Nutrition Considerations When Importing Horses From Europe

Learn about feeding your new horse during transport, quarantine, and the first few weeks at his new home.
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gray horse eating hay in field
Find a good, clean grass hay, and start by feeding at least 1.5-2% of the horse’s body weight per day. | Photo: iStock

Q.​ I’m in the process of importing a horse from Europe and concerned about how I should feed him once he arrives at my barn. From what I know, he currently eats haylage and some kind of sweet feed. I assume that while he is in quarantine he’ll receive grass hay of some kind. Once he leaves quarantine, he has quite a long road trip to get home, and the hauler will also feed grass hay, although possibly a different type. With all this change I’m concerned about colic and gastric ulcers. How would you suggest I feed him, and is there anything I can do to limit the risks of colic and ulcers?

A. Congratulations on your new horse! I’m sure you must be very excited but also quite nervous. The good news is many horses are imported from Europe, and most do very well. My advice is to keep things simple. He’ll need time to adjust to a new diet and an entirely new routine and way of life. Some limited research suggests that horses might be affected by jet lag, so that is something to keep in mind, especially as it relates to his athletic ability.

As the saying goes, “prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I would start off by reaching out to the quarantine facility and shipping company to see whether they would be willing to administer Ulcergard, which is the over-the-counter preventive Gastrogard (omeprazole) dose. This should help reduce gastric ulcer risk. I’d also consider paste forms of digestive tract supplements that contain good prebiotics such as yeast, because these help stabilize the hindgut environment. The paste form makes it easy for staff to administer without having to provide any kind of feed.

Lastly, keeping horses hydrated while traveling is important, so ensuring adequate daily sodium intake is vital. This can be achieved by feeding salt; however, an electrolyte might be more palatable. Once again, these can be found in paste form for easy administration while in quarantine and on the road.

Once your new horse arrives at your barn, continue with these precautions. At this point you don’t necessarily need to use the paste forms of the products, but I would continue with the good prebiotic and hydration support. The hydration support should become part of your daily routine, and I recommend continuing with the prebiotic for at least several weeks. Your veterinarian can advise you on how long to continue the ulcer preventive, but typically one to two weeks after arrival is recommended.

As for overall diet, you could try to find out what type of grass hay the quarantine and shipper will use. But the reality is even the same type of hay can differ nutritionally. Therefore, this is probably not worth worrying about, because it’s out of your control. Find a good, clean grass hay, and start by feeding at least 1.5-2% of the horse’s body weight per day. Quarantine records should provide you with an accurate weight, because your horse may have been weighed upon arrival and departure.

If you want to feed something in a bucket in addition to hay, start with grass hay pellets or soaked beet pulp. After the initial transition has gone smoothly and your horse has been with you for a week or so, you could then move to feeding a ration balancer in addition to the hay. This feed has a small daily serving size but provides all the necessary minerals your horse might need, as well as additional quality protein. The only other nutrient you might need would be vitamin E, but that is something I would have your veterinarian check for and then supplement as necessary. You might also choose to add a source of omega-3 fatty acids to the diet.

Some things to keep in mind as you think about feeding your new horse are that very few horses in Europe receive alfalfa hay. If they do get alfalfa, it’s typically chopped and fed mixed with their grain ration. Therefore, I recommend you avoid alfalfa initially. If you do decide you want to feed it, start it very gradually. Horses in Europe often receive much more concentrate sweet feed than we now feed in the United States. Additionally, in my experience, the grass hay in Europe often isn’t the quality we have here, so there’s a greater reliance on concentrate feeds. Just because your horse ate a lot of textured, high-grain feed there doesn’t mean you need to feed as much. Lastly, don’t assume your horse had pasture access in Europe. If you’re considering turnout on grass, introduce pasture slowly.

With careful planning and good management, your new horse should settle in well. I wish you both all the best and hope you have a great time getting to know each other.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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