Drought Feeding: Keeping Your Horse Healthy

While many of us in Australia have been dealing with drought conditions, increasingly we are having to turn to sources of hay outside of the commonly used lucerne, grassy/meadow, rhodes, clover, oaten and wheaten hays. Not all alternative hay types are suitable for horses however so be careful when choosing an alternative hay or chaff for your horse.

Alternative Sources of Hay and Chaff

Some suitable and unsuitable alternative hays and chaffs include:

Suitable Hay/Chaff Types:

• Well cured grass or legume silage
• Pea hay or straw
• Wheat or barley straw
• Canola hay
• Teff Hay (but don’t feed as the only hay and be aware it can be high in starch and sugars)
• Sugarcane hay (avoid for Cushing’s horses or laminitic horses)
• Vetch hay (don’t feed more than 0.5kg/100 kg bodyweight)
• Barley hay/chaff (feed with caution if it has intact seed heads with long awns, avoid for Cushing’s horses or laminitic horses)
• Triticale hay/chaff (avoid for Cushing’s horses or laminitic horses)

Unsuitable Hay/Chaff Types:

• Lupin hay (may cause lupinosis)
• Sorghum/forage sorghum hay (may cause prussic acid or hydrocyanic acid poisoning)
• Red clover and alsike clover hay/chaff (may cause liver damage and photosensitisation)

Regardless of the hay type you do choose, ALWAYS make sure it is clean and free of mould. If the hay is dusty, it should be dampened down prior to feeding.

And remember, all these different types of hay will affect what else you need to feed to keep diets balanced and meeting requirements. This is where FeedXL can help. Simply enter the hay you are feeding and check that your supplementary feeds and supplements are still able to meet requirements! Even with all the changes of hay, keeping the diet balanced will keep your horse glowing and in pristine health!

Sand and Dirt Accumulation

Horses naturally eat quite a bit of soil! Under normal circumstances however the large amount of fibre moving through their gut acts to move the sand and dirt through their gut and out in their manure… so normally it won’t accumulate. During drought however, the amount of soil they eat increases due to grazing very close to virtually bare ground. And often the amount of fibre they have access to is reduced. So it’s a double whammy… more sand and dirt in their gut and less fibre to clear it. This situation often results in accumulation of sand and dirt, irritation of the gastrointestinal tract and colic or diarrhea.

The best way to clear sand and dirt from a horse’s gut is to feed lots and lots of hay. But this isn’t always possible during a drought. An alternative and also very effective way of clearing it is to feed psyllium husk. Psyllium husk is a fibre that absorbs water in the gut and turns into a really stick goo (technical term!) that is able to shift sand and dirt out of the gut.

Interesting recent research paper here showing significant sand and dirt accumulation being successfully shifted in 4 days using a combination of psyllium husk and epsom salts https://www.sciencedirect.com/…/arti…/pii/S1090023318302648…

For those of you who would like to use psyllium without nasogastric tubing it, we have good success feeding 50 grams per 100 kg of bodyweight per day. Feed it in a single meal, for 5 days in a row, mixed with something your horse loves the taste of. Make the feed very very slightly damp then tip the psyllium in and mix it around. Don’t wet it too much as most horses don’t like the taste and/or texture of wet psyllium. If your horse was showing signs of sand or dirt accumulation (mild colic or diarrhea), give the horse a break for 5 days and then repeat the 5 day treatment. You can continue to do this as long as you feel necessary.

 

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How to Feed a Horse That Won’t Sweat

Anhydrosis, or the inability to sweat, is a serious condition that affects horses in hot and humid climates. Horses rely heavily on sweating to cool themselves down and keep their core body temperature within a normal range. Sweat wets the horse’s skin and then as it evaporates it takes heat with it, effectively creating an evaporative cooling system for the horse.

In some horses however, for reasons largely still unknown a horse’s sweat glands either partially or fully quit producing sweat. These horses find it very difficult to stay cool and need to resort to offloading heat via their lungs by breathing harder and faster than you would expect them to, which is why horses with this condition are often said to ‘have the puffs’.

In many situations though, puffing is not effective enough, so horses that can’t sweat are at serious risk of hyperthermia which wreaks all sorts of havoc in the body and if not dealt with effectively will eventually result in death.

The right feeding strategy may help

While we don’t understand what causes anhydrosis it does appear that for some horses certain nutritional strategies can help. Tips for feeding horses with anhydrosis include:

1. Always meet electrolyte requirements in the diet

It is likely some horses stop sweating simply because they run out of electrolytes. The major electrolytes found in sweat are sodium, chloride and potassium. The two most commonly deficient electrolytes in a horse’s diet are sodium and chloride and these are the components of ordinary old salt.

Use FeedXL to assess your horse’s requirement for the electrolyte minerals and use plain salt and/or an electrolyte supplement to meet requirements. Horse’s on forage based diets should be receiving lots of potassium from their forage so in most cases all you need to add is plain salt.

2. Always provide access to free choice rock salt

A horse will seek salt out when it knows it needs it, so providing free access to loose rock salt allows them to eat as much or as little as they need to meet their requirements.

In very hot and humid climates avoid the use of salt blocks as it is difficult for a horse to lick enough salt off to meet requirements when they need a lot of salt.

3. Feed controlled amounts of protein

Diets that are too high in protein have a couple of negative effects on horses that can’t sweat.

The first is that protein generates a lot of heat during the process of digestion and metabolism which adds to the heat load a horse needs to get rid of to keep its body temperature normal. For most horses this is usually not an issue as they are able to sweat and easily dissipate the excess heat. But when a horse isn’t able to sweat, it just makes their job of staying cool even more difficult.

The second is that when protein is fed in excess the horse needs to get rid of the excess nitrogen contained in the protein. In a healthy horse the kidneys perform this task without hassle. BUT a lot of water and electrolyte are excreted with the nitrogen, so potentially it can lead to dehydration and electrolyte deficiency, neither of which will help a horse that can’t sweat properly in the first place.

To keep protein in diets low, restrict the amount of forages and feeds that are high in protein like lucerne, copra meal, lupins, faba beans, sunflower/soybean/canola meals, pollard and rice bran and rely more on grassy pasture and hay, oils, low protein fibres like beet pulp and lower protein cooked cereal grains (where it is safe to do so). FeedXL will help you to keep track of the amount of protein in your horse’s diet.

4. For horses in work, consider using a lower forage diet

When the fibre contained in forages is fermented in the hindgut a lot of heat is produced which then increases the amount of heat a horse needs to get rid of to keep its body temperature normal. By reducing the amount of forage and therefore the amount of fibre in a diet you will reduce the heat load placed on a horse.

To maintain the horse’s required energy intake you can add oil (the best option as it produces the least heat) and/or cooked grains to the diet. It is essential that you feed well-cooked grains, with extruded grains being the best option, as the starch contained within these grains will be digested in the small intestine. Feeding uncooked or poorly cooked grains will lead to a lot of fermentation and heat production in the hindgut and should be avoided for all horses in hot climates.

Please note: Never reduce forage intake below 1 kg/100 kg of bodyweight and be mindful of the increased risk of stomach ulcers for horses on low forage diets. Using slow feeders is highly recommended. It is also essential to have your horse’s stomach full of forage before it is worked.

5. Make sure the diet you feed is balanced

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some mineral and vitamin deficiencies may contribute to a horse’s inability to sweat. The best way to counteract this is to make sure what you are feeding is meeting all of your horse’s requirements for macro and trace-minerals and vitamins. FeedXL will make sure you can achieve this!

If you have a horse with anhydrosis it is strongly recommended you seek veterinary advice. Aggressive environmental management of these horses to keep them cool is the best way to manage their condition.

Useful management strategies include:

1. Always provide access to shade and cool to cold drinking water.

2. Keep them under fans and water misters where possible during the day.

3. Turn them out at night only if possible.

4. Only work them if your veterinarian advises it is safe to do so and then only work them during the very early morning when it is coolest and only to the level they can comfortably handle.

5. Cool them down quickly and effectively with hosing and fans post work until their rectal temperature has returned to normal.

6. If these strategies aren’t effective in keeping your horse’s body temperature within a safe range, the horse will need to be moved to a cooler climate.

Often, and again for reasons we don’t understand, horses will start to sweat again when they move to a cooler environment.

 

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What to Do When Your Horse Won’t Eat

There is nothing more frustrating or worrying than a horse that won’t eat. Horses go off their feed for a variety of reasons which can include illness, unpalatable feeds or gastrointestinal disturbances such as hindgut acidosis. Thankfully though, there are some things you can do to get a horse eating again. Here are some useful tips for maintaining your horse’s appetite.

Step 1: identify why your horse won’t eat

The first step to getting a horse to eat again is to identify what caused the lack of appetite in the first place. Some possibilities include:

  • Disease: if the horse is sick or has a problem like gastric ulcers it is likely that its appetite will be poor.
  • Pain: if a horse is in pain it can dramatically reduce its appetite. Pain can include lameness, general muscle soreness from a hard workout and mild forms of colic.
  • Vitamin B1 deficiency: some plant species including bracken fern, nardoo, rock ferns and horsetails all contain an enzyme called thiaminase which destroys vitamin B1 (also called Thiamine) in the gastrointestinal tract before it can be absorbed by the horse. This, over time will cause a
    vitamin B1 deficiency. A deficiency of B1 is well recognised as causing loss of appetite in many animal species including horses. Also, if your horse is being fed uncooked grains like corn or barley there is a good chance the lack of appetite is due to grain fermentation and the resulting acidosis in the hindgut. During hindgut acidosis, thiaminase is produced by the hindgut bacteria and can lead to a vitamin B1 deficiency and the resulting loss of appetite.
  • Mycotoxin poisoning: many feeds including hay, chaff and grains can be contaminated with fungi (mould) and given the right conditions these fungi can produce mycotoxins. One of the early symptoms of mycotoxin poisoning in horses is loss of appetite. I often suspect mycotoxins when a change in source of hay, chaff or grain suddenly causes a horse to go off its feed. Wondering if mycotoxins are to blame? Click here to read our blog post ‘What should you do if you think your horse has a mycotoxin problem?’
  • Unpalatable feeds: feeds and forages that are mouldy, stale, rancid or too salty will stop a horse from eating. Some feed ingredients like soybean meal can also be not very tasty and may make the more finicky eaters lose their appetite.
  • Over-supplementing: feeding supplements in excess of your horse’s requirements can also make a feed unpalatable and stop a horse from eating. This is particularly the case with concentrated vitamin/mineral preparations and electrolyte supplements.
  • Medications: putting medications like Bute into a feed can make it unpalatable and put a horse off its feed.
  • Stress: if a horse is stressed by a change in routine, or the loss of a pasture buddy can lead to reduction of appetite

Step 2: remove or treat the cause

Once you have identified the cause of loss of appetite, remove the cause or work with your veterinarian to treat the cause.

  • Disease: work with your veterinarian to treat any illness that may be putting your horse off its feed.
  • Pain: again, work with your veterinarian to identify and treat any pain that may be preventing the horse from eating. It may also be wise to have a dentist thoroughly examine your horse’s teeth and mouth for any issues that may be causing pain.
  • Vitamin B1 deficiency: if your horse is eating plants that contain thiaminase, remove the horse from the pasture, supplement the horse with oral vitamin B1, and provide plenty of good quality hay. If your horse was being fed whole or uncooked grains, remove them from the diet and replace them with cooked grains (i.e. grains that have been micronised, extruded, steam flaked or thoroughly boiled) or high energy fibres like sugarbeet pulp or soybean hulls. Also provide the horse as much hay as it wants to eat. When loss of appetite is caused by hindgut acidosis the horse will often maintain its appetite for forage. An oral vitamin B1 supplement will also help to replenish depleted vitamin B1 supplies and return appetite to normal.
  • Mycotoxin poisoning: if you suspect mycotoxins, try to locate the source of mycotoxin contamination. You can look for visible signs of mould (which doesn’t always indicate the presence of mycotoxin) or send the feeds off for a mycotoxin analysis. Equi-Analytical offer a mycotoxin screening service. Once you have located the source, remove it from your horse’s diet and replace it with a clean alternative. If mycotoxins are an ongoing concern you can look at using products like Mycosorb® that trap the mycotoxins and prevent them from being absorbed by your horse. Keep in mind that hay and chaff are common sources of mycotoxin poisoning. For more detailed info, click here to read our full article on mycotoxin binders.
  • Unpalatable feeds: locate which feed is unpalatable for your horse and replace it with a palatable alternative. If you are unsure what is unpalatable, simplify your diet back to one or two ingredients that you think your horse will eat and then as his appetite returns gradually add any additional ingredients one at a time (leaving a few days between the addition of each new ingredient). If your horse stops eating again after you add a particular ingredient, remove it immediately and find a suitable alternative. In the case of it being salt, provide the horse with a salt lick and don’t add salt to its feed. If you are adding salt to your horse’s feed you can also just try removing the salt, as salt is one ingredient that will turn a horse off its feed very quickly.
  • Over-supplementing: use FeedXL to carefully adjust your horse’s diet so that its requirements are being met without being exceeded. Pay extra attention to the amount of sodium in your horse’s
    diet as oversupplying sodium (a component of salt) will make a horse’s feed very unpalatable.
  • Medications: don’t put medication in a fussy horse’s feed. If you need to administer medication, try mixing it up with apple sauce in a large syringe or clean worm paste tube and administering it directly into your horse’s mouth after he/she has eaten their feed. Don’t do it before you feed as this will also stop them from eating in many cases. If you suspect a vitamin B1 deficiency is causing the loss of appetite you should administer the vitamin B1 in this way until your horse’s appetite has returned.
  • Stress: if your horse gets upset by changes in routine try to keep things as consistent as possible and always have a buddy close by your horse. They are herd animals and don’t feel comfortable or safe when alone in most cases.

Step 3: simplify the diet

If your horse has stopped eating its normal ration for a period of time, even after you remove or treat the cause of loss of appetite, it is likely your horse will take some time for its appetite to return to normal. During this time feed as simple a diet as possible. Start with access to as much good quality hay or pasture the horse wants to eat. Then gradually add ingredients one at a time, starting with the ones your horse likes the most. Remember to leave at least 2 days between adding new ingredients.

With the exception of providing vitamin B1 where a B1 deficiency is suspected as the cause of loss of appetite, remove all supplements from the diet until the horse has a healthy appetite again. When you do reintroduce supplements, do so one at a time so you know if your horse doesn’t like the taste of one.

Step 4: make their feed taste good

If removing or treating the cause of your horse’s loss of appetite and simplifying the diet hasn’t worked to return appetite to normal, try adding ingredients that smell and taste good to a horse to help get them eating normally again. A few ingredients you can try include:

    • Bran
    • Honey
    • Molasses
    • Applesauce
    • Grated carrot or apple
    • Brewers yeast; or
    • Lucerne chaff

Final few bits and pieces

Hopefully the tips above will help you to identify and remove or treat whatever it is causing your horse to go off its feed. A few other things that you should also keep in mind are:

  • Make sure the horse’s feed bin is in a comfortable position. For example, if your horse is lame in one of its forelegs, put the feed bin at chest height to allow the horse to eat without putting a lot of pressure on its front legs.
  • A horse will almost always eat fresh pasture, so if you have it available, let the horse graze and don’t try to force it to eat hay or hard feed.
  • Feed in frequent small meals and remove uneaten feed every 2 hours to keep it fresh and palatable.
  • Keep a close eye on how much feed and water your horse is eating and drinking. If it is eating or drinking very little the risk of colic is high. If you are getting concerned about your horse, call your vet immediately to discuss a suitable management plan to keep the horse hydrated and nourished until its appetite returns.

 

Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

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What Should You Do if You Think Your Horse Has a Mycotoxin Problem?

Mycotoxins can contaminate almost everything your horse eats and can cause significant health and behavioural issues. The problem is, figuring out what is causing the problems you are seeing and suspect may be mycotoxins isn’t always easy. This post is going to help you answer the question: what should you do if you think your horse has a mycotoxin problem?

Why mycotoxin binders may (or may not) help

Often when someone suspects mycotoxins they will add a mycotoxin binder to the horse’s feed. Sometimes it will help. But often it may not and this will normally lead a horse owner to the conclusion that the problem isn’t mycotoxins and they continue to struggle along, baffled by what is causing the changes in health or behaviour for their horse.

The problem is, not all mycotoxin binders will bind all mycotoxins. It’s also really very hard to mix mycotoxin binders well enough in a horse’s gut with the forage they eat to actually come into contact and either bind or destroy all mycotoxin. So even if you get the right binder, it may not get the chance to come into contact with the mycotoxins in the horse’s gut to allow it to do its job.

For more information on mycotoxin binders (and what to consider before adding one) click here.

For more detailed info you can read our full article on mycotoxin binders here.

How to know for sure if it’s a mycotoxin problem

Here is what I (Nerida) would do…

Let’s say for example a horse has started to show changes in behaviour: spookiness, aggressiveness or overly herd bound and always wanting their mates. You suspect it is pasture mycotoxins from your ryegrass pasture (sound familiar anyone?!). The best thing to do is to take your horse COMPLETELY off the pasture for a period of time and replace the pasture with hay that is not ryegrass and see if the behaviour settles down.

Doing this completely removes the suspected pasture toxins from the diet and you will see quite quickly if it was the cause of your issues. If the problem settles once the mycotoxin contaminated feed or forage is removed from the diet, you have identified your suspect and now it becomes a matter of managing the problem.

This may involve keeping the horse off pasture completely at high risk times (for example when your ryegrass is overgrazed or gone to seed). You may only allow grazing for short periods of time to limit mycotoxin intake or you may allow your horse to graze but feed an appropriate mycotoxin binder regularly during the grazing period to give it the best chance of coming into contact with the pasture mycotoxins in the gut so it can bind or destroy them.

What not to do…

What I don’t recommend is JUST adding a mycotoxin binder to see if you can make the problem go away. There are many reasons why the issue may be mycotoxins but adding a binder won’t help much. It is much better to take whatever it is you suspect is adding mycotoxin to your horse’s diet away completely. Then there is no grey area of maybe it is/maybe it isn’t… 

 

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What to Consider Before Adding a Mycotoxin Binder to Your Horse’s Diet

Mycotoxins are nasty little things… toxins produced by fungi that can contaminate feed and forages. They are only needed in tiny amounts (like parts per billion) to have some quite dramatic negative health effects on all animals and different mycotoxins will work together to magnify their negative effects. Read on for more info on what to consider before adding a mycotoxin binder to your horse’s diet.

For horses we mostly deal with pasture based mycotoxins, produced by the endophyte fungi that like to live with ryegrass and fescue; the ergovaline and lolitrem mycotoxins. Horse owners are starting to use toxin binders to counteract the negative effects these mycotoxins have on health and the quite dramatic effects they can have on behaviour.

But, there are lots of different binders and a lot of different toxins…

Do all binders bind all mycotoxins?

In a word… no! And this is where a major key lies to whether mycotoxin binders will work to prevent pasture associated mycotoxin poisoning or not. For example, it has been shown that glucomannan from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is very effective at binding aflatoxin (one of the most important and prevalent mycotoxins present in grain based livestock feeds) and good ability to bind the fumonisin and zearalenone mycotoxins, but it is ineffective when it comes to binding other important mycotoxins like T-2 (trichothecene), DON (deoxynivalenol) and ochratoxin.

Why don’t all binders work on all mycotoxins?

One of the reasons some binders can bind some mycotoxins and not others depends on the mycotoxin itself and whether it is polar (possessing an electrical charge) or not. Aflatoxin, for example, is a polar mycotoxin and is very easily ‘picked up’ by a yeast derived glucomannan based binder (which are the most common mycotoxin binders on the market for horses). The pasture based mycotoxins ergovaline and lolitrem B on the other hand are non-polar (no charge). That means trying to pick them up with a yeast cell wall based toxin binder is sort of like trying to pick up a piece of paper with a magnet … it just won’t work.

So if you want to use a mycotoxin binder be careful to select one that is going to work on the actual mycotoxin you are dealing with, otherwise it will be an ineffective waste of money for you, and that is never fun!

For more detailed info you can read our full article on mycotoxin binders here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

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How to Feed a Horse Confined to a Stable

Feeding a horse confined to a stable… it’s a balancing act… give them plenty of feed to keep them occupied but not so much you have them climbing them walls. Here is a little help on how to do it!

Horses are sometimes required to be confined due to illness or injury with no exercise allowed. It’s certainly not ideal for a horse, but, with some diseases, injuries and surgeries it is critical that a horse does stay confined AND calm for long periods of time.

As it does for so many things, nutrition… what you feed and how much, makes a very real difference to how well a horse will cope during confinement!

Horses will express the amount of calories they are being fed in their diet in their behaviour. So if you feed them a lot of energy (calories) they will give you a lot of energy! Which means feeding a confined horse needs to walk that fine line of enough calories to hold weight so that healing/recovery can occur but not so much that behavior becomes a problem… either from your own safety perspective or for their own safety (the last thing you need an injured horse doing is climbing the walls of a box!).

Where it gets really tricky is that mentally they need enough to eat to keep them occupied and of course we need to keep the stomach full to lower the ever present risk of ulcers!

So it’s a classic catch 22… How do we feed lots to keep them munching all day without exceeding their calorie requirement??

The answer is in low quality, low calorie hay! If you can find it!! Average quality grassy hay is perfect for these horses because it is low in calories, meaning they can eat a lot of it without blowing their calorie budget. Plus it’s often stemmy and requires a lot of chewing, so it keeps them busy for long periods and makes them salivate a lot which is great for maintaining the health of their stomach. And they don’t particularly like it, so they won’t eat it really quickly… a benefit in keeping them busy and preventing ulcers!

Of course you can’t just feed average quality grass hay, there would be deficiencies in the diet everywhere that would hinder recovery and general health.

My go to with these horses is average quality grassy hay, a portion of alfalfa/lucerne hay and a high quality balancer pellet for vitamins and minerals… which gives you the quantity/bulk you need to keep the horse sane and it’s gut healthy, the high quality protein needed for healing and it will cover all the vitamin and mineral needs.

FeedXL is a really handy tool when feeding these horses, allowing you to keep a close eye on calories but also making sure you don’t leave deficiencies in the diet that will hinder the healing process… which will help get your horse out of confinement as quickly as possible!!

 

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Feeding Horses with Worn Out Teeth

Quite often we are contacted by owners regarding old horses with very poor or no effective grinding teeth (molars) that are losing weight. On looking at the diets for these horses we often find that their owners have done a wonderful job of selecting suitable feeds that require little chewing and/or can be soaked in addition to forages in the form of chaff, hay cubes or chopped hay BUT they simply aren’t feeding enough of this forage. So our tip this month is feed lots of forage.

You should be aiming to feed 2% of an older horse’s ‘ideal bodyweight’ (the weight you would like them to be) in forage they can easily eat per day. This is equivalent to 2 kg for every 100 kg of their bodyweight (or 2 lb for every 100 lb), or 10 kg/day for a 500 kg horse (22 lb/1100 lb horse).

Things like chaff (chopped hay) or soaked hay cubes are ideal. You can also use high energy fibres like sugarbeet pulp, soybean or lupin hulls and copra meal. But we recommend you feed at least half of your horse’s forage as chaff or hay cubes so that there is some indigestible fibre in the mix to keep your horse’s gut full and reduce the risk of colic. And to avoid the trap of thinking you are feeding enough forage but actually are not, please weigh what you are feeding. 2 litres of chaff only weighs around 250 grams, so 10 kg of chaff could be as much as 40 litres of chaff per day, which looks like a lot!

 

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Do You Have a Horse in Work That Goes Off Its Feed?

It might be the salt…

We all know horses need salt, but you can feed too much of a good thing. And the thing with salt is, when a horse needs it, it tastes really good. But when they are getting too much, their ‘sodium intake regulation system’ (I just made that up, sounds about right though hey!) makes it taste bad.

The result being they will reduce their feed intake… or they might completely stop eating feed with salt in it so they don’t eat too much salt. Which is a problem if you have a performance horse that NEEDS to eat so he can work to the best of his ability for you!

If you suspect this might be happening, the easiest solution is to stop adding any salt or electrolyte to your horse’s feed. If too much salt was the cause of your horse going off his feed, appetite should return really quickly once his feed is no longer salty.

The other possibility is that your horse has ulcers. Have you ever put salt on an open wound? It hurts… a lot! So imagine if your horse has ulcers (i.e. open wounds in his stomach) and you feed him something salty… it could be reasonably expected to cause pain. And if something hurts you when you eat it, chances are you would stop eating it pretty quick.
So if your horse has ulcers you may need to moderate salt intake.

Trick is you still need to meet his sodium and chloride requirements.

Here is where FeedXL can really help. FeedXL will show you how much sodium and chloride is in your horse’s diet and how much salt (if any) you should be adding. So with FeedXL you add just enough to meet requirements, but no so much you will put your horse off his feed.

If you would like more information on the role salt plays in your horse’s diet read our article Does Your Horse Need Electrolytes.

 

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Cold Weather and Calorie Requirements

Have you ever wondered how much of an impact the weather has on your horse’s calorie requirement?

While it is poorly documented in horses, observation suggests that the environmental conditions a horse is kept in can have a huge impact on their requirement for calories. Here are some of my (Nerida’s) personal observations:

Winter 2016 in the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia

Winter 2016 was exceptionally wet and quite cold in the Hunter Valley. We really struggled to get weanlings to grow at ‘normal’ rates, even on maximum amounts of high quality feed with ample excellent quality pasture. The problem was worse on farms where paddocks were waterlogged and the weanlings simply couldn’t get dry and warm.

So instead of being able to partition calories toward growing, they were burning them all up just staying warm.

This year (2017) has been a very dry winter and weanlings are growing well on less feed and lower quality pasture. Same feed, same genetics, same farms, just different weather… and notably, not wet!

Autumn 2016 on the North Island of New Zealand

By contrast, the 2016 autumn season in New Zealand was unusually dry and warm. One farm, who had been using the same feed regime for several years (including the same quantity of feed for weanlings) started to experience weanlings with ‘contracted tendons’. There were a couple of new cases of weanlings ‘going over at the knee’ every few days. Needless to say the owners were concerned.

In the end, it came down to the weather. With the drier, warmer weather these little guys were burning less calories to stay warm and had more to use to grow and were just growing faster than they should have been. We reduced their feed and subsequent calorie intake and had no further cases.

Summer in Saudi Arabia

Broodmares and growing horses in Saudi Arabia who are housed outdoors with no air conditioning and are fully hand fed need less feed during the summer months (and excess body condition can be an issue). With such a high ambient temperature, they need virtually no calories to maintain body temperature. They also don’t move a lot because they are so hot. And this happens predictably every year.

I don’t rug my own horses so they are fully at the mercy of whatever the weather throws at them. Last year, during winter, it rained and rained. All of them had ribs showing (they are horribly easy keepers so this was exciting for me and a good thing!) by mid winter, despite having plenty of pasture available to them.

This year by contrast, it has been cold, but dry. And there is not a rib to be seen despite having been restricted to a very small part of their paddock with minimal (and I really mean minimal) pasture. The difference … rain!

As we saw in the Hunter Valley in the first example, horses can tolerate cold, dry weather easily. My horses demonstrated this perfectly this year. As soon as they get wet though, their insulation provided by their woolly winter coats that effectively traps heat close to their body is lost, PLUS when they are wet evaporative cooling (loss of heat from a wet surface) increases.

So it’s a double whammy; they can’t trap heat, plus they lose more heat. Which all combines to mean in cold, wet weather, their calorie requirement is significantly increased as they need to produce so much more heat (which they do by burning calories) to maintain their body temperature.

As you all know, calorie (or Digestible Energy) requirements vary horse to horse and are, as just discussed, also influenced heavily by the weather. So when using FeedXL, use the Digestible Energy requirement provided as a guide, but don’t be surprised if your horse is sitting above (i.e. needs more feed than is estimated) or below (needs less feed) the requirement you are given.

The only accurate way to know if your horse is getting enough calories is to use your eyes and your hands. Body condition score your horse regularly and adjust the amount of Digestible Energy in the diet up or down if your horse starts to lose or gain weight.

Or you might be like Sam and I and a whole lot of our FeedXL members and feel like you are constantly adjusting calorie intake down and making zero impact on how overweight your horses are! And like us you might then just wait and hope the next winter is wet and cold!!

Some more information about Body Condition Scoring is here for you: https://feedxl.com/1-why-body-condition-score/

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

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Feeding the ‘Off-The-Track’ Thoroughbred

I think we all know of a few ‘amazing’ stories about thoroughbreds rescued from the brink of going to slaughter and going on to be amazingly talented horses performing to Olympic level. I am also sure there are thousands of stories where thoroughbreds have been re-homed and re-educated to be dependable, talented riding horses.

The fact it can be done though doesn’t mean it is an easy task. Many thoroughbreds, and especially those who have raced take a lot of time and patience to re-educate and re-condition to live and work as a pleasure or performance horse. While there is no doubt that good education from a ‘steady hand’ is of utmost importance in a thoroughbred’s ‘transformation’, a large part of their transition from racehorse to riding horse is dependent on good nutrition. In this post we will look at the rather unique situation of feeding an off-the-track thoroughbred and the strategies you might use to get the best results.

THE RACING LIFE

In a survey we conducted in 2001 while I was a student at UNE that was later published in the Australian Veterinary Journal (Richards et al 2006) we found that thoroughbreds in racing stables are fed an average of 7.3 kg of grain based feed per day. Some trainers fed as much as 13 kg of grain per day and feeding just twice a day was the norm.

Oats was the most commonly fed grain while corn, barley and commercial feed mixes were also popular choices. It was uncommon for trainers to use ‘cooked’ grains. As a result of these high grain diets fed in large meals where much of the starch would be considered indigestible in the small intestine we found that around 25% of horses were experiencing hindgut acidosis.

To make things worse for these horses very little forage is fed. Less than 1 kg/day of chaff was fed by a majority of trainers while horses only received hay an average of 1.5 times a day. We didn’t actually weigh the hay but the amount was small (probably around 2 kg/horse/day).

Essentially what you are likely to end up with when you take a thoroughbred directly from the racetrack is a horse whose gut has adapted as best it can to high grain diets and in the process has lost some ability to do well on high forage diets.

PROBLEMS THAT NEED TO BE ‘FIXED’

Some of the problems associated with feeding and nutrition you are likely to encounter in these off-the-track thoroughbreds include:

  • An imbalance of the bacterial species in the hindgut. The horse’s hindgut contains two main ‘families’ of bacteria, those that ferment fibre and those that ferment starch and sugars (there is a 3rd group called lactate utilising bacteria but for the purposes of this topic we shall just focus on the two main families).What you would find if you could ‘see’ these two families of bacteria in the hindgut of a healthy horse fed a largely forage based diet is large populations of the fibre fermenting bacteria and much smaller populations of the starch/sugar fermenting ones. This however would be the opposite in a recently raced thoroughbred. You would see the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria in abundance while the fibre fermenting ones would be only in very small numbers. To make things worse, even though some fibre fermenting bacteria would still be present, the acidic environment the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria create means the fibre fermenting bacteria can’t function very well.What this all means is that fibre fermentation and therefore the horse’s ability to extract digestible energy from pasture, hay, chaff, haylage or high energy fibres like sugarbeet pulp, soybean hulls, lupin hulls or copra meal is severely limited. They might be eating a lot of fibre but will be able to digest very little of it.
  • Gastric Ulcers. It is estimated that as many as 90% of horses in race training have gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcers cause many problems but perhaps the two most relevant in the situation of feeding an off-the-track thoroughbred are the loss of appetite and weight loss. To get these ex-racehorses looking and feeling ‘normal’ they need to eat and they certainly don’t need anything like gastric ulcers to be causing further weight loss.
  • Hoof problems – Shelly, weak hooves that grow slowly are common issues seen in off-the-track thoroughbreds. Horses rely on biotin produced in the hindgut as well as dietary biotin to grow strong, healthy hooves. I believe, that largely due to the imbalance of bacteria in the hindgut, racing horses become biotin deficient and this is why we see so many with horrible hooves.
  • Poor appetites – It is quite common for ex-racehorses to have poor appetites. In many cases this is probably due to gastric ulcers but it may also be due to a vitamin B1 deficiency. As for biotin, horses rely on vitamin B1 being produced by the fibre fermenting bacteria in the hindgut to meet their requirements. When horses have a large amount of starch being fermented in their hindgut very little vitamin B1 is produced. And what is worse is the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria also produce ‘thiaminase’, an enzyme that actually destroys vitamin B1 in the gut. Both factors combine to create a vitamin B1 deficiency that is well known to cause a loss of appetite.

GETTING FIBRE DIGESTION ‘WORKING’

The first critical step in getting a thoroughbred back to ‘normal’ is to restore the balance of bacteria in the hindgut and get fibre digestion working properly again. If you have the time, this is easily done by simply putting the horse on a forage only diet with as much forage available as the horse would like to eat. Over time, the starch/sugar fermenting bacterial populations will fall (because you simply aren’t feeding them their preferred food anymore) and the fibre fermenting bacterial populations will SLOWLY be restored.

The fibre fermenting bacteria are somewhat slow to reproduce so this isn’t something that is going to happen very quickly. You may also find that particular species of fibre fermenting bacteria have almost completely disappeared from the hindgut (something you really can’t test for) so it takes a long time for the population to get back to normal.

Many people ask if probiotics will help. The simple answer is no, the majority of them won’t. Many probiotics are designed to assist with killing or suppressing pathogenic bacteria in the gut and they predominantly contain lactobacillus species of bacteria. Lactobacillus are starch/sugar fermenting bacteria and one of the groups of bacteria you want to reduce numbers of, not increase.

What may help is stomach tubing the horse with a strained slurry of manure taken from a healthy (worm free) horse on a high forage based diet (take the manure from the healthy horse while still very fresh, mix it in a slurry of body temperature clean water, strain the large particles and drench with the remaining watery solution – this must be done by a vet to avoid distending the stomach with too large a volume of fluid). This strategy is used with great results in feedlot cattle affected by acidosis to repopulate the rumen with ‘good’ bacteria. Of course in a horse the bacteria have to survive passage through the gastric stomach and small intestine, but it is likely some will survive and make it to the hindgut. Pre-biotics that help to feed fibre fermenting bacteria (generally yeast based products) may also be useful.

While this process of rebalancing the hindgut takes time it is essential if you want to have a horse that has a gut that functions normally.

THE HOOVES

To a large extent getting the hindgut functioning normally will correct issues the horse may have with its hooves being weak, shelly and/or growing slowly. Once the fibre fermenting bacteria are back and producing biotin again you should see good improvement in hoof quality (assuming requirements for nutrients like copper and zinc are being met). You may however like to use a hoof supplement to provide additional biotin to the horse in the short term. It is recommended that to positively impact hoof growth you should feed 20 mg of biotin per day for a 500 kg horse. If you do wish to feed biotin, use FeedXL to help select your hoof supplement. The amount of biotin in the diet is on the ‘Health’ tab. This will guide you in working out dose rates to meet your horse’s requirement for this nutrient.

APPETITE

Again getting the hindgut rebalanced will go a long way to improving the appetite of off-the-track thoroughbreds as they will be able to correct any vitamin B1 deficiency that may have been present. You can also use one of the many appetite or vitamin B1 supplements on the market to try and improve appetite. But remember that gastric ulcers are likely lurking in the stomach of your new horse and until they are resolved a poor appetite is likely to be present, regardless of what you feed or how you try to tempt the horse.

Gastric ulcers really must be treated so they resolve fully (talk to your vet about the most effective treatment options). There are some good US studies that show alfalafa/lucerne hay will help gastric ulcers to resolve given enough time. Incorporating alfalfa/lucerne into the forage base of the horse’s diet (up to 1 kg/100 kg BW or 1 lb/100 lb BW) may therefore also help to resolve ulcers and then to keep them at bay once treatment ceases. Once the ulcers are gone you should see a marked improvement in the horse’s appetite.

GAINING WEIGHT

Often the biggest priority for the owner of a new off-the-track thoroughbred is to get the horse gaining weight. While you could ‘feed the heck out of them’ and give them large amounts of grain based feed to put weight on them you are going to miss the opportunity in doing this of getting their entire gastrointestinal tract functioning ‘normally’ again. If you force weight gain with grain based feeds many of the problems discussed above will still be present and the horse still won’t be utilising fibre very efficiently. The end result is a horse that will need A LOT of feed to hold its weight long term (which is going to cost you a fortune).

So if time is on your side and you can be patient, hold off on pushing for weight gain until your horse has restored the balance of bacteria in its hindgut again and can properly utilise the fibre in its diet. Once it can do this you will find it takes a whole lot less feed to put weight on them. It is also crucial that any problems with ulcers have been resolved and that appetite has been restored before any attempt to put weight on the horse is made.

A note about fence walkers – Separation anxiety and fence walking is a common problem with newly off-the-track thoroughbreds. Given they are raised in groups and are virtually never left alone it is understandable. But if you think about it, a horse walking a fence instead of grazing has a high energy output and a low energy intake … there is no way you are going to put weight on a horse doing this. If you have a fence walker that needs to gain weight you are going to need to find it a buddy who is calm and spends a lot of time grazing and sleeping. The sooner your new horse can learn to do this the better.

Thoroughbreds are certainly capable of gaining and holding a lot of weight. It is just a matter of getting their gut (relatively simple) and their mind (sometimes not so simple … is that diplomatic enough?) sorted out. I see overweight thoroughbred weanlings, yearlings and broodmares all of the time, they are common. So with some patience and strategy you will be able to get weight on and keep weight on your horse.

PROBLEMS WITH TEMPERAMENT

Thoroughbreds are typically thought of as being quite ‘hot’ – the “react and then think” types. This issue is compounded when you take a horse that only has very basic education, straight off the race track and immediately start trying to ride it at the same time as you are trying to feed it a high energy diet for weight gain.

Again, patience is king here. Give the horse time to adjust to its new environment and in the early stages of its re-education feed a very basic (but still balanced diet, be sure to use FeedXL to make sure all nutrient requirements are met), high forage, moderate energy diet with no grain. The more education you can give a horse before you really start feeding it ‘the good stuff’ for weight gain the better.

FEEDING ‘TIMELINE’

Here is a guideline for how you might approach feeding a thoroughbred that has come directly out of a racing stable:

Month 1 – Put the horse out to pasture or give it access to ad lib good quality grass hay and feed 1 kg/100 kg BW of alfalfa/lucerne per day. Use FeedXL to balance the diet correctly using a pasture balancer pellet or low dose vitamin and mineral supplement. If possible just let the horse be a horse without any pressure to be ridden or trained (other than to have good ground manners if these are lacking).

You should treat the horse for ulcers where applicable, have a faecal egg count done and worm appropriately and have teeth/hooves etc attended to by qualified professionals during this first month.

Months 2 to 4 – Depending on the how the horse is going and how well its hindgut is functioning by the second month you may be seeing an improvement in condition or a worsening of condition. If the horse’s condition is dropping away check for issues like ulcers (they could still be present), general anxiousness (is the horse pacing the fence constantly) or pain, for example a back injury that is making it uncomfortable for the horse to graze/eat properly.

During these months you may begin to add some high energy feeds but if the horse’s hindgut still doesn’t appear to be functioning correctly (eg its manure consistency is still not right or it is still really struggling to hold weight on a high quality pasture/hay diet) I would try to stay away from grains and grain based feeds. Use ingredients like grain free complete feeds (FeedXL will help you find truly grain free feeds), lupins, sugarbeet pulp, soybean or lupin hulls, full fat soybean and copra meal. If you are going to start riding the horse during this time these feeds might also help to keep your horse a little more level headed. Just mind you don’t give it a very high energy diet before you start riding it – for some horses that is just asking for trouble.

Months 5 to 12 – I would hope that by the 5th month the horse’s hindgut is back to normal or at least close to normal and by this time the horse will have semi-adjusted to its ‘new’ life. At this point in time you can consider other feeds including those based on grain. But PLEASE be sure to use cooked grain based feeds because the last thing you want to do at this point in time is put any sort of starch back into the hindgut.

The horse’s temperament and need for weight gain at this stage will determine how much feed you can feed. Still use forage as the major component of the diet and try to avoid feeding more than 800 grams of feed (approx. 1 lb) per 100 kg BW per day, being sure to split it into as many feeds as practical during the day.

You might also consider starting to add some high fat feeds like rice bran or straight vegetable oils to the diet for extra energy to help with body condition. At this point in time you need to be very careful to distinguish between condition/fat and muscle. Many thoroughbreds will look very thin when they are actually in good body condition, while they lack topline and general muscle. So be sure to read our post on Body Condition Scoring to help you determine if your horse needs more condition or needs to build muscle. The former can be done with feed alone. The latter needs a combination of high quality feed and the right work (as well as a horse that is fully sound with no back or other pain that will stop it from using its muscles correctly).

SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE!

The more time you allow an off-the-track thoroughbred to readjust to a forage based diet the better the results you will get. A racing thoroughbred’s gut is adapted to eating a high grain diet. Ultimately you want your off-the-track thoroughbred to have a gut well adapted to doing well on a high forage diet. It takes time for the gut to readapt itself, build the right populations of bacteria and to heal problems like ulcers. But it is time well worth spending (unless you want to continue spending a fortune on grain based feeds and still having a horse that is really difficult to put weight on).

Taking it slowly in the first few months will mean you are going to get your horse where you want it to be sooner in the end. You will hopefully also be treated to a horse that is more relaxed and trainable than it otherwise would be if you try to put weight on too quickly using high energy feeds too early.

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

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