Feeding Excellence in Equine Nutrition
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Alongside challenges from parasites and failure to keep up with deworming programmes, poor dentition can be a major cause of weight loss for older horses. Inadequate dentition can predispose the horse to choke as well as weight loss.
Calories from fibre are provided predominantly by hay or haylage during winter and make up a large proportion of the ration. Considering your horse is struggling with long fibre sources such as hay and haylage, and assuming there are no other clinical problems, the most likely cause for this weight loss is a reduction in fibre intake. Fibre is essential to maintain a healthy digestive tract and in order to synthesise B vitamins (via fermentation) for energy utilisation. Furthermore, fibre digestion will help to generate heat for winter warmth. This is why it is essential to arrange for a registered equine dental technician to visit your horse twice a year and ensure they can process fibre effectively.
Another useful method of assessing your horse’s grinding ability is to look at the fibre particle size within droppings. Fibre particles more than a few millimetres in length indicate a reduced grinding ability which will decrease digestion and nutrient absorption and increase the risk of the horse developing impaction colic.
I recommend replacing some hay / haylage portion of the ration with a highly digestible chaff such as Gain® Cool Chaff and/or Alfalfa. The supplement Yea-Sacc®1026 may also be a beneficial addition to the ration, which creates a favourable environment for fibre fermenting bacteria within the hindgut. This will maximise fibre digestion and the utilisation of the resulting nutrients, which can be compromised in older horses on fibre restricted rations. Many products in the Gain® Equine Nutrition range contain Yea-Sacc®1026, one such product is Gain® Prep ‘N’ Condition Mix – a highly palatable conditioning coarse feed, this may also suit your older horse as all the ingredients used in it are highly digestible.
If the horse has a tendency to choke on its feed it may be necessary to soak the forage and hard feed components of the diet.
Intolerances to some common feed ingredients are becoming increasingly prevalent in horses of all shapes and sizes, these can be recognised in a number of ways
Have you ever had a horse that has reacted badly when you changed his diet? Did he became very excitable or ‘spooky’ or suffered from loose droppings or even mild colic? Did your horse suffer from unexplainable lumps and bumps? Or does he have a dull scurfy coat? Perhaps your horse suffers from one or more of these problems at the moment but you just don’t seem to be able to get to the bottom of it? If this sounds familiar it might be time you took a closer look at his diet.
For some horses, normally nutritionally sound ingredients appear to cause unexpected and unwanted reactions. Individual horses react differently, but food intolerances may affect your horse’s health and behaviour in many ways:
Unexplained lumps and bumps
Itchy or scurfy skin
Loose or watery droppings
Recurrent bouts of low-grade colic
Feed allergies in horses are rare, while intolerance to a specific feed ingredient appears to be much more commonplace, intolerances to common feed ingredients such as barley, molasses and alfalfa also seem to be increasing.
Feed Allergy – something that the horse eats causes its immune system to react
A true allergy can be diagnosed with the aid of a simple blood test, which will show whether a specific allergen causes an increase in antibodies. However, blood tests used in veterinary medicine are not yet 100% reliable and may yield several false positives.
Feed intolerance – the horse’s system consistently reacts abnormally to particular feed ingredients, but does not provoke the immune system to react.
The immune system may still be involved in a different way. The difficulty with this is that if particular antibodies are not involved in the reaction, then blood tests that measure the antibodies produced by a certain food or feed are of no use in detecting the problem.
By Process of Elimination…
Many horses live quite happily with low level sensitivities to foods that you may never even have been aware of, and only become a problem when their health is compromised in some other way such as suffering infection, some stress, trauma or injury, or being generally run down.
Using supplements or topical skin creams to cover up these problems is like repeatedly taking painkillers for recurrent headaches without finding out what is causing the problem. If the problem is not addressed, then eating foods which the body is not able to digest satisfactorily will further stress the system, and the number of foods to which your horse reacts may grow.
Changing environment can be stressful for some horses so it is important to initially feed a horse a diet that is both low in energy but also ‘safe’ from a digestive health viewpoint. As you may or may not know what kind of diet this horse has previously had, it is a good idea to ask the previous owner so that they can make you aware or any feeding dislikes or intolerances. If this information is not available the fist step is to provide the horse with adequate good quality forage such as hay, haylage or access to pasture. In terms of hard feed look for a high fibre, low starch product such as Gain® Easy Go Cubes which are a good starting point for any type of horse. In addition to comprehensive vitamin and mineral specification of this product will help support the horse’s long term health. Addition of chaff such as Gain® Cool Chaff will also benefit the horse by increasing the amount of time that it chews its food for and it will slow the rate of passage of the food through the digestive system.
This is a good starting point once you become familiar with the horse you can review accordingly.
This problem although quiet common is quiet difficult to solve nutritionally. If your horse is overweight you need to reduce his weight by restricting access to high calorie feeds, such as rich grass or high quality haylage, whilst feeding a low calorie feed that will provide a full supply of vitamins and minerals, without providing any unwanted calories. In this type of scenario it is important to remember energy and calories are the same thing, if you feed a high energy feed then you are also feeding a diet high in calories and vice versa! Quite often these types of horses are better off on a traditional cereal mix, such as Gain® Sport Mix or Hi-Grade Horse and Pony Cubes fed below the recommended levels, to give them instant energy without too many calories. The amount fed needs to be monitored very carefully so that the horse doesn’t Gain® too much weight, but remember, if feeding below the recommended feeding level, you need to add in a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral concentrate such as Gain® Opti-Gro to ensure all your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements are met.
This is a common problem amongst horse owners and in these circumstances usually owners have tried low energy mixes or cubes but without much success. Either you can’t feed too much as it makes matters worse, or your horse ends up with not enough energy for the work you want to do.
Traditional competition feeds are normally high in cereal starch and are therefore best avoided when choosing feeds for excitable of highly strung individuals. Fibre and oil, on the other hand, release fuel to the horse gradually and tend not to encourage excitable behaviour, despite being valuable sources of energy.
It is therefore possible to feed hard working or poor doing horses plenty of calories while also keeping excitability at bay. Fibre and oil are also safely digested and will not cause irritating abdominal pain. Gain® Freedom is ideal for these types of horses; providing a high level of energy suitable for the competition horse without the high level of starch seen in traditional competition feeds.
A horse’s behaviour is strongly influenced by the type of energy in their diet, as well as the amount. Whilst diet cannot fundamentally change a horse’s temperament, it can be a useful tool in encouraging the right behaviour.
Traditionally cereal is the main source of energy in many compound feeds and is responsible in the majority of cases of excitable behaviour. Straights such as oats, barley and maize, as well as some coarse mixes, all contain a relatively high proportion of cereal starch. Starch is made up of glucose units and is rapidly broken down in the horse’s digestive system to release a rush of fuel into the bloodstream, which tends to encourage excitability. If large cereal meals are fed at one time and some starch escapes digestion in the small intestine it will ferment rapidly in the hindgut releasing lactic acid which in turn damages the walls of the hindgut.
High starch products are therefore best avoided when choosing feeds for naturally excitable or difficult horses. Fibre and oil on the other hand release fuel to the horse gradually and tend not to encourage excitable behaviour, despite being valuable sources of energy. It is therefore possible to feed hard working or poor doing horses plenty of calories whilst keeping over-exuberance at bay. Fibre and oil are also safely digested and will not cause irritating abdominal pain.
For many years it has been a popular belief that low protein diets are essential to help prevent excitability; however, this is not the case. Protein is not a cause of excitable behaviour as it is not used as a primary energy source by healthy horses. Protein is mainly used to provide building blocks for growth, muscle development and repair of damaged tissues.
How did this myth begin?
There are a number of theories which have lead to the myth that protein makes horses excitable, but by far the most important seems to be the link between the level of protein and the level of energy. Feeding legislation dictates that the level of protein within a feed is clearly stated on the label whereas energy is not; when the energy level of a feed increases in most cases so does the protein. Therefore when you move from a low energy feed to a conditioning feed, you may notice the protein level increases from 10 to 14%, and your horse becomes excitable, what you will not notice however is the energy level has also increased from 10.5MJ/kg to 13 MJ/kg and that the sources of energy may have also changed