We know our horse needs a good solid nutritional program. Their life and career depend on the building blocks that nutrition will provide as a solid foundation. Correct and balanced nutrition is a critical component for proper horse care.
No matter what the age, breed, occupation, or health status, horses do best when fed a diet that is as close as possible to what nature has provided for them. “As close as possible” will mean different things for different horses, but the fundamentals are the same for all.
No Horse-in Around with Digestion
A horse’s digestive system needs small quantities of food numerous times daily. This is because the horse has a relatively small stomach that can hold only one to four gallons of food at a time. This food moves into the gut track very quickly.
Infrequent feeding can unbalance his intestinal bacteria, resulting in stomach disturbances, diarrhea, and colic. It can also contribute to gastric ulcer disease, estimated to afflict 60% to 90% of mature horses.
You are What you Eat
Feeding large amounts of grains and concentrates is taken up quickly by the horse and is passed through to the hind-gut before it has a chance to digest properly.
Ingredients which contribute to high levels of starch and sugar in feeds include grains, molasses and some oils. These can wreak havoc on a horse’s glucose levels. The surge of glucose causes a quick release of insulin and a rush of adrenaline, which results in fatigue lasting several hours. With insulin resistance, the easy-keepers cannot tolerate these up and down levels and eventually their bodies stop processing the glucose properly. Instead of high sugar/starch feedstuffs, try alternatives such as forage pellets or cubes, flaxseed and or beet pulp type feeds.
Most processed horse feeds are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and some products these days even contain extra antioxidant substances. However, in most cases these processed foods and supplements use synthetic vitamins and inorganic or, at best, chelated minerals, for which bioavailability (absorption and utilization by the body) is poor to moderate. In contrast, the vitamins and minerals in plants generally are much more bioavailable.
There was a study done by Sara Ringmark, PhD, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry, in Uppsala. In this current study, Ringmark and her fellow researchers followed 2- and 3-year-old Standardbred racehorses over a two-year period of intense training and racing. They had no concentrated feeds during this critical two-year period of growth and training.
They found that feeding young racehorses the forage-only diet did not prohibit muscle glycogen storage, growth, or body condition scores (BCS), and it seemed to promote good nutrition-related health, she said. Specifically, there were no differences in feed intake or in any of the body measurements between the training groups, with an average BCS of about 5 (on a 1-9 scale). She also found no difference between groups in muscle glycogen content (a measure of muscle energy storage), and none of the horses developed nutrition-related disorders or stereotypies.
Providing you equine with adequate amounts of high-quality forage/pasture throughout the day will benefit the horse’s wellbeing and overall health. If you must feed grain, make sure to feed 3-4 small meals throughout the day. Be sure to feed hay first to buffer the digestion of the concentrates.
There’s a Catch
Taking the time to test your hay and pastures will give you a better idea of what type of nutrients each contain. The basis of any equine diet should be forage but if the hay you are feeding or the pasture your horse is on happens to be low quality you may need to look in to a vitamin/mineral supplement.
Each horse is an individual, so nutritional needs will vary according to a given situation, but it can be quite simple to provide your horse with vital nutrients without overproviding calories.
By getting back to a more natural feeding program, you can give your horse a new lease on life and allow them to reach their full potential.