Horses eating hay

Using straw to achieve weight loss in horses

Weight loss in easy keepers can seem like an impossible task and is often the cause of frustration for owners. Despite a strict hay only diet, many easy keepers can still maintain their body condition. Owners are also faced with the dilemma of not restricting intake too much (to avoid colic) while trying not to add too much energy to the diet. A study published recently investigated the effectiveness of adding straw to ponies diets to assist with weight loss. The outcomes provide some hope of weight loss for those with easy keepers.

Does feeding horses straw help with weight loss?

This study looked at 40 native-type ponies at pasture in the UK over winter. The ponies were split into two groups; supplementary fed hay alone or a 50:50 ratio of hay and barley straw. The ponies were weighed regularly over a 4 month period. Over this period, all ponies in the straw fed group lost an average of 27kg. Only 3 of 15 ponies in the hay group lost weight, and overall the group gained weight (average +6kg).

Why add straw to your horse’s ration?

Straw is lower in energy as compared with most grass hays, therefore substituting up to 50% of grass hay in the ration with straw, creates a less energy dense ration whilst maintaining adequate forage intake. This means that intake does not need to be severely restricted to achieve weight loss. In addition, the time horses spend eating per day is extended, which keeps them satisfied and at less risk of gastric ulcers due to prolonged periods without food.

Considering the risk of colic when feeding straw

The addition of straw into diet can be problematic due to the risk of colic. However, in this study there were no reports of colic. Care needs to be taken when choosing the right type of straw, and introduction to the diet should be done gradually over 14-21 days until a 50:50 ratio is achieved with hay to straw.

What type of straw is best for horse feed?

Oaten or barley straw is generally softer (less indigestible fibre) than wheaten straw and is therefore more commonly used for feed. If you have a feed analysis performed, look for an NDF of less than 65. You can also scrunch the straw in your hand to check the coarseness (technical I know!) – you’re feeling that the straw scrunches easily (stems are soft) and the sharp ends don’t prick your palm ie. we want to avoid bedding type straw.

While most straw is low in sugar and starch, a feed analysis to confirm this is a good idea. If a feed analysis is not practical for you, visually inspect the straw to ensure it doesn’t contain intact heads of cereal grains which may make the straw high in starch. Straw will be lower in protein than grass or cereal hays. Therefore, attention should be paid to supplying a good quality protein source within the diet as well as meeting mineral and vitamin requirements.

The difference between straw and hay

Straw vs. hay – for cereal crops, hay is the name given to a crop that is cut for hay when the grain is still maturing. Straw is a by-product which is cut after the plant has matured and the grain has been harvested from the plant.

Reference

Dosi, MCM., Kirton, R., Hallsworth, S., Keen, JA., Morgan, RA. (2020) Inducing weight loss in native ponies: is straw a viable alternative to hay? Veterinary Record Published Online First: 03 May 2020. doi: 10.1136/vr.105793

 

Meet The Author: Samantha Potter, MSc


In 2009, Sam completed a Bachelor of Equine Studies and it was during this time she developed an interest in equine nutrition. Pursuing this passion, Sam went on to complete her Honours followed by her Masters degree in equine nutrition at The University of Melbourne. Since 2015, Sam has worked as an independent nutritionist and enjoys supporting horse owners manage their horse’s nutrition in her role with FeedXL. To learn more about Sam 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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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!

 

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!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

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!

 

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!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

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