Too Much Salt Might Be Killing Gut Bacteria

The last two weeks has seen extreme weather conditions for us in my local area in Australia. In the last 14 days, 7 days have been 40 degrees celsius or higher (104 F +) and of the other 7 days only one was below 37 degrees C (99 F). To make things worse, the nights will not cool down, with most nights remaining over 20 degrees C (68 F) and a couple of nights being 26 + degrees C (79 F). On more than one occasion I have checked temperatures between midnight and 3 am and it has been 30 degrees or more in the middle of the night! It is HOT!!!

My horses are crusted in salt from continuous sweating. I took pity on them today and instead of having them out grazing with muzzles on they have hay in their hay pillows so they can at least stay in the shade.

But back to salt. I normally just let my horses eat salt free choice. Their balancer pellet gives them about 5 grams of salt per day and the rest of what they need they eat as loose rock salt.

BUT, the last couple of weeks I have been adding it to their feeds so I know they are getting enough to keep sweating. If horses run low on sodium or chloride they can’t sweat, and that, in these conditions is life-threateningly dangerous.

There is a trend at the moment though for people to add large amounts of salt to their horse’s daily feeds, despite actual requirements or what may be coming from the rest of their diet. Blanket recommendations like ‘add 10 grams of salt per 100 kg of bodyweight’ seem to be commonplace, yet don’t seem to take into account a horse’s specific situation.

Take Poet’s diet for example, shown in the graph below. If I add 10 g/100 kg of BW to his diet his sodium intake is well over 200% of what he needs. In these extreme conditions this may well be accurate, but once it cools off a little this is way more sodium than he needs.

While I was out just now giving them hay I had the thought ‘I wonder what this excessive salt might be doing to the bacteria in their gut’?? Salt is, after all one of the best known and most widely used anti-bacterial agents in the world.

So I did a little research… and while not much came up, there is a recent paper, published in ‘Nature’ (i.e. one of the most reputable journals in the world, so we can trust it) showing that in both mice and men adding more salt than normal to a diet affected the gut bacterial populations, in some cases it entirely wiped out certain strains of bacteria! Eek!

What is really interesting (from a human perspective) is that the researchers were then able to link those shifts in gut bacteria to high blood pressure, which may help to explain (the as yet poorly understood) link between high salt diets and hypertension.

Back to your horses though… feeding excessive salt is unlikely to have any benefit and may be negatively affecting the good bacteria in your horse’s gut. So when using FeedXL, just meet your horse’s requirement for sodium with salt that is added to the diet. Then leave free choice salt (preferably as easy to eat loose rock salt) out so they can top up any extra requirement they may have.

The paper is here if anyone would like to read it in more detail:

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How Much Should You Feed Your Horse in a Day?

Sometimes feeding more gives your horse less.

When we exceed about 2.5 to 3% of a horse’s bodyweight in feed per day (so 12.5 to 15 kg for a 500 kg horse) the feed starts to move really quickly through the gut. Problem is, digestion, and particularly fiber digestion takes time. Fiber is digested via fermentation in the hindgut (more on how that works here) and fiber fermentation is a slow process. So feed needs to just have the time to hang about in the hindgut for a fair while (like 24 to 48 hours).

When we feed too much, feed gets pushed through the gut really quickly (essentially as it comes in the front end it gets shoved out the back) and it will only be partially digested… so you may be feeding a lot, but your horse doesn’t have full opportunity to digest it.

Think about it like this…

If I gave you a pool noodle, one of the ones with a hole in it, and told you to keep it perfectly flat/horizontal and then gave you a small bucket of marbles to push through the noodle… you would poke them in one end (and assuming it’s flat so they don’t just roll out) they would only start coming out the other end once the entire noodle was full and as you pushed one in, one should come out… make sense?

Now suppose I told you you had to take 10 minutes to put all of the marbles through the noodle… you would need to take your time in poking one in so they didn’t come out too fast.

Now, if I gave you a bucket of marbles 3 times the size of the original bucket and told you to also push all of these through the pool noodle in 10 minutes you would have to do it three times as fast to get them all done in time. When you feed too much this is what happens, feed goes in one end and comes out the other too fast and only partially digested.

In a lot of cases, less is more!

Feeding less gives the feed time to sit around and move slowly through the gut, allowing it to be fully digested. Not much sense making expensive manure right?!

Take a look at your feed program and feed amounts and see if this might apply… often when we try to push for weight gain we get stuck in this trap of feeding too much and it doesn’t seem logical to feed less to get more weight gain. But trust me on this one, it really does work this way!

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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!!

Questions? Comments?

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Adjusting the Amount of Feed You Give Your Horse From Day to Day

Did you know it’s perfectly ok to adjust the amount of feed you give your horse from day to day??

In fact it’s something we recommend you do, for a couple of reasons. First is that it helps keep behavior level and calm. Horses are funny creatures in that they will express the amount of calories/energy in their diet in their behavior. Which means if you feed more than they need, you may cause a change in behavior, with potentially more hyperactivity than you might want.

To help prevent this, you can simply adjust how much you feed according to how much work is being done. Using FeedXL, you can create balanced diets for rest days, light work days and harder work days, with less calories in the diet for rest days and increasing calories for light and harder work days. Then feed each diet according to the work your horse does on any particular day. That way you will be matching you horse’s calorie intake with his requirements and should see lovely level behavior, regardless of days off.

The second reason we recommend you adjust feed according to work is for weight control… because if you feed excess calories to a horse or pony you will potentially also get weight gain, particularly in easy keepers!

So while we advocate keeping feed consistent and not making sudden changes in WHAT is fed, don’t be afraid to adjust AMOUNT fed! 🙂

For more detail have a read of our article on Feeding For Behavior

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The Link Between Regular Forage Meals and Gut Health

Poet and I (Nerida) headed out a few weeks ago to do some real work mustering sheep (not that we did anything useful, we were just along for the ride!). There were 5 of us on horses, saddled up by 6:30 am and in incredibly steep, rocky, tough (but stunning!) terrain for 6 hours. At various points we dismounted and slid (feet sideways) down parts of the mountainside because it was too steep to ride. Sheep were tripping and rolling down the hill (amusing! but gives you an idea of how steep it was!!).

Anyway, here is me, very conscious of gastric ulcers, giving my horse lucerne/alfalfa as I saddled up, letting him pick what grass we could find while out riding if we were stopped for any time so he at least salivated a little bit and immediately giving him water and more lucerne/alfalfa on return to where we had saddled up… meanwhile stifling my panic at watching the other horses eating nothing and trying not to think too much about what was going on in their stomachs.

I asked one of the guys, an experienced horseman, if he worried about ulcers, and it soon became clear that there was no understanding of how a horse’s stomach worked and the negative impact of not feeding them for such long (long!) periods of time (his horse had a couple of hours trip home).

I also asked recently at a seminar who could confidently sketch a horse’s gut or explain how it works and no-one was able to. And I get this… I had no idea what a horse’s gut looked like or how it worked the entire time I rode in my pre-nutritionist life!

The thing is, a horses stomach never stops secreting gastric acid. So even when your horse is not eating it is filling the lower part of its stomach up with acidic gastric juices. While the stomach is full this isn’t an issue as the dense matt of fibre in the gut will stop the acid from splashing around and burning the unprotected lining of the upper section of the stomach.

Problems start though when horses are off feed for long periods like this and end up with a pool of acid and an empty stomach. Combine that with the movement of being ridden and you get acid splashing up and quite literally burning holes (causing ulcers) in the top part of the stomach.

So here is my plea! Please help us to educate people on how a horse’s stomach works and what they can do (really simple things) to keep their horse’s stomach and therefore their horse healthy and pain free. Share this article on Avoiding Gastric Ulcers with them and have them understand that a horse’s stomach should never be empty and that as much as is practical you should never work a horse on an empty stomach.

Thank you!! From us and from all of the horses who will be so much better off when their owners understand how they work just a tiny bit better.

How Much Forage Your Horse Really Needs

“You eat like a horse”. There is a very good reason this saying exists; Horses. Eat. A. Lot!!! And a vast majority of horse owners know this, but every now and again I come across a horse owner who is concerned about weight loss in their horse and it is simply because they don’t realise just how much a horse actually needs to eat each day (except my horses, they seem to eat nothing and still get fat!).

So I thought it a timely reminder (with bare paddocks surrounding me in the very drought stricken area where I live) about how much forage a horse needs to eat each day. Traditional recommendations were that horses should receive a minimum of 1% of their bodyweight (1 kg/100 kg BW 0r 1 lb/100 lb BW) of forage per day. More recently however, Harris et al (2016) have increased the recommended minimum to 1.5% of bodyweight. Most good nutritionists will aim for 2% BW of forage in a diet where this is possible.

The amount of forage fed has an impact on the health, welfare, behaviour, gut health and performance of your horse as well as a horse’s risk of colic. Where I see it go horribly wrong is when an owner simply doesn’t realise just how much hay a horse actually needs to eat in a day. Underfeeding hay will often (in everyone else’s horses, mine are still excluded!) result in weight loss and can result in life-threatening colic. The good thing is it is very easily fixed, just feed more hay! 

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How Do You Know if Your Horse is Getting Enough Feed?

Well… happily, this is one of these easiest things to assess in horse nutrition because you can actually SEE if your horse is getting enough feed!

If your horse is getting enough feed he will maintain his weight. If he is not getting enough, he will lose weight. Or if he is getting too much, he will gain weight. Simple huh!

Trick is assessing this consistently so you can adjust how much you are feeding as weight changes. To assess weight gain or loss we use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. We have detailed information on using this simple system here:

Here’s a neat (and very colorful) little cheat sheet that you might like to keep handy as well  

Get in the habit of running your hands over your horses and mentally assessing condition. You will find in a very short space of time you will start to pick up small changes in body condition that might alert you to the fact your horse may need an adjustment in his feed program.

I am sure if my horses could talk they’d tell you they are never patted, just condition scored ?… lucky they can’t talk huh!

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