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Grain Free Horse Feed: What Does it Actually Mean?

It can be a bit confusing to get to the bottom of what grain free horse feed really means, especially when you see it printed on a feed bag derived mostly from grain products. In this post we’re unravelling the technical classification of ‘grain free’, and helping you find a suitable feed, even if your horse is grain-intolerant.

How we classify ‘grain free’ in FeedXL

Here at FeedXL we classify feeds in our database as being either ‘grain-free’ or ‘contains grain’, so that if one of our members clicks that their horse is ‘grain intolerant’ they will see the feeds and supplements available to them listed either in black (meaning it is grain free) or ‘red’ (meaning it contains grain).

Occasionally though we are questioned about certain feeds that we have classified as ‘contains grain’ and are sometimes told we have them classified incorrectly because the feed only contains a grain by-product like wheat midds (or bran, pollard, broll, millmix, millrun… many names for similar ingredients).

So does containing a grain by-product mean the feed should be classified as ‘grain-free’ or as ‘contains grain’?

Our position on ‘grain free’ horse feeds

There are companies who make feeds that are almost 100% wheat midds or rice bran and splashed all over the packaging it says grain free! Technically they aren’t but they are classified like this because they only contain PARTS of a grain and no whole grains.

The issue (for us and for horses) is that these by-products, while not whole grains, are derived 100% from grain and still have many of the same characteristics (same proteins, still high in starch, albeit not as high as the whole grains etc). So if someone really needs to avoid wheat or starch for example and they find one of these ‘grain-free’ feeds made with wheat midds there is an issue born from a technical classification that doesn’t tell the full story.

Calling feeds with wheat midds or rice bran ‘grain-free’ would be like saying soybean meal is ‘soybean free’ just because it no longer contains any whole soybeans. Or saying copra meal is coconut free because there are no whole coconuts. Technically yes, they don’t contain the entire original ingredient but for us (and thus FeedXL) we are just not comfortable saying something is grain free when it isn’t.

Imagine the consequences in human foods if manufacturers were allowed to say ‘wheat free’ if a product only contained midds or peanut free if it only contained peanut oil. Much more serious in humans we know but just using them as examples to make the point.

Keep an eye on starch and sugar content!

For horses, what starts to become more important in many cases though is the actual level of starch and sugars in a product. So if we were looking at a diet for a laminitic pony and considering using a feed with wheat midds in it, the important thing is how much starch are those midds contribution to the final feed. If total starch and sugar content is still below 10 to 12% then it should be OK. If it isn’t, then it doesn’t matter how much a feed might claim to be grain free, its analysis says it won’t be safe based on its actual starch and sugar content.

Here at FeedXL, we firmly believe we need to stop confusing horse people with technical classifications to allow loophole claims on feed packaging. This is just our opinion but we have seen pretty devastating effects in horses because they have been fed a feed claiming to be grain-free and therefore their owners believed it would be safe to feed. It is something that shouldn’t happen!

How FeedXL can help you choose the best feed for your horse

When you click ‘grain-intolerance’ in FeedXL you will be able to see which feeds are truly grain free and which are not. If you select that your horse has laminitis or insulin resistance you will see the feed ingredient options classified instead by starch and sugar content.

If you want to save yourself some time finding suitable feeds for horses with conditions that require either grain-free or low starch and sugar feeds give FeedXL a go! Check out our plans and pricing here.

QUESTIONS? COMMENTS?

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What You Should Know About Phosphorus and Phytate

Horses are unique because they absorb phosphorus from their hindgut… which is a stroke of genius on a horse’s part… here is why.

Phosphorus in grains, legumes/oilseeds is bound up in a compound called phytate. ‘Phytate bound phosphorus’ is as good as indigestible for most monogastrics who absorb phosphorus from their small intestine (like pigs and poultry).

But horses enlist the help of their oh so useful hindgut bacteria to break down the phytate for them and release the phosphorus for absorption! Clever!!

So if you ever read statements about specific ingredients like soybean meal containing indigestible phosphorus because they contain phytate, think two things:

1. ALL grains and legumes/oilseeds contain phytate; and
2. Horses have got a useful arrangement with bacteria and a different site of absorption (their hindgut) that allows them to access the phosphorus.

It’s a very well designed aspect of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract!!

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Trypsin Inhibitor in Soybean

Soybean naturally contains an anti-nutritional factor called trypsin inhibitor. Trypsin inhibitor is a compound that actually blocks the action of trypsin (which is an enzyme, or as I call them, a little pair of scissors, in the horses gut that cuts up protein so it can be absorbed by the horse). When trypsin is blocked by soybean a horse can no longer digest protein… not very useful right?!

So if soybean contains stuff that stops a horse from digesting protein, why on earth would we use it in a horse’s ration???

This is talked about a lot and often given as a reason why soybean should not be fed to horses. BUT, if you’ve been hanging around us here at FeedXL for a while you will have heard us say many times that if soybean is cooked properly trypsin inhibitor is destroyed which then makes soybean perfectly safe to feed. And given it is the best of the best when it comes to quality plant protein it makes a valuable addition to diets in so many ways.

To check soybean products to see if they have been cooked properly there is a test kit called Soycheck (http://lsbproducts.com/…/46/understanding-soybean-processing)… this kit gives a rapid visual check on whether soybean has been cooked enough to destroy the trypsin inhibitor. Soybean products that still have active trypsin inhibitor will show red coloring while properly cooked products will have no red coloring at all.

The photo above shows a test we did on Tuesday this week. We had completely raw full fat soybean on the left which is clearly bright red indicating it has all of its trypsin inhibitor still present. The product on the right is Pryde’s Protein Pak, which has been extruded and shows no hint of red coloring to demonstrate beautifully how, when done properly, trypsin inhibitor can be destroyed without destroying the actual soybean and all of its amazing protein! Happy days for those of us who love the benefits soybean can bring to a diet!

Vitamin B6 for Horses

This little vitamin is not talked about much in equine nutrition, mainly because we still don’t know exactly what a horse’s dietary requirement is. We also assume a large part of their requirement is fulfilled by the Vitamin B6 produced by the bacteria in their hindgut.

We do know B6 is important for building muscle. I just saw a very recently published paper looking at Vitamin B6 supplementation and muscle development in rabbits. (http://www.publish.csiro.au/AN/AN15807…)

I know a rabbit is very different animal to a horse, but from a gut physiology and nutrition perspective they are actually really similar, so I thought I would take a look to see what the researchers found.

Vitamin B6 supplementation was shown to significantly alter protein metabolism and increase the ratio of fore + hindleg muscle weight to body weight (i.e. supplemented rabbits had more leg muscle). Interesting!

We do track B6 intake in our Pro FeedXL plans … this just reinforces to me though how important a horse’s base diet is when it comes to achieving specific outcomes. For example, if you are wanting your horse to build muscle but you aren’t meeting basic nutrient requirements (like vitamin B6) you could add all the fancy muscle building supplements you like to the diet and they won’t help!

You can’t build muscle unless you get your basics right first! Here at FeedXL, we can help you with that! Take a look at our plans and pricing here.

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What Is an Organic Mineral?

We all hear the term ‘organic mineral’ being used in horse nutrition. But what does it actually mean?

Its definition is pretty basic… an organic mineral is simply a mineral that is attached to something that contains carbon.

For anyone who can stretch their mind back far enough to the sometimes dreaded chemistry classroom, you might remember a subject called ‘Organic Chemistry’ which dealt with the chemical goings on of ‘carbon-containing compounds’. So a mineral attached to a carbon-containing compound is called an ‘organic mineral’.

For example, copper sulfate is an inorganic mineral, as it is simply one copper attached to one sulfur and four oxygen atoms (i.e. no carbon). Copper proteinate on the other hand is copper attached to a tiny piece of protein. Protein contains carbon atoms, so a copper proteinate is classified as an organic mineral.

It is easy to be confused by the word ‘organic’ these days as it is most commonly used to describe food produced without the use of synthetic herbicides, fertilisers or feed additives. You need to be careful not to transfer the mostly positive associations of organic food onto the use of organic minerals in horse nutrition.

The benefits of organic minerals for horses, perhaps with the exception of organic selenium, are largely undocumented… yet, unfortunately, widely claimed. I will write more on this another day! 

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Benefits of Oats for Horses

It has been known for a very long time that oats and horses just seem to get along well. Of all of the cereal grains we can feed to horses, oats is the only grain that can be fed safely without being cooked. Why? Horses are able to digest a large portion of the starch that oats contains in their small intestine. Which means only small amounts of starch will be deposited into the hindgut.

Oats vs Other Grains

If we feed corn or barley uncooked, only about 25% of the starch they contain is digested in the small intestine. The rest is fermented in the hindgut.

When starch gets into the hindgut, starch fermenting bacteria ferment it very quickly and cause a build-up of acid and create a condition called hindgut acidosis which has all sort of negative consequences for your horse (including changes in behaviour and laminitis). The balance between fibre fermenting and starch fermenting bacteria is also put out of balance… the ‘good’ fibre fermenting bacterial populations are reduced while the less desirable starch fermenting bacteria increase in numbers.

All of this we have known for a while. More recent research however (Harlow, 2015) has also shown that corn starch is potentially more of a problem in the hindgut than oat starch. This researcher incubated corn and oat starch in test tubes with faecal material from horses and found (briefly) that corn starch caused a significantly greater increase in starch fermenting bacteria than the oat starch and gave rise to higher lactic acid production.

Double Safety Catch in Oats

So oats seems to have a double safety catch built in for our horses. First, most of its starch appears to be digested in the small intestine. Second, if some starch does end up in the hindgut it appears less likely to upset the hindgut bacterial populations present there, which should mean it allows your horse to maintain a healthy population of the ‘good’ fibre fermenting bacteria.

So if you need to feed a grain and either don’t have access to or don’t like ‘cooked’ grains for some reason, go for oats, they are the safest choice for your horse.

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Chickpeas For Horses: Should They Be Cooked First?

There has been a little bit of discussion of late about chickpeas and whether they need to be cooked prior to being fed to horses. Big apology from me (Nerida) as it seems I have confused the issue and created some angst. So, to clear the waters I have muddied, here is some better information:

4 things to consider when feeding chickpeas to horses

  1. Chickpeas do contain anti-nutritional factors including trypsin inhibitor, which is the same as the main anti-nutritional factor found in soybeans. Trypsin inhibitor does exactly as its name suggests, it inhibits/stops trypsin, an enzyme in the small intestine which chops up protein into smaller pieces so it can be absorbed. Too much trypsin inhibitor in the gut can reduce protein digestion to such an extent that protein deficiency will become apparent. This doesn’t sound good for chickpeas!
  2. BUT, on reading about the amount of trypsin inhibitor in chickpeas it is much, much lower than soybean. I can find published values of 15 TUI (Trypsin Units Inhibited – reflects quantity of trypsin that has its activity inhibited) for chickpeas while values for soybean are more like 80 TUI. Reading papers and interpreting units is proving exceedingly difficult as it seems everyone likes to express their TUI units in slightly different ways so just be careful with this!
  3. Chickpeas have been fed raw to pigs at levels of up to 88% without affecting measured parameters to determine growth and feed conversion. A pretty good indication the anti-nutritional factors aren’t too anti-nutritional as growing pigs will show us very quickly if something is not right. This study did however find that adding additional methionine improved growth performance in chickpeas.
  4. Chickpeas are routinely used uncooked in pig diets in Australia at levels up to 20% of the diet without any ill effect. They typically aren’t fed to younger pigs less than 20 kg bodyweight.

Updates in FeedXL…

Based on all of this we have now updated our information in FeedXL to read:

Chickpeas are classified as a pulse, which is a seed from a leguminous plant. Chickpeas are rarely included in horse diets but can be fed as a protein and energy supplement in much the same way lupins or faba beans are used. The protein is of moderate to good quality with good concentrations of the essential amino acid lysine. They may however be too low in methionine for some classes of horses.

Like most pulses, chickpeas appear to contain some anti-nutritional factors including a trypsin inhibitor, which blocks the activity of the protein digesting trypsin enzyme in the gut and can negatively affect protein digestion. The anti-trypsin activity of chickpeas is however much lower than that of soybean, with chickpeas expected to ‘block’ around 15% of trypsin enzyme activity in the gut compared to more than 80% of trypsin activity being blocked when raw soybean is fed.

Chickpeas should therefore be safe to feed without any form of heat treatment to mature horses at levels of no more than 20% of their ‘hard feed’. If larger amounts were to be fed, heat treatment is recommended. Chickpeas would be best heat treated prior to feeding if being fed to horses younger than 12 months of age.

As always our information is quite conservative, but we prefer to play it safe with so many people using our service with so many varied scenarios.

I hope that helps everyone who has had a recent interest in the use of chickpeas in horse rations.

Questions? Comments?

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Oil for Horses: Good or Bad?

Hard working horses have enormous requirements for energy that are traditionally filled using high grain rations fed together with chaff and hay. However, feeding large amounts of grain does come with its own set of issues which can include colic, hindgut acidosis, nervous or fiery behaviour, tying up and loss of appetite. Oil has gained popularity in recent years as a substitute source of energy for working horses, but is it effective, how much can be fed, are all oils equal in the benefits they can provide and do they cause any health issues of their own?

A little bit goes a long way

The biggest benefit oils provide working horses is their very high energy content relative to grains. Oils contain nearly 3 times more energy than oats, with 400 mls of vegetable oil providing as much energy as 1 kg of oats. The real benefit in this is you can reduce the size and sheer bulk of feed a horse has to consume without reducing calorie intake, allowing you to get enough ‘feed’ into horses with poor appetites. The end result being these horses can hold their weight and continue to train and compete for longer than they otherwise would on a more traditional diet.

Reducing heat load

Oils generate less heat during the digestive and metabolic processes than an equivalent amount of grain or forage. Feeding oil also means that you can feed less grain and still meet energy requirements. Combined, this means that high oil diets place less of a heat load on working horses, reducing electrolyte losses and the amount they need to sweat to stay cool, a big bonus for hard working horses, especially those training and racing in hot environments or working over very long distances.

Saving glycogen

Fatty acids from oils are the preferred fuel for muscles during slow and medium pace work while glycogen is the only source of energy a muscle can use during sprints and strenuous exercise. Once a horse runs out of glycogen its muscles fatigue and the horse will slow down and lose the ability to perform at the level it is capable of. Feeding oil in diets provides a source of fatty acids for muscles to burn during the warm up and slower phases of a competition, meaning muscles are able to conserve valuable glycogen and avoid fatigue.

Problem solving

‘Problem horses’ and particularly those that tie up or get excited and nervous on high grain diets will often benefit from rations that provide a portion of the dietary energy from oils. It is thought that the positive effects seen in these horses on high oil diets is due more to the reduction in grain intake as opposed to the addition of oil, but using oil in the diet allows you to reduce grain intake without compromising energy intake and performance.

Oils aint oils

All oils contain virtually the same amount of digestible energy, but there are other differences you may want to consider when looking to purchase an oil, including:

Essential Fatty Acid Content: Horses need omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in their diet. Grains are naturally high in Omega 6, so for horses on a high grain diet, it is preferable to choose an oil with some omega 3 content. The table below shows the amount of omega 3 and omega 6 in some commonly used oils. Linseed and canola oil contains the highest omega 3 fatty acid content of the natural vegetable oils.

Ingredient Name Omega 3 (%) Omega 6 (%)
Linseed (Flax) Oil 57 13.9
Cod Liver Oil 25 2
Canola Oil 10 20
Soybean Oil 7 52
 Corn Oil  1  55
 Olive Oil  1  11
 Rice Bran Oil  1  39
 Sunflower Oil  0.3  60
 Coconut Oil  0.1  2


Palatability:
Some linseed oils and fish oil including cod liver oil are notoriously unpalatable for horses, so while these oils are useful for providing omega 3 fatty acids, they can’t be fed in large amounts as most horses simply won’t eat them.

Processing Method: Oil is extracted from oilseeds in two main ways; cold pressing where oil is squeezed out of seeds, often in a water cooled environment to keep the oil at less than 60C; and solvent extraction where a solvent like hexane is added to extract oil from seeds. The oil is then heated to remove the hexane. Cold pressed oils tend to be higher in quality as more of their essential fatty acids and natural antioxidants are left intact in comparison to solvent extracted oils.

It takes time

Horses need time to adapt to digesting and metabolising oils. Oils should always be introduced into a diet slowly, starting with ¼ cup of oil per day and increasing this by ¼ cup every 5 days until you reach the full amount you want to feed. Introducing oil into a diet too quickly can result in soft manure and reduced fibre fermentation in the hindgut.
It will take a minimum of 3 weeks before a horse starts to really benefit from the oil in its diet and it could take up to 3 months before the full benefits of oil are realised.

How much can you feed?

Horses can be fed up to 20% of their total energy intake as oil, which in real terms means just over 3 cups of oil per day for a 500 kg horse in full work. While this level of oil is useful for horses that tie up, very few horses are fed this much oil per day. Feeding between 1 and 2 cups of oil per day is enough to give horses the benefits discussed above without making diets messy, unpalatable or unnecessarily expensive.

Good Stuff

Oils are ‘good stuff’ for working horses. They reduce reliance on grains, make the amount of feed a horse needs to eat smaller, keep horses cooler, allow horses to conserve muscle fuel for sprinting, give horses that tie up a safer and more effective source of energy and provide essential fatty acids in the diet.

For the best results, introduce oils slowly into the diet and select oils based on the following: their omega fatty acid content with oils containing some omega 3 fatty acids preferred; palatability, be aware that some oils including linseed and fish oils can be unpalatable; and method of processing, with cold pressed oils preferred over solvent extracted oils.

 

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.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in April, 2014. If you would like to be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider becoming a FeedXL member or subscribing to our email list.

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Does Your Horse Need Electrolytes?

As a horse exercises its muscles generate heat. To prevent its body from dangerously overheating, the horse sweats to allow evaporative cooling to dissipate the heat being produced. As a horse sweats, water and electrolytes, including sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium are lost from the body.

For effective sweating to occur, the horse must be well hydrated and have an ample supply of electrolytes in its body. The electrolytes and water lost through sweating must be replaced following exercise to prevent electrolyte depletion and dehydration. This newsletter will look at what electrolytes are and why they are important, how much ‘electrolyte’ a horse needs, where horses get electrolytes from in the diet and when to use an electrolyte supplement.

What are electrolytes?

Very simply, electrolytes are minerals, which, when present in a watery solution like body fluids, become positively or negatively charged particles that have the ability to conduct electricity. Electrolytes maintain fluid balance and circulatory function, facilitate muscle contractions, trigger nerve functions and maintain the body’s acid-base balance. The most important electrolyte minerals are sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium.

What happens if a horse becomes electrolyte deficient?

Electrolyte deficiencies are associated with fatigue, muscle weakness, lethargy and reduced feed and water intakes, resulting in weight loss and dehydration. In addition, electrolyte deficient horses may experience reduced sweating, which can result in hyperthermia (over-heating) and compromised performance. Studies in England have also linked electrolyte deficiencies to the incidence of recurring bouts of tying-up (Harris et al. 1992).

Please Note: severe electrolyte deficiency can result in complete exhaustion, colic, synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (commonly known as the ‘thumps’), collapse and death if not treated. Severe electrolyte deficiencies are a veterinary emergency requiring IV fluids, electrolytes and specialist care so please call your vet immediately if you suspect your horse is acutely dehydrated and electrolyte deficient.

How much ‘electrolyte’ does a horse need?

All horses have a small daily requirement for electrolytes to replace the obligatory losses from the body in the urine and faeces. This requirement is termed a horse’s ‘maintenance requirement’ and is reflected in FeedXL’s recommended daily intakes for horses not in work.

Sweating increases a horse’s requirement for electrolytes above their maintenance requirement, as large quantities of sodium, potassium and chloride and smaller quantities of magnesium and calcium are excreted in sweat (amounts are given in the table below):

Electrolyte Sodium Potassium Chloride Magnesium Calcium
Quantity in sweat* (grams/L) 3.1 1.6 5.5 0.05 0.12

The amount a horse sweats, and therefore its electrolyte requirement, will be determined by the amount of work it is doing, the intensity of work it is performing and the climatic conditions in which the horse lives and works. Individual horses also vary considerably in their tendency to sweat. As an indication, in a moderate climate, a racing thoroughbred will lose between 5 and 10 litres of sweat during a daily workout and an endurance horse will excrete between 5 and 10 litres of sweat per hour when travelling between 12 and 18 km/hour. Sweat losses of up to 15 litres/hour can occur during high intensity exercise where horses are travelling at between 30 – 35 km/hour.

FeedXL calculates your horse’s electrolyte requirements for you based on a sweat loss of 1.6 L per day for horses in light work, 4.4 L per day for horses in moderate work, 6.7 L per day for horses in moderately heavy work and 8.9 L per day for horses in heavy work.

How does climate affect requirements?

Hot and particularly hot and humid climates increase a horse’s need for electrolytes as horses will sweat more under these conditions. As a general guide, if the temperature is 30C (86F) supply 140% of your horse’s recommended daily intake (RDI) calculated by FeedXL for sodium, potassium and chloride . If the temperature is 35C (95F), supply 170% of your horse’s calculated requirement for these minerals and if the temperature is 40C (104F) or over you should supply 200% of their requirements. Also be sure to have a salt lick available at all times.

Where do electrolytes come from?

Pastures and forages are almost always a rich source of potassium and are commonly a good source of magnesium. However they tend to contain variable and often unknown concentrations of chloride and typically low concentrations of sodium. Common table salt contains 39% sodium and 61% chloride and is frequently used as a readily available, palatable and cheap source of these electrolytes in a horse’s diet. Potassium chloride (50% potassium, 47% chloride) can be used to supply additional potassium and chloride where required and magnesium oxide is a readily available and cost effective source of magnesium where additional magnesium is needed. Grains contain only very small amounts of all the electrolyte minerals and it is high grain diets that are most commonly ‘electrolyte deficient’.

When should you feed an electrolyte supplement?

In many situations horses can get enough electrolyte minerals from a forage based diet that has plain table salt added for additional sodium and chloride. Some horses on high grain/low forage diets may benefit from an electrolyte supplement that contains potassium or need potassium chloride added to their feeds. On a day to day basis though, most horses won’t need a commercial electrolyte supplement.

Commercial electrolyte supplements are however very handy in situations where your horse is away from home, not grazing or eating as much hay as he normally would and/or working a lot harder or longer and sweating more than usual. Well formulated supplements (ones that contain the same proportion of electrolytes as those found in equine sweat) can be used in these situations to quickly replace electrolytes lost in sweat. Where prolonged exercise occurs (for example endurance riding or long days of stockwork or trail riding) it may be necessary to provide some electrolytes during the period of exercise.

Well formulated electrolyte supplements will provide enough electrolyte minerals in a 60 gram dose to replace the salts lost in 5 litres of sweat. There is debate over how much electrolyte replacer you should give to working horses with no firm recommendations available given it does depend so much on the climate, intensity of work and the horse as an individual. If a horse is sweating consistently over a long period of time AND will have access to water frequently you can give 60 grams of electrolyte every hour to two hours. If water is not available on a frequent basis give 60 grams of electrolyte when you know the horse will have access to water and can have a good drink. Don’t give more than 60 grams per dose as you may overload the horses ability to absorb the salts you give.

Well formulated electrolyte supplements will contain 20 – 25% sodium, 43 – 48% chloride, 10 – 12% potassium and smaller amounts of magnesium and calcium (normally 1 to 2%). These higher quality products will also have less than 20% glucose or other base or filler.

Some practical tips for using electrolyte supplements

  1. Always make sure your horse has access to water after being given electrolytes as they will get thirsty and need to be able to drink. Failure to provide water will result in dehydration because the salts will pull water out of the body and into the gut.
  2. If it is possible, wait for your horse to have a drink of water before giving it electrolytes.
  3. Never give electrolytes to an already dehydrated horse that isn’t drinking as you will worsen the dehydration. Call your vet in these situations.
  4. Don’t add electrolyte supplements to a fussy horse’s feed as chances are it won’t eat them. Instead mix the electrolyte with apple sauce and give it over the tongue (beware they will spit it all over you!).
  5. During endurance rides where feed intake is also important, allow your horse to eat before giving him electrolytes as a paste as it will often stop a horse from eating for a little while which may affect your gut noise scores.
  6. Always have a salt lick available to allow your horse access to extra sodium and chloride at any time.
  7. If you want to use an electrolyte to help make your horse drink when away from home try it out at home to see if it works – if you dose your horse with electrolytes and he doesn’t drink he will actually end up more dehydrated than when you started.
  8. To increase water intake, offer slightly salty water to your horse as its first drink after exercise. Research has shown (Schott et al 2003) that horses who drink slightly salty water (0.9% salt, 90 grams of salt per 10 litres of water) initially will drink more water and rehydrate themselves faster after exercise than horse who drink plain water as their first drink. You will likely need to train your horses to drink the salty water, a touch of molasses might help.

 

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.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in January, 2014. If you would like to be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider becoming a FeedXL member or subscribing to our email list.

QUESTIONS? COMMENTS?

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The Importance of Fibre for Horses

Several different forms of carbohydrates form what we call ‘fibre’. These carbohydrates include cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Fibre cannot be digested in a horse’s small intestine. Instead, the horse relies on the billions of bacteria that live in the hindgut to digest the fibre by fermentation. Fibre, which is also called ‘structural carbohydrate’, is essentially provided by the pasture, hay, chaff, haylage and high fibre feeds like sugarbeet and legume hulls in your horse’s diet. Fibre is the single most important component of a horse’s diet (after water) as without it, their digestive tract can’t function as it should. So why is it so important and what will happen if your horse doesn’t get enough?

Why do horses need fibre?

Fibre plays 3 very important roles in the diet of horses. These are:

  1. Fibre provides a source of energy/calories for horses. While the horse itself cannot ‘digest’ the carbohydrates that form fibre (because like humans they don’t have the necessary digestive enzymes to break it down in the small intestine), the horse houses billions of bacteria in its hindgut that do the job of digesting fibre for it. So, the horse provides the bacteria somewhere safe and warm to live and in return the bacteria pass on to the horse most of the energy contained in the fibre.
    As well as providing the horse with energy, important vitamins like vitamin B1, biotin and vitamin K are produced during the bacterial fermentation of fibre in the hindgut.
  2. Fibre provides the horse with ‘gut fill’. The horse’s gastrointestinal tract is an ENORMOUS organ and it needs to be kept full. The fibre in a horse’s diet is what provides the bulk to keep the gut full and healthy.
  3. Fibre soaks up and holds water in the gut to act as a water reserve when horses need it.

What happens if a horse doesn’t get enough fibre?

Diets that don’t provide a horse with enough fibre can cause major problems including:

  1. Colic – if a horse’s gastrointestinal tract is not kept full it is prone to twisting about and moving in ways that it can’t normally when it is full of fibre. Unfortunately for the horse this can lead to serious colic that can only be resolved (if the horse is lucky) by surgery.
  2. Diarrhoea – low fibre diets very often result in loose sloppy manure, which in-turn affects the whole dynamic of how the gut works. Horses with diarrhoea digest what fibre they do get less efficiently and they are prone to problems with dehydration and electrolyte deficiency.
  3. Dehydration – horses on a low fibre diet don’t have a readily available water reserve in their gut, meaning if they sweat heavily or spend an extended period of time away from water they are more prone to dehydration than a horse on a high fibre diet. Problems with diarrhoea as discussed above make this issue worse.
  4. Energy deficiency – horses that aren’t being fed enough fibre are also most likely not being fed enough energy (calories) so they may be losing weight or having difficulty gaining weight. The energy value of fibre is often underestimated, with forages like oaten hay or chaff often being viewed simply as a ‘filler’ when in fact they are a valuable source of energy for horses.
  5. Vitamin Deficiency – the bacteria that ferment fibre in the hindgut also produce several vitamins including vitamin B1, biotin and vitamin K for horses. If horses aren’t fed enough fibre the bacteria are unable to produce the amount of vitamins they normally would and a deficiency may result leading to problems like loss of appetite and poor quality hoof growth.
  6. Boredom – horses on low fibre diets will often have a lot of spare time to fill in during the day that ordinarily they would be spending eating. This boredom will often lead to problems like cribbing, weaving and chewing on strange objects or eating dirt.
  7. Gastric ulcers – the horse’s stomach is constantly releasing gastric acid and the horse relies on eating fibrous feeds to help prevent gastric ulcers. Chewing high fibre feeds like pasture or hay generates a lot of saliva which acts to buffer the gastric acid. Fibre also provides a raft in the stomach that helps to stop acid from the lower portions of the stomach from splashing up and damaging the unprotected upper portions of the stomach. Low fibre diets can’t provide this protection for horses.
  8. Constant hunger – because fibre is the part of the diet that provides the ‘gut fill’ a diet low in fibre will leave a horse always feeling hungry, which then causes its own set of problems including behavioural issues and even sand colic (see below).
  9. Sand colic – when horses are fed low fibre diets it increases the chance that sand and dirt will accumulate in their hindgut and cause colic or diarrhoea. Feeding large amounts of forage is one of the most effective ways to remove sand and dirt from the hindgut. The increased risk of sand colic in horses on low fibre diets is also partly also related to the fact that horses on low fibre diets are often hungry and if housed on dirt or sand will be going around vacuuming everything off the ground, and picking up large amounts of dirt and sand in the process.

What types of feed are high in fibre?

As you can see fibre is absolutely essential in a horse’s diet. Feeds that contain a lot of fibre include:

  • All types of hay and chaff
  • Most pastures (very lush green pastures are quite low in fibre)
  • Haylage
  • Sugarbeet pulp
  • Legume hulls including soybean and lupin hulls
  • Copra meal
  • Seed hulls including oat and sunflower seed hulls

How much fibre does a horse need per day?

Recent recommendations are that horses should be fed a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight per day in forage (pasture, hay, chaff, haylage; Harris et al. 2017). This is equivalent to 1.5 kg/100 kg bodyweight or 1.5 lb per 100 lb bodyweight (which equals 7.5 kg/day for a 500 kg horse; 16.5 lb/day for an 1100 lb horse). Essentially though the more fibre you can feed in your horse’s diet the better. Use FeedXL to see if you can meet your horse’s energy requirements with high fibre feeds alone (focussing mainly on pasture and hay) and then just top up whatever vitamins and minerals are missing using a vitamin and mineral supplement.

It isn’t always possible to feed like this however and horses that are working hard need higher energy feeds like oils and cereal grains in their diet. Even for these horses it is still critically important that they are fed 1% of their bodyweight in high fibre forage.

Any of the feeds listed above can be used to provide ‘fibre’ in a horse’s diet. A second good rule of thumb to follow is to provide at least half of the fibre in your horse’s diet as long stem fibre in the form of hay or pasture. The long stem fibre takes the horse longer to eat (so keeps them happier) and also makes them chew more, which encourages more saliva production, which is important for gut health too. These long stem fibres also contain what is known as effective fibre, which is fibre that remains undigested as it passes through the gut. Effective fibre is important for allowing the horse to produce manure and shift unwanted material like sand out of the hindgut.

What other nutrients do forages provide?

High fibre forages (like pasture, hay, chaff and haylage) are a valuable source of protein. In fact for many horses these forage are more than capable of meeting 100% of their energy and protein requirements – FeedXL will show you if this is the case for your horse. Forages are particularly rich in the electrolyte mineral potassium (and sometimes contain too much of this minerals, read our FeedXL Newsletter ‘Is Pasture Affecting your Horse’s Behaviour’) and also contain good amounts of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium and varying amounts of other trace minerals (we recommend having your forages tested so you know exactly what your forage is providing your horse, then you can use FeedXL to just add what is needed). Fresh green forages are also particularly rich in vitamin A, E and K and the B-group vitamins and they are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids.

The final straw

Horses evolved eating a high fibre diet and fibre is still the single most important component in your horse’s diet aside from water. If your horse isn’t getting enough fibre it can be facing serious consequences including colic, dehydration, diarrhoea, ulcers, vitamin deficiency, weight loss and behavioural problems. So be sure to feed enough, it will keep your horses much healthier and far more content.

 

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.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in October, 2013. If you would like to be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider becoming a FeedXL member or subscribing to our email list.

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