Equine Nutrition New Year's Resolutions

Q: I’m resolving to eat better in the new year. No more fast food for me! Are there any ways I can improve my horse’s nutritional status, as well?

A: The new year is often viewed as an opportunity for a fresh start. We make commitments to break old habits and resolutions to hit certain targets. It is a great time of year for goal setting and putting into action a strategy to achieve milestones with our horses.

But, as you mention, what about your horse’s diet and nutritional management? I don’t think this is an area that gets much consideration as we reflect on the past year and set resolutions, but I would argue that it should be. For your horse to be healthy and able to achieve all the goals you are setting for the year ahead nutrition will play a vital role. So, here in no particular order, are a few suggested resolutions and things to consider in 2020 to help keep your horse a happy healthy partner for the year ahead.

1. Feed the way the equine digestive tract is designed to eat. First and foremost forage, fed little and often.

About 60% of the horse’s digestive tract volume is dedicated to fermenting fibrous plant material. Keeping the bacteria and other organisms involved in this fermentation process happy will go a long way to reducing gastrointestinal problems, including some forms of colic or gastric ulcers. In the natural setting the majority of the horse’s day is spent eating. As a result horses secrete gastric acid in to their stomach whether they are eating or not. When chewing they release saliva that contains buffering calcium and bicarbonate which helps to offset the acidity of the gastric acid. Feeding limited discrete meals reduces saliva production and lowers buffering capacity yet acid release continues. This sets the horse up for an increased risk of gastric ulcers. Maximizing the amount of forage that your horse consumes each day is vital to maintaining gastrointestinal health.

2. Learn how to body condition score your horse and feed accordingly.

Your horse’s body condition is determined by calorie intake. A horse that is overweight needs to either consume fewer calories per day or use more, with the opposite being the case for a horse that is under weight. Considering Number 1 above, it is always desirable to work the overweight horse more than reduce feed intake but in certain situations reducing feed intake becomes a necessity. Do not reduce feed intake below 1% of body weight and ideally stay above 1.5% of body weight per day. Educate yourself on the calorie contents of different forages so you can select lower calorie hays that enable you to feed more. Learn how to condition score  and estimate your horse’s weight so that you can monitor progress over time and determine if you are feeding enough forage.

3. Feed commercial feeds at the levels directed by the manufacturer.

The majority of commercially fortified feeds (those with added minerals and vitamins) have specific feeding recommendations. Normally these are based on the weight of your horse and their physiologic state. The tag might say, for example, feed 1 pound per 100 pounds of body weight to horses in moderate work. When fed in combination with adequate forage following the feeding directions should insure that your horse’s mineral and vitamin needs are met and that the diet is fairly well balanced. If you feed amounts less than recommended the diet could be poorly balanced and deficient in certain key nutrients. If you feed more than is recommended intakes of certain minerals, selenium for example, could be at best is a waste of money and bad for the environment and at worst could actually have negative health implications for your horse. Make a point of selecting feeds that allow you to maintain correct body condition when fed per the manufacturer’s recommendations. If feeding per the recommendations results in your horse becoming fat, find a feed with a smaller daily serving size.

4. Provide access to salt.

Beyond feeding your horse the way he is designed to be fed, this is perhaps the cheapest colic prevention measure you can take. Maintaining adequate sodium levels helps to stimulate your horse to drink, which helps reduce the risk of impaction colic and other dehydration-related health issues. Horses should always have access to block or loose salt, but many do not use their blocks adequately. A 1,100-pound horse has a maintenance requirement for about 9 grams of sodium a day which is the amount provided by 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) of table salt. This is equivalent to consuming a 2-pound block each month! Many salt blocks I see are in the corner of the stall covered in shavings and sometimes manure. Find a place to put it where it will stay clean (for example, the feed manger). If your horse never seems to use the block add 1 tablespoon of table salt per 500 pounds of body weight to their feed per day. This way you have the peace of mind in knowing that they have consumed their minimum sodium requirement. You should add more or use an electrolyte on very hot days or when the horse sweats heavily. If you do rely on a block remember to take it with you if you travel. This is another reason I like adding salt daily; it becomes part of your feeding regimen that will more likely go with you when you travel.

5. Make diet changes gradually, including hay.

Because the amounts and types of enzymes secreted in the small intestine and the bacteria in the hindgut are specific to the feeds your horse consumes, all dietary changes need to be made gradually over a period of seven to 10 days. Sudden changes in feed mean that the horse could have a limited ability to digest that feed. For nutrients such as starch that should be digested and absorbed in the small intestine, this can mean the starch reaches the hindgut where it can be rapidly fermented, resulting in gas production and an environment that is more acidic. The various types and amounts of bacteria and other organisms in the hindgut might no longer be sustained by new feeds, leading to shifts in the carefully balanced ecosystem and proliferation of different types of bacteria. Such changes can cause colic, diarrhea, and, in severe cases, laminitis (think of the horse that founders after getting in to the grain room and eating large quantities of grain). Generally I find owners are conscious of changing grain elements of the diet slowly. However, less consideration is given to changes in forage especially hay. While you might be simply switching from an orchardgrass hay to another orchardgrass hay, the chemical composition of those hays can be quite different resulting in different rates of digestion and nutrient availability. The new hay should be introduced slowly to avoid increased risk of colic.

6. Read feed labels.

This is where you can learn a lot about where the products nutrients are coming from. What are the ingredients? Are they mostly fibers (like beet pulp and soybean hulls) or grains (like oats and cracked corn)? Does the feed contains added fat from oil or rice bran? What mineral sources are being used—inorganics (like zinc oxide) or chelates (like zinc amino acid complex or zinc proteinate)? Beyond the ingredient list the feed label is where the facts about that feed reside. The guaranteed analysis, the contact information for the manufacturer, what type of horse the feed is for, and directions on how to feed it should all be on the label. There is no room for marketing on a feed tag and each state has regulations about what can and cannot be on a feed and supplement label. Focus less on the product marketing and more on the facts on the feed tag to help you make sensible feed and supplement choices.

7. Learn what different units of measure used on labels actually mean.

When assessing supplements and feeds it is important to understand the units used on the labels. Feeds and supplement manufacturers are required to provide a guaranteed analysis. These are nutrients that are guaranteed at the levels stated. It does not mean that the feed provides no other nutrients; but if an ingredient is not included in the guaranteed analysis the levels of that other nutrients aren’t guaranteed. Most supplements state their levels with a column heading that often says something like “per 1 ounce serving” and then some nutrients—typically macrominerals, protein, or amino acids—are given as a percentage (for example, minimum 4% and maximum 5 % calcium) or may be given in gram quantities. Trace minerals and water soluble vitamins (B vitamins, for instance) are generally given in milligram quantities and the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, and E) are given in internationals units (IUs). These same measures are also typically used on feed tags, except for in reference to trace minerals (zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium), which are often given as ppm, or parts per million.This is sometimes true in supplements, too, and one of my pet peeves are supplements that list on a per-ounce serving basis and then give the trace minerals on a ppm basis. The reason I dislike this is that ppm always stands for milligrams per kilogram. So, if you feed 1 kilogram of a feed that contains 200 ppm zinc, you will provide your horse with 200 milligrams of zinc. However, for a supplement that states that 1 ounce includes 200 ppm zinc, you are in fact only feeding about 5.5 milligrams of zinc in that ounce. You would only get 200 milligrams into the horse if you fed a kilogram (2.2 pounds!) of that supplement. This can be very confusing and it is important to understand these units in order to make informed purchasing decisions.

8. Find out how and where the products you feed are made.

Find out who formulates the products. What quality control methods are employed? Are they made on an equine-only line in order to reduce the risk of contamination with harmful substances?

9. Keep your feed labels/bags.

In the event of a product recall you need the bag to determine whether you have a product that is impacted and to get your product replaced. Keep used feed sacks in a safe place until that batch of feed is finished.

10. Have you horse’s vitamin E levels checked and supplement as required.

For horses with limited or no access to good-quality pasture diets could be low in vitamin E. While many feeds and supplements provide a supplemental source of this important fat soluble vitamin, there is considerable variation in how individual horses utilize vitamin E once absorbed. For this reason I recommend asking your veterinarian to test your hose’s vitamin E levels and then supplement additional natural vitamin E as necessary. This will save you money as you will not be purchasing an expensive supplement unless necessary. It will also ensure that your horse is consuming adequate vitamin E, which will have a direct impact on muscle function and performance recovery.

These are just a few of the possible nutrition related resolutions you can make for 2020. Successful goal setting requires having an actionable plan that accounts for the details necessary to reach your goals.

Best of luck making nutrition planning a part of your 2020 success plan for your horse!