Powering Ponies

It is very exciting to see the popularity of ponies increasing among adults and children across disciplines, but specifically in the FEI ones such as Eventing and Dressage.  Some notable ponies of late include Theodore O’Connor, Hideaways’sErin Go Bragh, and North Forks Cardi.  Ponies may be shorter in stature, but they are no less in heart and mind than a big horse.  With modern pony breeders focusing on increasing performance traits, more ponies are in the competition limelight. Though they can hold their own amongst the ‘big kids’, ponies do come with a few adjustments to care and nutrition.

Most of us have seen the proverbial fat pony. Then it’s no surprise that one of the most common concerns among pony owners is their pony’s weight.  Most ponies are considered by their owners to be easy keepers, meaning they gain weight just by looking at their feed (or so it seems!) which makes sense when you consider the origination of many of the pony breeds. 

Most breeds were developed in harsh conditions, the Welsh, Connemara, and Dartmoor to name a few, and are recognized for their hardiness and ability to exist on a relatively low plane of nutrition.  Modern ponies are metabolically efficient and adjustments need to be made as they should not be fed as their full-sized counterparts. 

Special care should be taken when selecting the appropriate feed for your pony.  Due to high incidence of insulin resistance and other metabolic disorders among ponies, feeds which provide large amounts of starch and sugar per meal should be avoided.  It is important to note that ponies don’t generally require a different feed than their larger counterparts, rather they simply require less of that feed. 

For low activity ponies, a ration balancer fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids along with a high quality grass forage are ideal.  Daily turnout for these ponies is also advised, though be cautious not to allow excessive grazing on lush pasture.  Exposure should be limited either a dry lot or use of a grazing muzzle if lush pasture rich in fructans and soluble sugars is all that is available.

For a pony in work, a feed that provides energy from high levels of soluble fiber and  fat, fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids is ideal.  Active ponies in regular work or strenuous exercise should consume forage at a rate of about one pound per 100 pounds of body weight, per day.  For a 700 pound pony, that would be approximately seven pounds of hay per day.  Good quality grass hay is ideal roughage for ponies. 

As with horses, it is important to monitor the body condition and weight.  A general guideline to follow for the body condition score for a pony is 5.0-5.5.  Their smaller size can be deceiving when it comes to dishing up feed, therefore it is very important to weigh feed and follow the recommended feeding directions.   

By keeping a keen eye on your feeding and management program, your pony can live a healthy, productive life in trim shape, and can excel in whichever discipline you choose – whether it’s in a dressage arena, or just a competition to see who’s got the prettiest pasture ornament!

Mineral Levels & Ratios in Horse Diets

Mineral Interactions in Horses

A major factor to consider when looking at the mineral profile of a feed is the interaction of different minerals. Not only are the levels of each individual mineral important, but so are the ratios in which those minerals are present with each other.

As you can see from the image at right, the level of copper (Cu) present has a direct effect on Zinc (Zn), Iron (Fe), Molybdenum (Mo), and Sulfur (Su). This effect is the reason that single nutrients should not be focused on unless there is a known and quantified deficiency or excess of a certain mineral in the animal. Addition of a single nutrient in large quantities may visually solve one problem in a horse (i.e. their coat got shinier), but what else is going on behind the scenes is often hard, if not impossible, to tell.

Of course, this is not meant to downplay the fact that individual levels of minerals are important as well.  Depriving or overdosing a horse for a short time may not have a significant effect immediately that is visible to the average horse owner (termed “clinical signals”).  However, it does not take long for “subclinical” deficiencies or toxicities to begin to occur.  These are not visible to the naked eye, but still can have a profound effect on the health of an animal.  Eventually, they will show up, but there is no guarantee that if the deficiency or toxicity is fixable by the time the clinical symptoms are seen. 

Deficiencies over time in a horse's diet

A prime example of this would be a pregnant mares diet, and it’s effect on the foal.  A mare in the first two trimesters of pregnancy needs a quality diet, but it doesn’t have to be much higher than a maintenance level diet.  However, many requirements increase by 50% or more when that mare hits the last trimester of pregnancy and after that when she goes in to lactation.  Not feeding her a balanced diet designed for the stage she is in may not leave her looking bad in the immediate time frame, but improper mineral levels or ratios could be severely detrimental to the foals health, to the mares health down the road, or even her ability to re-breed efficiently.

Transition to Spring Pasture

It is no wonder these guys are asking to be let out onto the lush spring grass after such a long and trying winter.  What horse owner could resist those molten brown eyes and soft whisper-nickers, as if saying ‘Let me out, I’ll be good…I promise!’   

We work hard and do our best to provide our horses what they need; pasture seems all too natural to resist. It’s only when you understand the unique nutritional properties of early spring forage, that you can feel better about saying ‘not yet’!

If your horse survived the winter on hay, a hasty  introduction to ‘rich’ spring grass can cause a shock to his digestive system.  If at all possible, keep your horse off grass during the initial growth period by designating a ‘sacrifice’ area or dry lot.  The size of the dry lot will depend on your available land, but generally should be large enough to allow your horse to move about freely and stretch his legs. The sacrifice area serves to protect your emerging pasture as well as allowing you an opportunity to ease your horse’s digestive tract onto new-growth grass. If he is kept in a dry lot during this time, you may consider hand walking, lunging or additional work sessions to keep him from becoming too fresh. 

So what is different about spring grass that we should heed warning? As the strong spring sun warms the earth, the grass in your pasture emerges from its winter dormant state. The first few blades have a critical job of transforming sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis, that starts the growth of the plant for the rest of the season.  This food is in the form of plant sugar (fructans) and is essential for the plant to grow into a productive pasture contributor for the remainder of the season. 

When overnight temperatures are cool (generally 40 degrees F) the stored energy created during the day is used to grow additional leaves and roots. Extra food not utilized overnight is stored in the plant tissues.  If overnight temperatures drop below 40 degrees F, the plant will not invest in growth and the sugars will remain in the leaves. This is when the new grass is of concern for horses.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when overnight temperatures remain above 40 degrees F, it is the ideal time to start acclimating your horse to the fresh spring grass, because the level of fructans in the grass are likely to be the lowest.

The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual, starting with a period of 15-20 minutes of grazing.  Gradually increase until you have reached your ideal turnout length of time; this may take the better part of a month.  During this time, it is important to monitor the output of your horse; loose, unformed stools indicate digestive upset likely correlated to the increased fructans. For horses with metabolic issues prone to digestive upsets, transitions should made later in the growing cycle onto mature grasses.  In addition to restricting time on pasture, a grazing muzzle can be used to further control intake.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a pasture full of healthy, green growing grass not only looks wonderful, it is  an investment in your horse’s nutrition. Allowing the early grass to grow and flourish, then gradually transitioning to grazing is an investment in your overall nutrition program. Armed with this information, don’t you feel better telling him to wait?

Feeding Schedules for Horses

A few months ago, I received a call from a farm that was experiencing numerous cases of colic. They were concerned that their grain was the cause of the problem and asked me to visit their farm.

When I arrived at 8:30 am, the horses were just being fed. As I walked into the barn I noticed all of the stall fronts and side boards showed signs of chewing. I also noticed that many of the horses had little or no water in their buckets. Each horse received a large scoop of sweet feed and a flake of hay.

I reviewed the horses’ weight and body condition scores with the owner and trainer. Based on that assessment, I suggested they move to feeding hay at a rate of 1.5% of the horses’ body weight, and grain at the rate of 0.5 %. I also suggested going to a pelleted feed, as the horses were passing a lot of undigested grain in their manure. I encouraged the farm to select a pellet high in fiber and fat, and that contained yeast cultures to aid in the digestion process.

I then asked the farm owner to describe the daily routine at the farm. He explained once the horses are fed, they begin a daily work and turnout routine. At about noon, they are given another flake of hay or have round bales in their turnout area. By 3:30, all of the horses are brought in for their evening feeding. The evening feed consisted of a scoop of grain and two flakes of hay. The barn is closed for the day by 4:00 p.m. The horses were receiving all of their daily rations in 3 feedings, but they were within an 8 hour period.

By spanning the daily rations over a 14 hour period, ensuring full water buckets throughout the day, and following the product selection suggestions I had made, the farm has now been colic free for over 6 months!

Leading a Horse to Water…

Water is the most essential and important nutrient for you and your horse and should be available to your horse at all times. Good hydration is vital to optimal health and performance. With all of the bad things that can happen if a horse doesn’t drink properly, it’s no wonder horse owners, myself included, get anxious about making sure their horse is consuming adequate amounts of H2O, particularly when we are away from home.

So what is a horse owner to do in these cases? The old adage which says ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’ may be true. However, with a little preparation before heading out to hit the trails or this year’s show circuit, most horses can be trained to drink. Providing free choice access to salt, bringing along water from home, using electrolytes, and doing things like soaking feed can all help, and training your horse to drink is one more tool you can add to your box of tricks. Supplies are cheap and easy to obtain. I like to use the smaller 8qt buckets – they are easier to hold, especially if watering in a trailer.

  • To begin, I wanted my gelding to associate the small “water” bucket with a yummy treat. So I started giving him his favorite treat - chopped up carrots, a little unsweetened applesauce, and a small handful beet pulp - in the bucket without water. He quickly learned that that bucket meant something yummy.
  • Once that positive association was made, I started adding just a little water over the treat, just enough to cover the carrot chunks (1 – 2 inches) and get the applesauce in solution so the water was “flavored”. The idea is to get his nose wet to get the treat, and he would be rewarded for slurping everything up through lots of verbal praise and the food treat. There are many things you can flavor water with, its just a matter of finding what your horse finds irresistible:
    • Gatorade, applesauce, commercial water flavors, carrot shreds, small handful of grain concentrate, small dollop of molasses, peppermints, etc.
  • Once he accepted the water addition to his treat, I started giving his “water treat” in different locations around the farm (in the cross-ties, by the horse trailer, in the horse trailer, outside of the arena, in the pasture, etc.) AND as soon as we were done working, just as his caveson or bridle came off after being properly cooled out. After a few days of doing this, he started expecting his “water treat” after work.
  • Now that we had established this behavior, it was time to add more water, filling to ¼ of the bucket and letting him get used to that, then filling to ½ bucket, letting him get used to that, and so on, until he was drinking most of a small bucket when I put it in front of him.
  • After a little time I started backing off of the flavor so the mixture got more diluted, but making sure he still got a treat reward for finishing off the bucket each time. That way if he ever got really stubborn about drinking or if I were masking water that was noticeably different from water at home, I could add more flavor back to entice him to drink.
    • Also, since adding things to water can be a labor intensive (buckets need to be cleaned more frequently), the less you have to add, the more practical it is.
    • Another trick, especially when you get to the full bucket stage, is to let the horse watch you add the treat (carrot/apple chunks) to the water, so they stay engaged and interested. If they back off drinking, then go back to the previous step or the step before that and re-establish the behavior, then move on again.

The idea of adding flavor initially is to develop the consumption behavior through positive association, and then wean them off of it gradually while the behavior is retained. If you regularly offer your horse flavored water, be sure they have access to clean, fresh, un-flavored water as well. Also, take care not to go overboard with sugary flavors in your water to avoid digestive upset. It would be counter-productive for your horse to associate a “tummy-ache” with drinking.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep yourself well hydrated along with your horse. Cheers!

Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets

Many horse owners are concerned about carbohydratelevels in their horses diet, particularly if the horse is prone to colic or laminitis.  Often, the owner will look to simply feed a product with a lower starch or NSC percentage.  But that’s often not the best, or only, solution, particularly if elevated levels of performance are expected of the horse, because the percent of starch in the feed isn’t what matters to a horse’s digestive system – what truly matters is the total amount of starch that enters the digestive system per meal

When a horse consumes too much NSC in one meal, the starches and sugars may not be completely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Undigested starch getting to the hindgut may cause rapid fermentation by the microbes (gut bugs) that live in the cecum and large intestine, which  results in gas production & lactic acid buildup.  The gas buildup can result in colic, while the lactic acid accumulation drops the pH of the gut, starting a chain of events that may compromise the blood supply to the hoof, resulting in laminitis.

Here’s the catch: all horses need some NSC in the diet to live and work for you – it is a simple biological need.  Hard working horses need higher, but still controlled, intakes of starches and sugars to provide readily available energy for work and to replace the glycogen (stored energy) that may have been used up during intense exercise.  NSC intake is important for horses to recover from hard work. 

If higher total intakes of starch and sugar are required to maintain energy levels, but the potential for digestive upset or laminitic episodes is a primary concern, the horse may benefit from more frequent but smaller meals during periods when extra calories are needed to recover from hard work.  The higher daily intake, using more frequent feedings, will provide additional starch and sugar, as well as other nutrients your horse needs, while helping reduce the risk of digestive disturbances related to higher starch intake in a single meal.

Types of Carbohydrates in Horse Feed Diets

The topic of carbohydrates for horses has gotten a lot of people asking questions and has created a certain amount of confusion, particularly when comparing carbohydrates in equine diets to human dietary recommendations.  Starches, carbohydrates, sugars, non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and non-fibrous carbohydrates (NFC), among others, are terms thrown around for equine diets, and all those terms can get very intimidating, when it comes to what these nutrients mean to your horse  and how much your horse needs or doesn’t need. 

Here is a list of each of the common terms, and what they include:

  • Structural Carbohydrates – This category includes primarily the carbohydrates that are part of the cell wall in plants. 
    • This will include the Neutral Detergent Fibers (NDF), primarily lignin, cellulose and hemicelluloses. 
    • These carbohydrates are all fiber sources that give cell walls strength and shape.
    • Some types of fiber analysis, such as the Total Digestible Fiber (TDF) measurement used in human nutrition, will include the structural carbohydrates plus pectins, gums, beta glucans and some polysaccharides. 
    • These are the carbohydrates that are not broken down by enzymes and need to be fermented in the hind gut of the horse.
  • Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) - This includes the sugars and starches, and is a very important group of nutrients for horses because these are the carbohydrates that can be broken down by enzymes and absorbed from the small intestine into the blood stream as glucose and stored as glycogen in the muscles and in the liver. 
    • Ideally, NSCs get absorbed entirely in the small intestine before they reach the cecum and large intestine, where they can be problematic for horses.  When people ask about a “low-carb” diet, they are frequently really asking about a low NSC diet.
    • Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC) - This includes ethanol soluble carbohydrates (ESC) which are primarily sugars, both monosaccharides and disaccharides.  WSC will include various oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.  Fructans in forages are included in the WSC.  When looking at a feed or hay analysis report, ESC should be a small proportion than WSC of the NSC.
  • Non-Fiber Carbohydrates (NFC) – This is a different nutrient which is calculated in certain analytical techniques.  NFC is equal to (100-Water-Ash-Fat-Protein-NDF).  NFC is calculated by difference and is not measured by a specific analysis.  NFC will contain all of the organic acids, starch, sugars, oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, beta glucans, pectins and gums.  For this reason, NFC will be a larger number than NSC in a feed or hay analysis report.