How to Transition a Horse’s Feed

You may be thinking your horse might be in need of a senior diet, or perhaps there is a new feed available that you believe is even better for your horse.  Maybe you are no longer happy with your current feed.  Or, your dealer no longer carries the product you were using.  Whatever the reason, switching your horse to a new feed is a change that requires care and know-how. 

Changes to feed, pasture or hay in general should be made over a 7 day period, gradually increasing the new and decreasing the old.  For example:

Day 1: 80% of old feed / 20% of new feed

Day 2: 70% of old feed / 30% of new feed

Day 3: 60% of old feed / 40% of new feed

Day 4: 50% of each

Day 5: 40% of old feed / 60% of new feed

Day 6: 30% of old feed / 70% of new feed

Day 7: 20% of old feed / 80% of new feed

Moving from a feed higher in Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) to one that is lower can be done relatively easily by following the instructions above.  If you are moving your horse from a ‘low’ NSC feed to one that is higher in NSC, feed changes should happen over at least the 7 days recommended above, if not longer. 

Research has indicated that horses fed pre and probiotics are better able to handle changes in diet than horses that are not. 

Changes in hay, though generally not given much consideration, can have as much of an impact if not more than changes in feed. If possible, try to follow the same steps as above when transitioning your hay.  Hay that is harvested from the same field, but in different cuttings will likely vary in nutritional content. Hay testing is available from many University Extension offices.  Check with your area extension office for more information.

Balanced Mineral Supplements for Horses

I had stopped at one of my large training barns to check on their horses diets, as they had just returned from a recent show circuit. The owner said the horses were doing well, but he was going to tweak their diets just a little. He had purchased a bag of selenium from a local milling company and just wanted to top dress a little extra.

Mineral Interactions in Horses

Unfortunately for him, the truth is that more is not always better. I explained how vitamins and minerals need to be kept in certain ratios and levels in order to keep horses healthy, and random adding of supplements can endanger their health.  For example, copper and zinc must be kept in a 3:1 t 4:1 ratio for proper bone growth, development and maintenance. In young growing horses, having this ratio out of balance could lead to Developmental Orthopedic Diseases. I also noted that not all are horse feed supplements are created equal.  In the case of minerals, organic complexed trace minerals (minerals that are tied to an amino acid) have increased bioavailability over the oxide or sulfate forms.  

Horses have mineral requirements which are broken down into Micro and Macro. Macro minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and sulfur. These are required in gram amounts in the diet. Micro, or trace, minerals include copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, iron and selenium. These are required in much smaller quantities in the diet, and are measured in ”parts per million”, or ppm. A part per million is equivalent to one drop of water diluted into 50 liters (roughly the fuel tank capacity of a compact car). Micro and macro minerals play an important role in bone development, muscle, hair coat , appetite, as well as skin and hoof integrity. The key is that they must be balanced in the horses diet.

Pre and Probiotics in Horse Feed

While scanning information about various horse feeds, you may have come across the phrase ‘contains prebiotics and probiotics’….Hmmm, sounds impressive, but what are they, what do they do for your horse, and why are they important?  Pre- and probiotics are considered “functional ingredients” that are added to horse feed to provide benefits to your horse. Here is some information about them and what they can mean for the digestive tract and overall wellbeing of your horse.

Healthy, inside and out
Rosie shows a dappled coat, indicating good health shining from the inside out.

It starts with the gut. The environment of the intestine (a.k.a. gut) contains naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms commonly called  ’bugs’. Gut bugs are found in all species, including humans, and are essential to the digestion process. For the horse, gut bugs work to break down components of forage and feed as they pass through the digestive tract.  The bugs deconstruct complex molecules within feedstuffs, which releases nutrients and allows the synthesis of energy substrates and important vitamins. Those nutrients are then absorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, where they become available to cells in the body to support basic maintenance, growth and activity.

Feed that is broken down and digested more completely allows for more nutrients to be readily available for absorption.  This is essentially what probiotics do. Adding probiotics to a horse feed means adding more beneficial bugs to the existing population in the horse’s gut. Probiotics such as yeast culture, work with the naturally occurring bug population to enhance the digestive process, further breaking down complex protein and fiber fractions in the gut and making them more available for absorption into the blood stream. As a probiotic, yeast culture has also been shown to balance and stabilize the digestive microbial ecosystem in the cecum of the horse, as well as help prevent the colonization of bad bacteria in the gut.  A stable microbial ecosystem is beneficial to the horse beyond improvements in digestive and absorption efficiency, it also reduces the risk of digestive upset, such as gas colic, that a horse might experience with changes in feed or hay, or while under stress from transportation, shows, changes in weather or other.

Prebiotics can be thought of as an energy jolt for the gut bugs.  Prebiotics are a rich nutrient source for the gut bugs (e.g. lactobacilli, bifidobacterial) which in turn stimulates their growth and activity, making them more effective at their job. Research has shown that prebiotics help stabilize the population of gut bugs even through sudden changes in the diet, which helps to reduce incidents of digestive upset.  For performance horses who require energy dense diets that include higher levels of starches and sugars, prebiotics can help reduce the incidence of digestive disorders and support optimal performance.  Prebiotics such as inulin and oligofructose are selectively fermented by the gut bugs, stimulating their growth and activity, which benefits the horse by enhancing the absorption and retention of certain minerals, which in turn can support the immune system, skeletal tissue, and more.

The population of bugs in the gut are sensitive to changes in their environment brought on by stress, illness or the ingestion of undesirable materials .The addition of pre- and probiotics to a diet has been shown to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of digestive upset, namely diarrhea. For senior horses, the use of pre- and probiotics in feeds has been shown to improve the digestibility and absorption of nutrients, which can translate into an enhanced quality of life.  In summary, pre- and probiotics work with the naturally occurring gut bugs to support optimal gut health, aid in the digestion process, as well as provide a buffer against negative bacteria.

Vitamin E in Horse Diets

Vitamin E is one of the fat-soluble vitamins, meaning it can be stored up in the body, and is of significant interest in horse nutrition. It is thought to be involved in muscular efficiency and may play a role as an antioxidant.  In growing horses vitamin E plays a key role in nerve and muscle development and function. Foals less than six months of age generally show gait in-coordination, with hind limbs more severely affected than fore limbs. Older foals and yearlings may show decreased muscular reflexes in the neck and trunk area along with muscle in-coordination (equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy).

Mares have an increased requirement for vitamin E due to rapid tissue synthesis by the foal in the last 2-3 months of gestation. About 60% of the foal’s body weight is deposited from months 9 through 11. Vitamin E is involved in muscle fiber formation in skeletal and cardiac muscle. Foals born to vitamin E-deficient mares tend to be stiff and weak and may be unable to rise. Often the tongue muscle is affected, leading to poor nursing ability.

Foal RestingVitamin E, together with selenium, functions within the immune system of the horse to protect cell membranes and enzymes from oxidation. One result of this function may be increased resistance to disease or stress. Because vitamin E levels are highest in fresh forages, horses show seasonal trends in serum vitamin E levels. Once horses are confined and have limited access to green pastures, vitamin E stored in adipose tissues, liver and skeletal muscles begins to be depleted. Daily supplementation of vitamin E through the feed helps maintain a constant vitamin E level in serum of horses.

Vitamin D for Horses

Vitamin D is one of the fat-soluble vitamins, meaning it can be stored up in the body.  It is often referred to as the “Sunshine Vitamin”, since the easiest way for both you and your horse to get your daily dose is a little time in the sun.  Horses receiving a few hours a day of sunlight will meet their needs easily, and they also receive a dose from eating hay that has not been stored for more than six months.

It is fairly common to see a small amount of Vitamin D added to horse feeds, mainly to help those horses who are stabled and receive little or no turnout time and are often fed hay that has been stored for a lengthy period of time.

Vitamin D plays a role in helping calcium to be absorbed. Deficiency may result in rickets and weak bones.  However, excessive Vitamin D may be toxic and may cause abnormal calcium deposits, which could contribute to conditions like spavins, ringbone and sidebones.