking to an independent nutritionist if you need help designing your horse’s diet; they have the knowledge to save you hours of research, and only recommend brands that they think will benefit your horse. It’s not cheap, but for the cost of a private lesson or two (depends on your instructor!) it’s worth it in the long run.

Here’s hoping that the improvements I’ve seen in Phoenix since feeding her haylage, a probiotic, magnesium oxide, salt, zinc and copper, continue now that she is living out 24/7. Once she’s stopped gorging on all the grass of course!

Healthy Eating

As horse owners we devote a lot of our attention on our horse`s diet; are they getting enough energy, are they putting on weight, are they getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals, is there enough fibre in their diet?

But how about our diets?

Speaking for those in the equine industry I think it`s safe to say that we have appalling diets. All riding schools I`ve worked at have a constant supply of sweets and chocolates, particularly at Christmas time, and the staff make frequent trips to the snack box. Thinking about it, it`s a good job the work is so active otherwise we`d all get fat!

For my birthday I was given a Fitbit. Has anyone heard of them? I`d only recently become aware of them, but they seemed right up my street. I know I have an active lifesstyle, but I like to know how many steps I`ve done in a day, or  how many calories I`ve burnt. 

I`m going to sound a bit like a Fitbit sales person but you need to know what the Fitbit entails. I`ve got the Flex model, which monitors your sleep pattern (I`m a notoriously poor sleeper), and steps taken (judged by the activity of your arm). It is then linked to an app on your phone or tablet in which you can enter your weight and other vital statistics, calories and water intake. You can also set goals, and view the record of your daily and weekly steps, sleep pattern, distance travelled, tracked exercise and progress towards the goals.

I had a few teething problems – such as when the Fitbit registered 300 steps as I lay in bed reading! But I soon changed the settings as it was too sensitive and I wave my arms a lot when teaching so need it as least sensitive as possible! Now I`m not too sure how accurate the Fitbit is as I regularly “do” 47000 steps a day, but I know that I`ve ridden for at least three hours of the day.

However, the real benefit of the Fitbit is that I`v realised just how little water I drink. Of course, I drink a couple of cups of tea in the morning and then a couple of drinks in the evening, but that really isn`t very much considering the recommended daily amount is two litres. So I`ve begun to try and drink a bit more water during the day. Unlike those who work in an office though, I`ve always been aware that not all yards have toilets, and I need to make sure I time my drinks to fit in with my work schedule! Having to log the amount I drink really drives home how little I consume. I`ve started trying to drink a glass when I get up, and before I go to bed, but I admit recently I`ve not been very good. Coincidentally, at Otis`s first ODE in April all prize winners received a sports water bottle. This has been surprisingly useful in making me drink during the day.

Another useful part of the Fitbit app is the calorie counter. Whilst I don`t particularly want to count calories, looking at the list of items I`ve eaten during the day makes me realise that I don`t have a particularly balanced diet, and tend to snak quite a lot.

Which I`m sure is typical of a lot of people my age and in my job.

I`ve never been that good at eating; as one person once told me, I “eat to live” as opposed to a food fanatic who “lives to eat”. I`ve got better as I`ve gotten older, but eating is still one of those things that gets in the way of living!  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and I`ve always eaten a good helping, which I know is a meal most often missed by people. Again, dinner is also a natural way of finishing the day, and we usually eat well. I think my problem is lunch. I`m not very good at preparing food when I`m not hungry, and don`t like eating a lot of food as I`m usually riding straight after lunch. But I guess this is the area to improve my diet; mae a sandwich and then have a couple of separately packaged items, like some fruit, or a boiled egg (a new favourite) so that I can have two mini lunches, perhaps an elevenses and a twoses …

So perhaps it`s time for all of us to re-assess our diets and try to eat a bit healthier; perhaps putting as much effort into our own diets as we do our horses!

Feeding forage

Now the grass has lost it`s nutrition, we all turn to feeding forage, and then argue over the best feed, the best method of feeding it, and how much and how often. Everyone has their own opinion, but we should remember that horses are grazing animals, and designed to be eating for eighteen hours a day, and by limiting their intake we are putting them at risk of developing colic or other digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers.

What`s the choice of forage?
Hay. This is the obvious choice for many horse owners, as it is easily obtained, and at a relatively cheap price. Hay is more expensive in wet years as there is less availability, because it needs four or five days of warm, dry weather to be cut. The first cut (May/June) is higher in nutritional value. I remember in my later years in Wales not getting out hay delivered until August as it`s been so wet. Later cut hay is better for the overweight horses or laminitics as it has lots of indigestible stalks and a lower nutritional value. Hay can also be easily soaked, so removing most of the nutritional content for those suffering from laminitis. Soaking hay removes dust for those horses with respiratory problems, but as it also reduces nutritional value it isn`t the ideal solution. Some hay can become dusty or mouldy when stored, so bales should be checked upon opening.
Haylage. This has a higher water content, but also a higher nutritional value, and is less weather dependent on cutting. This means that the price is less likely to fluctuate with the weather. Because of the moisture content it is less dusty, meaning it is better for horses with respiratory problems. As with hay, the small bales are easy to transport and store. I have recently been exposed to large bales of hay, haylage, and straw. I am not a fan. I have to peel off slices, pull apart slithers making a complete mess, and if I run out I have to go and get the tractor! You can buy branded bags of haylage, which have an analysis (same as hard feed) on, so you can work out how much you should be feeding, as the moisture content affects the quantity fed. One major problem with haylage is that it needs to be used quickly; open bales will go off, dry up, and then spores shrink and are inhaled instead of ingested, leading to lung problems. Mould will also grow quickly on open bales of haylage. This isn`t a problem if you have a herd like my riding school, but if you have your horse on it`s own, then you should avoid using haylage.
You can also feed straw (oat straw I think it is, that is more edible and palatable to horses). Silage is the main forage to avoid at all costs, as it has such a high moisture content it puts horses at risk from botulism.
Don`t forget that the chaff and sugarbeet you put in your horse`s hard feed counts towards his daily fibre intake.

So what is the best method of feeding forage?
In the stable, hay was traditionally fed in hay rack, but we have moved away from this for several reasons. Research has shown that eating with their heads in an unnatural position causes respiratory problems as dust is inhaled and goes down the trachea with gravity, rather then, if the horse is in the grazing position, being snorted out through their nostrils. Additionally, holding the head in an inverted way inevitably leads to an overdevelopment of the dreaded underside muscles of the neck (a dressage rider`s darkest fear). Plus, the reason I opted for the stable without the hay rack, is that by throwing the slices of hay up there you end up showering yourself in the stuff! Highly attractive…
The next method, is one of the most time consuming, but it allows you to monitor what the horse is eating, and to slow their rate of eating, is the haynet. Now these come in all sizes, and with a variety of sized holes. Eventually though, all haynets end up with a couple of large holes. The small holes are great for horses who gorge, or those that you want to remain occupied for a long period of time (e.g. overnight) whereas the larger holes are better for those horses who need to get as much fibre into their system as possible. I hate haynets; they`re time consuming, and there`s always the risk it hasn`t been tied securely and the horse either unties it as they eat and drag it round their bed, or it sinks to the floor as it empties and they get their hoof stuck in. I remember having to rescue a child`s pony that had the haynet between his hoof, and the shoe. It took a lot of cutting, swearing, and wriggling to free him. However, they do have their benefits with those fatties who like to scoff their dinner.
My preferred method of feeding forage in the stable is a hay bar, or hay manger. I chose to use it with my horse because it encouraged him to stretch down to eat, in a hope to reduce his underside muscles, but without the waste of putting it on the floor. It`s also super quick to fill up. The only problems I`ve come across are those fussy riding school horses who flick the haylage out onto the floor, before mincing through it then peeing on the rest. There`s nothing wrong with the haylage, I`ve had it tested. The other problem is that some horses gorge, then stand for hours through the night with empty stomachs. Obviously increasing their risk of stomach ulcers. My horse, as well as several of his neighbours have a munch, then stand back to digest it, and come back when they`re peckish again. For this reason I never worry if I accidently put too much in, or if any if left over. I know he`s had sufficient.
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In the field you can give hay in massive mangers, but that assumes the horses are all amenable, or in small piles around the field. We do this for the riding school, pushing it off the back of the vehicle as we drive along. But since recent research into atypical myopathy and fungus on the ground, owners should be moving away from feeding on the ground. There are many gadgets on the market, such as hay boxes. These are lightweight boxes in which hay is put, keeping it dry and mud-free, but the horse can eat it through a hole. Other methods I`ve seen are filling builders sacks along the fenceline, or using large rubber mats. Horses should be given forage in the field twice a day during the winter, to ensure they are mimicking their natural grazing lifestyle, but also to ensure they are keeping warm, producing exothermic energy as they digest the food (Sugar beet is particularly good at this).
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Ultimately it depends on your horse as to which method you prefer, but it is vital that your horse never goes too long without forage of some description. This may mean feeding more of a lower nutritional value, to keep the guts ticking over, or using smaller nets, or putting hay into his stable at regular intervals throughout the day.

Some livery owners I know weigh their haynets religiously. It`s a good thing, but it doesn`t account for the nutritional quality, or the moisture content of the forage. I also think it can lead to owners under feeding their horse, which is never good at this time of year. For example, if you`ve worked your horse a bit harder the last couple of days, his dietary requirements will go up, so by giving him a bit more forage, you are reducing the risk of increasing the hard feed, and also keeping him content. I personally prefer the ad lib approach, so long as the forage isn`t wasted, and the horse isn`t fed excessive amounts.