The technical bit
Horses are non-ruminant herbivores that use hindgut fermentation as an aid to digestion, this means that unlike cows horses cannot regurgitate their food to help in the digestion process. This also means that if horses eat anything poisonous or overeat, they cannot bring it back up. Horses lack a gall bladder which makes it harder for them to digest and utilise diets with a high-fat content. What’s more is equines have a very small stomach capacity for their size (approx. 8-15 litres) and it is not designed to be empty for very long. Horse’s are trickle feeders and would naturally graze for around 16 hours a day. This is to stop the excess production of acid in the stomach that can lead to gastric ulcers, which is a particular problem in the racehorse’s high concentrate, low forage diet.
As we all know the main reason anyone eats is to gain energy to do whatever it is we need to do that day. Horses are no different to us in that respect. A horse with a diet too high in energy can suffer from obesity, an increased risk of colic, sweat loss/ exercise intolerance and of course the dreaded laminitis. On the flipside signs that your horse’s diet is not providing enough energy/ nutrition can include weight loss, decreased physical activity and growth rate, and also decreased milk production in lactating mares. Getting the balance right in your horse’s diet is vital for the health of your horse but also for getting the best performance out of them. So tailor your horse’s diet to the level of work you require from him/her. There is no point in feeding a leisure horse the diet of a racehorse because your horse has no use for all the extra energy and it will lead to them piling on the pounds, and probably a slightly more ‘enthusiastic’ morning hack than you are used to! If you are unsure as to the level of work your horse is undertaking, see our brief description box below:
You can lead a horse to water...
Water is possibly the most important thing for your horse to have. It is vital for a number of tasks performed in the horse’s body, such as digestion and thermoregulation. If a horse has an insufficient intake of water over a short period of time this can lead to issues like decreased performance, decreased food intake, dehydration and an inability to regulate body temperature especially in hot weather. Longer term severe dehydration will set in, along with lethargy and reduction of bodily functions, signs of colic will begin to show and eventually possible death. Recent research from the Kentucky Equine Research Centre has shown that a horse can live almost a month without food but only 48 hours without water!
An easy way to check if your horse is dehydrated is the ‘skin pinch’ test (pinch a small area near the neck or shoulder. If the area stays elevated for more than a few seconds your horse may be slightly dehydrated), or the capillary refill test (gently press the gum above the horse’s teeth. This area should turn pale as you press. Normal colour should return quickly when your horse is properly hydrated). The average horse needs five litres per 100 kg BW per day. Horses that are in medium to heavy workloads or lactating mares will need a higher level of water throughout the day. Hay and grains are generally lower in moisture than other feedstuffs, while horses that are on high protein and sodium diets need more water due to increased urinary output. Your horse will generally drink when they’re thirsty so make sure that fresh, clean water is always available to them.
Feeding your Horse
When you have identified what type of workload your horse is undertaking it is then much easier to decide what he/ she needs to be fed. Feeding your horse for maintenance basically means your horse is neither gaining nor losing body weight, i.e. they’re maintaining their weight/condition. Horses in light work have lower energy and protein requirements than those in heavier work and so generally good quality forages are adequate to maintain them. Hay or haylage are the most common forages. Haylage is slightly higher in moisture and protein than hay due to the production process so you do not need to feed as much.
If your horse is doing anything higher than a light workload then his energy requirements may not be met with forage alone. A supplement of hard feed along with good quality forage will give them all the nutrients and energy they need to thrive. There are many different types and brands of horse feed available and they can offer different things. Generally pony/grass nuts are an all-round feed that will suffice with hay/ haylage for a horse in medium work. These can be given whole or soaked for older horses where they may present a choking hazard. A small amount of coarse mix can be added in for extra protein and nutrition. Coarse mixes are compound feeds that are mixed together and are available in different categories such as competition mixes, yearling or broodmare mixes etc. They provide nutrients in a balanced form. Some other commonly used types of horse feed include oats, barley, and maize, beet pulp (a by-product of sugar), and bran (milled wheat product). Care should be taken when feeding cereals like oats, barley and maize as these are quite high in protein and energy but low in other nutrients like calcium and fibre so will need to be fed in conjunction with something like beet pulp or grass nuts to supplement this. Care should also be taken when preparing beet pulp as this needs to be soaked for around 12 hours in water to prevent the pellets from expanding when consumed. Bran is an excellent feedstuff to help clear out your horse's system. It comes in a powdery milled form and is cooked with boiling water and allowed to cool before being given to the horse. It is also a good option for horses that have recently had an impaction colic as it is very light on the digestion process. However, it is low in calcium and other nutrients so it should not be used as a main feedstuff.
Other supplements for joints, immune system etc can also be fed as needed. Fruits and vegetables also add variety and extra nutrients to the horses feed but should only be fed sporadically. Feeding is also seasonal as in the winter, cold weather means your horse will need to eat more to maintain its body temperature and weight. Likewise in the summer feed can be reduced since fresh leafy grass provides so much nutrition. A good worming programme is also vital as an infestation of worms will mean that all the good feed in the world will not help your horse’s condition. Below is general feeding chart as to what you should feed you horse lots and what he should only get a little of:
Our staff are always available for any questions you might have about your horse’s nutrition or worming needs so call into any of our Equipet stores or give us a call and we would be more than happy to help!