Knowing When To Keep It Simple With a Horse’s Diet

Let us not forget to pause to consider the basics when our horses are telling us something about their health.
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Happy grazing in pasture
Within just a few weeks of Happy’s newer, simpler diet, he returned to his normal self. | Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com
All of us have something important in common: We’re drawn to the sensitive, complex creatures that are our horses, ponies, and other equids. There are thousands of things to learn and remember about their care, and equine researchers are constantly adding to that body of knowledge.

It comforts me to know I can lean on some basic tenets when puzzling over a horse health care scenario. About five years ago my off-track Thoroughbred, Happy, developed a few strange behaviors. He was suddenly spooky in the crossties, for instance, and agitated and bossy at the stall door.

My primary veterinarian, along with a few specialists, and I ruled out a long list of conditions that could cause these behaviors—eye problems, EPM, Lyme disease, headshaking, gastric ulcers. Everything about Happy was normal except for his uncharacteristic spook and, perhaps, some stinky, wetter-than-normal manure.

We decided to target his hindgut with a variety of approaches (methodically, allowing enough time to see results) to bring it back into balance: prebiotics, probiotics, digestive health supplements, yeast. A few of those options helped, but nothing was a complete fix.

In our stories at The Horse, we always emphasize the importance of meeting the horse’s dietary needs first with high-quality forage, then supplementing with other products when necessary; this story on the hindgut is no exception. So, when my vet suggested taking Happy off his concentrate altogether and switching to a GMO-free balancer, it made total sense. I was a little skeptical, though; every horse I’d ever owned, besides an easy keeper or two, had been on a concentrate.

My vet and feed company rep (who weighed Happy before and several weeks into the new regimen) helped me ensure Happy would be getting all the nutrients he needs from pasture, grass hay, high-quality alfalfa, and the balancer. (A few years later we added an omega-3 fish oil year-round and a rice bran oil in the winter.)

Lo and behold, Happy returned to his normal self within weeks of starting the new diet. He became friendly again at the stall door, though he still anticipated feeding time. Most exciting of all—for me, at least—his manure was normal, and he was back to being calm and predictable in the barn aisle. No more barn floor goblins! Some other nice effects were the return of his dapples and the departure of hives and seasonal skin funk.

Indeed, horses are complex—that seeming tangle of 100 feet of intestines is just the start. Even though we pack our brains full of the latest equine health care information, which serves us well in our management pursuits, let us not forget to pause to consider the basics. I’m very grateful we have solutions, from the very simple to the state-of-the-art, to keep our equine charges healthy and thriving.

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Stephanie L. Church, Editorial Director, grew up riding and caring for her family’s horses in Central Virginia and received a B.A. in journalism and equestrian studies from Averett University. She joined The Horse in 1999 and has led the editorial team since 2010. A 4-H and Pony Club graduate, she enjoys dressage, eventing, and trail riding with her former graded-stakes-winning Thoroughbred gelding, It Happened Again (“Happy”). Stephanie and Happy are based in Lexington, Kentucky.

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