The Skin Health of Your Horse

mom daughter grooming horseHorses can encounter many skin health issues on a daily basis. Geographical location and seasonal variations have a major influence on the range of possible skin issues.

Before diving too deep into skin issues, it is important to understand skin components. The skin is the body’s largest organ, representing 12-24% of the animal’s body weight, depending upon species and age. The skin is composed of five zones:

  • Dermis
    • Supports and nourishes the epidermis. There are cells, fibers and nerve plexuses present in the dermis.
  • Basement Membrane Zone
    • Primary function is to attach and act as a barrier to the epidermis and dermis. Several factors including autoimmune conditions can impact the health of the basement membrane zone.
  • Epidermis
    • Often hair covered and the first barrier of defense. Also composed of multiple layers. The overall health of these layers are influenced by nutrition, hormones, tissue factors, immune cells and genetics.
  • Appendageal System
    • Contains structures that grow with the epidermis such as hair follicles, sebaceous and sweat glands. Hair growth is impacted by many factors including nutrition, hormones and sunlight.
  • Subcutaneous Muscles & Fat
    • Has many functions such as insulation, shock absorber, and a reservoir for hydration. (Merck, 2015)

Skin issues generally fall under five categories:

  1. Traumatic skin issue or skin wounds/lacerations often from environmental hazards such as fencing, barn structure, or other objects.
  2. Granulomatous skin issue or “proud flesh can occur when a wound goes untreated or unnoticed following injury.
  3. Nodular skin issue or skin associated with seasonal conditions or allergic dermatitis from insects such flies and ticks.
  4. Pruritic and alopecic skin issue or contact dermatitis often from plants, irritating chemicals or “Sweet Itch” associated with gnat bites. Other Ectoparasites such as Lice and Mange are contributing factors of this type of skin issue.
  5. Nonpruritic and alopecic skin issue or “Rain Scald”/“Rain Rot” from prolonged exposure to environmental conditions is one major factor contributing to this type of skin issue.

Because of these various potential skin issues, it is important to include a quality care, management and grooming routine for your horse. Brushes and equipment should be cleaned between horses. If a contagious skin disease is suspected, designate a set of grooming supplies to be used only on the horse with an issue.

Skin health is affected by many components of nutrition. Proper hydration and access to a quality water source is the cornerstone of skin health. A quality balanced diet rounds out an optimal skin health plan. Diets balanced in essential amino acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, and vitamins and minerals.

A proper farm insect management program starts with cleanliness and prevention. Keeping manure removed or far from horse barn, stalls or paddocks is essential. In a barn environment use fans to help deter flying insects from horse stalls or confined areas. Remove standing water or keep horses further from standing water sources to help reduce insect experiences. During peak insect seasons use of fly bonnets, fly sheets or safe insect repellents. If desired, a feed through fly control product can be incorporated into a full insect control program.

Bathing or “cold hosing” the horse’s skin can help with discomfort of skin issues. It is appropriate for horses in exercise to be “bathed” or hosed off after exercise. It is important to scrape/wipe off excess water and properly cool out any horse to avoid additional complications. Care should be taken to not “over bathe” or use harsh shampoo or chemicals on the horses’ skin.

Please consult your Veterinarian before administering any medicated or chemical treatments or for additional information on skin diseases and treatments.

Feed Room Security – What is most important to your horse?

Feed Room 004The area where feed is stored can be very important to the long term health of your horse.  Failure to store feed properly can be hazardous to your horse.

Feed storage areas should have the following characteristics:

  1. Dry and well ventilated – Feed must be protected from moisture. Feed bags should not be stacked directly on the floor as moisture may be absorbed in the bottom bags and the feed may mold in the bag. Any feed storage containers (bins, garbage cans etc.) should be water and pest resistant.  Also, you should completely empty and clean out the feed storage container on a regular basis.  If you store feed in bags, make old feed is not allowed to accumulate by stacking new feed on top of the old bags.
  2. Well lighted – It is important that you be able to see clearly the condition of any feed or supplement products stored in your feed room. Feed and feed supplements are produced under controlled conditions.  Once the feed has left a feed mill, it may be exposed to other conditions in storage, so it is wise to be able to see clearly what the feed looks like every time you feed your horse.
  3. Clean – It is important to keep the feed room/storage area free of spilled feed, dust and potential sources of contamination.
  4. Pest free – Feed tends to attract rodents, birds and insects. Spilled feed should be cleaned up.  If pest control is required, care should be taken to make certain that any pesticides or rodenticides cannot contaminate the feed and that animals cannot access the pest control material.  The hay storage area should also reduce the risk of exposure to pests.  Opossums are identified as potential carriers of Equine Protozal Myeloencephalitis (EPM).  Other species may also be carriers.
  5. Secure – Horses and other animals should be prevented from accidental access to the feed storage area. If the Houdini in your barn opens the stall and gets into the feed room, lots of bad things can happen!  Also, if you have multiple species, you need to keep horse feed clearly separated for any other species feed, particularly medicated ruminant, poultry and swine feeds.

Unusual Eating Behavior – Culprit Could be Salt Deficiency

Salt Block for HorsesUnusual eating behavior ( sometimes referred to as pica) can be caused by a number of factors and may cause the horse to eat manure, eat dirt, eat bark off trees, chew on board fences, chew on stable mate’s mane & tail or chew on tool handles or leather equipment.

I usually suggest going thru the following check list for the most common causes of unusual eating behavior:

  1. Lack of salt. Lack of salt can trigger a number of unusual eating behaviors (eating manure, chewing bark on trees, eating dirt, chewing on objects, chewing on tool handles etc.) Recommendation is to offer loose salt free choice as horses will consume more readily than block salt, particularly in cold weather. Block salt is better than not offering any salt source. Maintenance horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day.  This may increase to 4-6 ounces per head per day in hot humid conditions or with added exercise.  Commercial feeds may contain 0.5% salt.  Horses may still benefit from salt being offered free choice along with access to fresh, clean water.
  2. Fiber intake in the diet might be inadequate. If a horse does not feel full, it will look for other things to eat. Make sure there is adequate long stem roughage available.  Fences, trees, manes and tails may suffer if there is not sufficient roughage!
  3. Phosphorus deficiency. Horses have quite limited “nutritional wisdom”, but phosphorus deficiency may trigger unusual eating behavior, including eating manure or dirt. Offering a free choice calcium, phosphorus and salt mineral may be useful.  In the wild, animals frequently consume bones or shed antlers to get minerals.
  4. Protein deficiency. Again, horses have limited “nutritional wisdom”, but inadequate protein or poor quality protein may trigger some of the unusual eating behaviors. Evaluating the forage and the overall feeding program is useful.
  5. Ulcers. Horses that have ulcers will sometimes eat dirt or manure as well as chew on other objects. The saliva produced when chewing is believed to have a buffering effect.

I always start by offering loose salt free choice and making certain that fiber intake is adequate. If that does not remedy the problem, I will then go to offering a good mineral product (calcium, phosphorus, salt combination, perhaps with some trace minerals) and perhaps a full ration evaluation.  Other behaviors may help decide if ulcer assessment is needed.

Unusual behavior may be the horse’s way of trying to tell us something!

Bringing Horses Home: What You Need to Know

When you bring horses to your own farm for the first time, there are a lot of unexpected things that you learn quickly!  Vlogger Shelley Paulsen recently brought her beloved mare Maggie Sue home from a boarding barn, and then added Fritzie to the mix as well!

From just how much poop they really do generate, to the incredible support system it takes to have horses on your property, Shelley shares a few key learnings that just might help you out if you are considering bringing horses on to your property for the first time.

Listen in as she shares “6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Months of Caring for Horses.”  Oh, and fair warning – you might want a kleenex in hand! Happy tears, we promise!

If you’ve been through this journey, share in the comments other things that new horse owners should know!

Glycemic Response to Soaked Hay

Horse HayFor horses diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, obesity, laminitis and/or insulin resistance, the need for dietary management of nonstructural carbohydrate intake is necessary. One management tool horse owners can use is regulating the glycemic response in diseased horses, which is the effect food has on blood glucose levels after a meal. Past research has shown that soaking hay for 30 to 60 minutes reduces nonstructural carbohydrate levels; however, researchers have yet to explore if hay soaking has an effect on glycemic response. Recently, researchers at Middle Tennessee State University examined how soaked hay versus non‐soaked hay affected the glycemic response in horses.

Two different hay types were evaluated both as soaked hay and non-soaked hay; prairie grass and alfalfa. Wet hays were soaked in cold water for 60 minutes and 12 healthy horses (average of 17 years and 1,207 pounds) were fed the hays. Blood samples were taken immediately at the time of feeding and every 30 minutes for 2 hours, and every 60 minutes up to 5 hours.

Researchers found that horses had a higher glycemic response to alfalfa hay compared to prairie grass hay. However, there was no difference in the glycemic response to non‐soaked or soaked hay of either type. Over time, plasma glucose levels were higher in horses fed alfalfa versus grass hay.

Researchers concluded that although the type of hay fed influenced the glycemic response, no difference in physiological glycemic response was observed in healthy horses fed non-soaked or soaked hay. Additional research is needed to determine if soaking hay has physiological merit in horses diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, obesity, laminitis and/or insulin resistance.

For more information on this study, click here.

For more information on hay soaking, click here.

Summarized by: Devan Catalano, BS, University of Minnesota.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Avoiding a Hay Belly

I’ve often heard, ‘my horse has a hay belly, what should I do differently?’ Or,” he’s really big in the belly but he doesn’t have good muscles.”   Apart from a broodmare belly, post-colic surgery effects or a parasite situation, the answer sounds like a nutritional imbalance.  The good news is, once you know what a nutritional imbalanced hay belly is and what causes it, you can make adjustments in your program and avoid it in the future.

What does it look like?

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Have you ever seen a young or growing horse with a big belly while the rest of their body looks small? Or a mature horse that has a midsection that hangs low, while ribs are visible and muscles along the back and hindquarter are hard to find?  How about the ‘pregnant gelding’ situation?  All of these are describing a hay belly.  On a regular basis, you should conduct a body condition score on your horse to check for muscle mass as well as appropriate fat deposition in key areas.  It’s important to check all areas indicated, since a rib or belly check alone doesn’t provide all the information.

What causes it?

When too many low-value calories are consumed without adequate protein (including essential amino acids), the body stores the calories as energy in cells yet the needed protein isn’t available to maintain muscle mass. In the absence of adequate protein, muscles atrophy while stored energy increases. Over time, a hay belly emerges as muscle mass over the top is lost and gut size may expand.

The biggest factor is overfeeding fiber high in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) while under feeding adequate levels of quality protein. NDF is a measurement of cell wall content in plants such as grasses.  As the plant matures, it builds up stronger cell walls so that it may hold itself upright.  The stronger these walls, the less digestible these cells are for a horse.  So when fed very mature hay, your horse is less able to digest that hay, as compared to hay with a lower NDF value (less mature).  In addition to being higher in NDF, the grasses also tend to be lower in the quality proteins; important nutrients for developing and maintaining muscles.

How to prevent a hay belly

First, feed the best quality hay that you can find in the correct amount for your horse’s body weight, age and activity level. The hay that is smooth and ‘leafy’ tends to have levels of NDF that are better for the horse to digest. Hay that is pointy to the touch or looks like it’s a green version of straw should be avoided as it simply offers little nutritional value for the horse.

How do I get rid of a hay belly if my horse has one?

First, check the quality and quantity of hay your horse is eating. If the quality is adequate, then it’s time to reevaluate the quantity fed.  A horse should be fed 1.0-1.75 pounds/100 pounds of body weight of hay per day.  Not a fan of math? Yea, me neither.  Here’s a quick answer: for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds, that would be between 10-17.5 pounds of hay each day, ideally divided into 2 or even 3 feedings. Check to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding, or underfeeding if your horse is actually bigger than 1,000 lbs. Learn to estimate your horse’s weight accurately here.

The last piece of the puzzle is feed. Make sure that the concentrate you provide is offering adequate quality protein.  Total protein alone can’t support or develop ideal muscles.  The right balance of amino acids is needed to build and maintain muscle quantity and quality.  Look for feeds that guarantee levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  These three key amino acids are the most important for your horse. And lastly, check to be sure you’re feeding the appropriate amount of concentrate.  Feeding a balanced diet and adding some exercise to help develop muscle mass and tighten up that tummy is a great way to reclaim that belly!

Does feed affect attitude in horses?

Nutrena Warmblood Horse Annick-7120I was recently asked by a fellow horse owner if I felt diet could play a role in the disposition of her horse.  My answer was “Yes, equine diet can have some influence on equine disposition.” But the answer is multifaceted.

Feeding Schedules

Horses by nature are grazing animals. Their stomach is small in relation to their body size, as they are flight animals. Their stomach continuously secretes acid which is buffered when they are chewing and creating saliva. A horse should consume approximately 2% of their body weight per day in forage.

Unfortunately, domestication has made horses more of a meal eater while in confinement, increasing the incidence of ulcers and other issues. Many of the farms I visit have feeding schedules which provide the bulk of a horse’s caloric intake within an 8 hour time frame, such as two feeding per day at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

I realize that feeding large barns can be labor intensive and more frequent feeding per day is not always an option. However, spacing the meals further apart and using tools, such as slow feed hay nets or hay racks, can slow the consumption rate to replicate grazing. For owners that board their horses, I often suggest providing treats of chopped forage or hay extenders to provide additional chew time and alleviate boredom.

Feeding Program

The dietary balance may also play a role in horse’s disposition. Many horse owners still believe that too much protein in the horse’s diet will cause behavioral problems.  The reality is that concentrates high in NSC (Non-structural carbohydrates, or starch and sugar) may cause behavior challenges in some horses. Many feed companies now list the NSC on their feed tags, but keep in mind you must add both the starch and sugar percentages together to get the total picture.

The dietary needs of a horse depend greatly on his daily workload.

  • A race horse or high-performance eventer will have both higher total caloric demands, and higher NSC demands, to support glycogen repletion. I often tell my students you would not condition and plan to run the Boston Marathon on a low non-structural carbohydrate diet.  We also know that added fat (oil) in an equine diet may have glycogen sparing effects, and may have a calming effect on some horses.
  • On the other hand, a maintenance or pleasure horse will have lower total caloric demands and lower NSC demands and may require a different balance of energy sources.

Bottom Line: High energy intake, particularly from non-structural carbohydrates, coupled with limited work and limited turn out is rarely a good combination!

Body Condition

Body condition and weight management can also influence a horse’s disposition. A horse with leg or joint issues carrying too much weight may be less than accommodating when asked to work. Keeping the horse at a moderate body condition is a key concern.

The reverse can also hold true, keeping a horse at a low body condition score so that the rider can easily handle the animal is not good management or training. Vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for caloric requirements and a balanced diet.

The Bottom Line

Often times, we really need to examine if the owner has the right horse for the job at hand, and is the behavior of the horse a matter of diet, training, or physical ability?

  • Examine your horse’s diet to see that you are providing adequate forage intake and chew time.
  • Review the overall composition of your horse’s diet and balance the dietary needs with fiber (structural carbohydrates), fats, non-structural carbohydrates and protein.
  • Is your horse at an ideal body condition score?

In summary, diet can be an influencer in equine disposition, but it is not an alternative for the wrong career choice for your equine partner.

Milk Replacer for Foals

foal drinking milk replacer from bucketA friend recently called, asking if I had bottles for foals. She explained that her mare had rejected her foal, and the said they were going to have to start feeding milk replacer.

I then asked my friend if she was aware how many times an hour a young foal can nurse, and there was a long silence on the phone.

So, I explained that a young foal can nurse up to 17 times an hour, and although this does decrease with age, it would take a village to manage the task. At 1 day of age the foals intake can be up to 10% of its body weight.  This consumption will increase up to 25% from about 10 days of age until weaning, so bottle feeding is not a realistic solution.

With that in mind, giving the foal access to milk at all times is feeding in a more natural manner than a bottle fed meal. This will also allow the foal to drink as little or as much as he/she want, which will result in fewer digestive upsets.

The foal can learn to drink from a shallow bowl or bucket very quickly after birth, so I explained to my friend the steps to follow with her foal:

  • First, place your finger in their mouths to stimulate the suckle reflex.
  • While they are sucking, raise the small bowl containing the liquid milk replacer solution up to their muzzle.
    • Always bring the milk up to the foal; do not force the foal’s head down into a bucket!
  • After they start to suck and drink, slowly remove your finger from the foal’s mouth.
  • If he stops drinking, repeat the above steps until he is drinking by himself.
  • The first day, warm the liquid milk replacer to encourage consumption.
  • When the foal drinks without assistance, hang a bucket with the milk replacer solution in it from the stable wall at the foals shoulder height. This will allow the foal to drink whenever it wants, just as if the mare was there.
  • The bucket should be a contrasting color to the wall to make it easy for the foal to find.

From birth to about 4 months of age milk replacers are a great option for orphaned ro rejected foals, or foals needing supplementation. Products such as Foals First Milk Replacer powder by Progressive Nutrition can be fed by the bucket and stay fresh for up to 12 hours.

I encourage any farm that is expecting a foal to have at least a 15-pound bucket of milk replacer on hand. It is well worth the investment!