Is it the Feed, or Something Else?

A farm owner recently called me and asked if I could come out and evaluate his feeding program. The farm was experiencing an increase in colic and choke, which the owner felt was feed related.

As we reviewed the horses, their weights and body conditions were good. In fact a few horses appeared to be on the heavy side. The farm was feeding a first cutting hay. It was fair quality, and the horses appeared to find it palatable. Each horse was receiving 1.5 to 2% of their body weight per day in forage.

The concentrate was a high fat, high fiber pellet with mid line fortification of vitamins and minerals. In addition, pasture was available on a daily basis. With the amount of fiber in the horses diet, I found it interesting that the farm was experiencing increased colic.

I started to investigate other management issues.

    • The feeding schedule was two feedings per day, with the a.m. feeding at 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. I had suggested spreading out the feedings into 3, if possible, with a final offering of hay at closing time in the evening, about 10:00 p.m.
    • Salt blocks were available in each stall.
    • Each horse had two water buckets.

It was then that I noticed the water buckets were very discolored and smelled bad. The owner informed me that he was using water from a pond on the farm. He had the water tested, and felt it came back safe for equine consumption. It quickly became obvious that the horses were not consuming enough water on a daily basis, even though it was available to them. I suggested the owner begin cleaning the water buckets on a daily basis to increase consumption .

When I talked with him last, he was not happy with the added labor, but admitted the horses were consuming more water and he did not have any choke or colic in the past two weeks.

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

Adding Oil to a Horse’s Diet

Healthy, inside and out

Adding vegetable oil to equine feeds or to equine diets has been a standard practice for literally hundreds of years.  Old horse traders knew that adding oil could help slick up a horse for sale long before the science of measuring digestible energy was developed.

There are multiple ways that vegetable oils are added to horse diets.  A common practice among horse owners is to add various quantities of oil on top of an existing diet.  A cup of oil will weigh about 8 ounces and contain about 2,045 Kcal (Calories).  A 500 kg (1100 lb) horse at light work requires about 20 Mcal or 20,000 Kcal, so that oil would provide about 10% of the required DE per day.  For comparison, a pound of oats, as fed, provides about 1,320 Kcal, so adding oil provides a lot of Calories in a small package.

A key element to consider in adding oil on top of an existing diet is that oil adds only Calories (crude/unrefined oils may also contain some Vitamin E), so it is possible to alter the nutrient to Calorie ratios in a diet.  With the addition of moderate quantities of oil, this is unlikely to create issues.  If a substantial amount of oil is added on top of an existing diet, the diet may no longer be meeting the horse’s requirements for other nutrients.  Corn oil, soy oil and other vegetable oils may be used for top dressing diets.

Feed companies also add oil to formulated feeds and will declare the minimum amount of crude fat on the tag.  This is primarily from the oil in the grain and the added oil if above 3-3.5%.  A feed that is tagged at 7%  will generally contain about 3-4% added oil.  Internal formulations systems will also calculate the total DE of the feed, which includes energy from fat as well as from NDF (neutral detergent fiber), NFC (non-fiber carbohydrates) and protein.   This allows the company to maintain the balance of energy sources as well as appropriate nutrient to Calorie ratios.

If a product refers to Omega 3 or Omega 6 fatty acids, the actual quantity or % of each fatty acid may also be declared on the tag or on the bag.  The ingredient listing will generally identify the oil or oils that may be included in the product. 

Top dressing with oil is a common practice, which can be done successfully, when done in moderation with a careful eye on meeting the total nutrient requirements of the horse as well as the energy requirements.  Adding too much may result in other nutrient issues.

Are All Oils the Same for Feeding to Horses?

Adding oil or fat to horse diets was a common practice long before research determined the many benefits of added oil diets.  Horse traders hundreds of years ago knew that if they wanted a horse to gain weight and develop a slick hair coat, adding oil to the diet was one way to do it.

Are all oils the same? 

Like many questions in the equine world, the answer is yes and no. The common vegetable oils used in horse feeds are corn oil, soy oil and flax oil (linseed oil).  Canola oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and palm oil are also used, but less frequently.  Animal fats, excluding fish oil, are not currently used very commonly in horse feeds in the United States due to customer concern, and potential palatability concerns.

What is the difference between fat and oil?   

There are multiple chapters in nutrition books written about fats and oils.  Animal Feeding & Nutrition, Tenth Addition, by Jurgens and Bregendahl is a standard text.  For simple practical purposes, a fat is solid at room temperature and oil is liquid due to the differences in composition.  For those of you who like the full science, fats and oils are:

  • Also referred to as lipids or ether extracts
  • Insoluble in water and soluble in organic solvents
  • Contain about 77% carbon, 12% hydrogen and 11% oxygen. 
  • They all contain about the same energy, 9.45 Mcal/kg or 4,290 Kcal/lb. 
    • This is about 2.25 times the energy content of carbohydrates.

What’s all the talk about Omega Fatty Acids?

There may be substantial differences in the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid profiles of different oils, particularly in the content of the essential fatty acids (EFAs) linoleic acid (C18:2 n-6),  linolenic acid (C18:3 n-3) and arachidonic acid(C20:4 n-6)  Arachidonic acid can be synthesized from linoleic acid and is essential if linoleic acid is not present.

  • Corn oil will be higher in linoleic acid, an n-6 or Omega 6 fatty acid. 
  • Soy oil, particularly mechanically extracted, will contain more linolenic acid, an n-3 or Omega 3 fatty acid, than corn oil. 
  • Linseed oil, from flax, contains the highest % of linolenic fatty acid. 
  • Fish oil from certain cold water sources is the highest in Omega 3 fatty acids, although it may present some palatability issues.

How are they made?

Vegetable oils come from the seed of the plant with most being in the germ.  They are produced by either solvent extraction or mechanical (squeezing or crushing the seeds) extraction.  They can either be refined or in crude form, depending on the processing. All of the vegetable oils contain essentially the same amount of energy and are generally palatable if processed and stored properly.