When not working as an equine nutritionist I serve as the regional supervisor of the Sierra Pacific Region of the United States Pony Clubs (USPC). My love of equine nutrition started when I was a Pony Clubber in England, where I first learned about feeds and feeding.
II thought I would share with you the rules of feeding as they appear in the “Pony Club D Manual of Horsemanship,” along with my explanation of each rule’s importance. Our youngest Pony Clubbers learn these rules for good feeding, and we all would do well to remember them as we manage our equine partners.
Here’s an overview:
Rule #1: Feed small meals often.
Horses in their natural setting eat for many hours a day and, as a result, they constantly secrete stomach acid whether they are eating or not. Additionally the equine stomach is relatively small and functions best when no more than about two-thirds full. The small intestine needs time to digest and absorb nonstructural carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. If meals are infrequent and large, these nutrients might reach the hindgut where they can disrupt microbial fermentation with potentially negative consequences.
Rule #2: Feed plenty of roughage.
About 60% percent of a horse’s digestive tract volume is dedicated to the fermentation of roughage, which is why horses are known as “hindgut fermenters.” Keep this in mind to maintain digestive tract health. Try feeding at least 50% of the horse’s daily ration as some kind of roughage. Ideally this roughage should come from grazing on pasture; however hay, hay pellets, beet pulp, and other alternative roughages such as soy and almond hulls work, as well.
Rule #3: Feed according to the horse’s size, condition, age, breed, temperament, and the work done.
A horse’s nutritional requirements are a function of body weight and physiological state. So, a horse in hard work has higher nutritional needs than one at maintenance undergoing no forced exercise. As we all know, some breeds are easy keepers (think native breeds of pony, mustangs, Morgans, etc.) while others are harder keepers (Thoroughbreds, for example). A Thoroughbred doing the same work and the same boy weight as a Morgan will likely need more feed.
Some excitable horses burn calories and have greater requirements because they spend their days pacing the fence line or just worrying about life in general. A horse with a body condition score of 8 (on the 9-point Henneke scale) will need fewer calories than one that condition scores as a 3. These are all factors that need to be considered when making a feeding plan for your horse that will allow him to do the work you ask of him while maintaining an ideal level of condition.
Rule #4: All changes in feed should be made gradually over 10 days to two weeks.
The hindgut’s microbial population and enzymes released in to the small intestine need time to adapt to nutrients in new feeds. You might think you’re not making much of a change going from one batch of orchard grass hay to another, but in fact the chemical composition of those two hays might differ significantly and require the horse’s digestive tract to adapt. Sudden changes can lead to excess gas production and diarrhea, and the risk of colic is elevated for about three weeks after a hay change. Ideally try to slowly substitute the current hay with the new hay. Any grains or commercial feeds should also be changed slowly to allow the small intestine to adapt to changes in starch, protein, and fat levels.
Rule #5: Feed on a regular schedule every day.
Horses can be creatures of habit. Large variations in feeding times can cause stress and increase the risk of conditions such as gastric ulcers. However, I would argue that feeding at the exact same time each day is a recipe for future problems should you ever run late. I recommend feeding within a window of about an hour each day. This way should you ever be caught in traffic or suffer some other delay your horse will not be anxiously waiting for you. For example, feed at random times between 6 and 7 a.m. for your morning feed versus always feeding at 6 a.m. sharp.
Rule #6: Feed only good quality hay and grain.
Feed that is dusty can cause respiratory issues as a horse inhales dust spores. Mold can cause digestive and respiratory distress. Hay can become moldy as a result of being baled with too high a moisture content, and sack feed might get molding because of humid storage conditions. Hay can also contain objects such as trash or potentially poisonous contaminants such as snakes or blister beetles picked up during harvesting, or dead rodents that can cause botulism. Always check your hay closely before feeding it! You might find bugs in your grains especially at certain times of year, and remember that feeds like soaked beet pulp and hay can spoil, especially in high temperatures. Keep a close eye on all your feeds to reduce the chances of digestive distress.
Rule #7: Keep fed tubs, hay feeders and water buckets clean.
Dirty tubs and buckets can harbor molds and might even be vectors for disease transfer. Wash and scrub all feed tubs and water buckets weekly with dilute bleach rinsing well.
Rule #8: Clean fresh water must be available at all times.
As mentioned in Rule #7 this means frequently cleaning and scrubbing all buckets and troughs. Check water sources at least once a day to insure they are free from debris. We all know the horse who thinks his water bucket is a handy place for manure! In cold weather make sure that buckets and troughs have not frozen over. If using electric water heaters, check all connections to reduce the risk of a short circuit or other issue that might lead to a barn fire.
Rule #9: Do not ride when your horse’s stomach is full.
Give your horse least an hour after feeding grain before heavy work. However, insuring some roughage is in the stomach while riding is a good idea, as it helps to buffer stomach acid and acts as a protective layer reducing the splashing of acid within the stomach during exercise. This might help reduce the risk of your horse developing gastric ulcers.
Rule #10: Salt should be available at all times in the form of a salt block or loose salt.
Many horses have cravings for sodium, and consuming sodium helps to stimulate thirst keeping them hydrated. Because dehydration is a cause of impaction colic providing, salt can be a good form of cheap colic insurance. However, despite having a craving for salt, few horses actually use salt blocks. An 1,100-pound horse at rest in cool weather has a daily requirement for the amount of sodium provided in 2 tablespoons of table salt, which would be the equivalent of consuming 2 pounds of salt from a block each month. If your horse is not going through that much salt on his own, I recommend adding salt to his feed in addition to always having block or loose salt available.
Rule #11: Know how your horse normally eats.
If he’s usually a voracious eater and you arrive to find food has been left or he becomes picky, this should raise an alarm that something might be wrong. These could be signs of colic, gastric ulcers, hindgut disturbance, or dental issues. Whatever the cause it requires further investigation.
Rule #12: If horses are fed in a group be sure that each is getting enough to eat.
Groups of horses have a pecking order and the horse at the bottom runs the risk of not getting enough to eat and being chased away from the feed. Be sure to provide multiple feed locations. If offering piles of loose hay or haynets, provide more piles or nets than there are horses and spread feed out, well beyond kicking range.
Another related issue: the dominant horse getting too much to eat, which might lead to obesity. Use weight calculations, a weight tape and body condition scoring to keep track of your horse’s condition and make management changes as necessary.
These days U.S. Pony Club isn’t just for children on Thelwell mounts. Pony Clubs are open to everyone, adults and western riders included. If you want to learn more about how to look after your horse in a fun and social setting check out USPC’s website.