Veterinary Medicine

Is Your Feeding Program All That?

Fueling a horse so it can perform its best, maintain a healthy weight, and store appropriate levels of energy is a delicate puzzle.

Just like humans, every horse is different and their nutritional needs will vary depending on their breed, age, exercise level, and stage of life.

Dr. Marilyn Connor of the renowned Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC) in Wellington, FL, treats equine athletes competing at the highest levels of their sport as well as lesson ponies and companion horses. One common thread in her services, however, is nutrition counseling. She helps her clients understand the needs of their individual horses and how to best achieve their ideal nutrition.

©Erin Gilmore

Find out if you and your horse are on track by identifying and avoiding these five common equine nutrition mistakes:

1. Undervaluing the importance of high-quality forage 

“My focus is always on top quality forage. The fresher the better!” says Dr. Connor.

Most horse owners don’t have access to 100 acres of grazing pasture, but forage (hay) is still an important pillar of nutrition for any horse. At its core, equine nutrition should resemble the same elements a horse would receive if it was grazing fresh grass 24/7.

Two elements involved in finding the right hay for your horse:

  • Fresh—key nutrients including vitamins and Omega 3 fatty acids start depleting the day hay is cut. It is estimated that by a week after cutting, hay has already lost 60% of its vitamin A, E, and Omega 3 fatty acids. These key nutrients continue to decrease at a rate of five to seven percent each month during storage. Fresh is best!
  • Quality—we’ve all picked up a flake of hay, smelled it, checked its color, and quickly decided if it’s good enough for our horse. But, according to Dr. Connor, color and smell does not always correlate with quality and nutrition. She recommends anyone with a consistent hay supplier have your vet conduct a nutritional analysis to measure protein, energy, vitamin, and mineral levels of the hay.

Horses in the wild graze continuously throughout the day. As a rule of, horses should consume one to 1.5% of their body weight in hay or forage per day. In domesticated horses, if they do not have access to that amount or it is not sufficient enough to meet their caloric expenditure from exercise, that’s when grain comes in.

2. Over-prioritizing grain and concentrated feed

Performance horses often burn enough calories to require extra nutrition from a concentrated source like grain. But, it’s important to remember that grain should not be valued over hay.

Too much grain means too much sugar, which can lead to obesity, insulin resistance, and even laminitis. Some horses in intense exercise, such as a racehorse, will tolerate and require high amounts of sugar to burn calories quickly. But for most horses, excess dietary sugars from grain are often more detrimental than helpful.

Dr. Connor recommends reading the labels! Identify the protein, vitamin, and mineral levels in your grain and weave the suggested amount into your hay program.

Dr. Marilyn Connor ©Erin Gilmore

3. Over supplementation 

When it comes to supplements, many horse owners think more is better and don’t realize that there can be too much of a good thing. There is a time and place for supplements, but it requires a delicate balance.

Many complete concentrate grains include nutritional requirements in the appropriate ratios for most horses. But, people will often buy a complete feed, overall wellness supplement, and then they start buying specific supplements for joint, coat, hoof, and so on.

“The problem with over supplementation is that some vitamins can accumulate to toxic levels, says Dr. Connor

Additionally, understanding how supplements work together can help to ensure they are fulfilling their intended benefits. Mixing of supplements can sometimes cause nutrients and chemicals to interact with each other in a way not intended for, which may inactivate key ingredients or render them not able to be absorbed by the horse’s body. Mixing supplements without doing your research could render some important nutrition useless and cause chaos within a horse’s body.

4. A “one size fits all” approach

Not every feeding program works for all horses. Dr. Connor’s rule is to feed based on life stage and performance. For example, a horse that is growing needs a feed that that promotes balanced development of healthy bone and muscles, while senior horses often benefit from a complete pellet that breaks down easily in the digestive system.

Streamlined feeding programs often results in large quantities of feed being given a few times per day. Horses were intended to be eating around the clock, and the two big problems created by human involvement is that they aren’t moving enough and eating large bulk amounts of food. These surges of food break down and then the stomach is stagnant for a long period of time. During this time, gastric acids without food to work on can start affecting the actual mucosal lining of the stomach.

According to Dr. Connor, all elements of a horse’s life—age, exercise level, weight, body condition—should be considered in order to tailor an individual feeding program for each and every horse.

“Feed by weight not volume!” advises Dr. Connor.

5. Feeding emotionally

Many horse owners feed emotionally. They reward a horse with food after a blue ribbon or a cold day. In reality, caloric change is often the biggest component to get horses to lose weight, gain weight, or perform better. Exercise can’t be underestimated, but calories from forage, grain, and especially treats should be consistent and intentional.

(flickr.com/carterse)

Dr. Connor recommends working with a veterinarian on these 10 steps to remove the emotion and perfect any feeding program:

  1. Consider the amount and quality of stabling, turnout, and exercise.
  2. Utilize tools such as a weight tape or scale to evaluate the weight of the horse. Perform a visual analysis of the body condition of the horse.
  3. Establish goals that may include maintaining health, weight loss, or weight gain.
  4. Evaluate hay and conduct a hay analysis if a consistent supplier is being used.
  5. Identify how grain, supplements, and medications interact with each other.
  6. Measure and feed hay and grain by weight not volume.
  7. Ensure supplements are not doubling up on nutrients already offered in hay and grain.
  8. Monitor if horses are actually ingesting supplements.
  9. Troubleshoot possible allergens and have a veterinarian conduct an allergy test for common feed components like corn, wheat, and soy.
  10. Strategize a consistent exercise program and ways to feed frequently, which should include smaller amounts of feed and forage more often.

 Palm Beach Equine Clinic provides experience, knowledge, availability, and the very best care for its clients. To find out more, please visit www.equineclinic.com or call 561-793-1599. “Like” them on Facebook, follow them on Instagram, and get news from their Twitter to see what happens in Wellington and more!