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!

Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

You’re So Lucky!

This weekend I attended my 3rd Awards banquet for the 2014 show Region 14 Arabian Sport HOrse Rider Handler of the Yearseason. My horse and I completed the season earning state, regional and national championships. Considering that I am 60 years old and have been working with this horse for the past 4 years, I am very proud of our accomplishments. A friend told me we are just “So lucky to win all those awards”. I feel we are blessed to have earned these honors but it is more than luck. I look at the equation like a balanced triangle.

I like to start with the horse. So first I make sure I have the right horse for the job. I purchased my horse Rhinestone Cowboy AF as a potential horse I could show in trail class on the Arabian circuit.

At a local show, a nationally recognized Arabian judge commented he was very correct and would do well as a Sport horse. We watched a few Sport Horses classes and other friends encouraged us to enter the division. They were right and he has proven to be an outstanding Sport Horse Hunter under Saddle. I adjusted my goals for my horse with his development and athletic ability. It was a learning curve for me, and a lot of great people in the Sport Horse industry encouraged us to compete. So having the right horse for the job is important.

Next let’s look at the training aspect. You would not think of sending your child to school and telling the teacher you want the child to read at 6th grade level in 60 days, yet people expect miracles from their trainers. It takes time, patience and more time to properly train and school a horse. It is not within my budget to send my horse out for training, so he is home schooled. That does not stop me from seeking advice, attending clinics or watching trainers work horses. So many of our industry’s professionals are more than willing to help an amateur solve a problem or evaluate a situation, if you just reach out to them, but respect time and professionalism.

The third side to the triangle is diet. You would not train to run the Boston Marathon on a diet of fast food, why would you expect your horse to be any different. I start our program with the best quality hay I can find. I then feed my horse 2% of his body weight per day in hay. I balance the diet with a quality performance horse feed that provides chelated minerals, pre and pro biotics and is formulated at a safe NSC level. My personal choice is Pro Force fuel by Nutrena.

I only attended 3 shows last season one each month during June, July and August. I want the experience to be enjoyable for my horse as well as myself. I realize judging horses is like judging living art work and it is one person’s opinion. If my horse worked a good class, that is what matters to me. It is a hobby and we are there to have fun. We have worked hard to prepare for the show, and we are there to show what we can accomplish. My horse will have good days and bad days, and I need to know when he has reached his limit both physically and emotionally.

As I look at the triangle I feel confident I have the right horse for the job, worked to obtain realistic goals, and provided my horse with a balanced diet. We were blessed with an outstanding year and lucky to have so many great people in the industry encourage us!

Do You Know the Feeding Rate For Your Horse Feed?

scooping feedI was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.

I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.

Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!

A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.

I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.

When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.

Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?

I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college.  Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation.   After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.

One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.hand feeding red size

I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.

With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.

One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation.  She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.

I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.

Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.

When Is It Time for Senior Horse Feed?

One question I am frequently asked by horse owners is “when should I switch my older horse to senior feed?”

It is interesting to note that 30-35% of the current horse populations in the US are “Seniors”. Surveys show 54% of all horse owners own at least 1 “senior” horse. By age definition “senior” horse has been defined as 15+ years of age.

Due to improvements in veterinary care and nutrition, horse routinely live 25-30 years of age, some into their 40’s. It is not uncommon to see horses in late teens and twenties performing at high levels. The key is that we need to treat horses as individuals. So when is a “senior” feed required?

WHEN YOUR HORSE CAN NO LONGER MAINTAIN GOOD BODY CONDITION ON A NORMAL HAY AND GRAIN DIET.

Quidding of Hay

The result of quidding.

Signs that your senior horse may need a senior diet include:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor topline condition
  • Hoof quality and hair coat tell a story
  • Dropping feed while eating, may be a sign of dental issues
  • Loose stools
  • Quidding – dropping partially chewed hay out their mouth while eating.

As the horse ages, nutrient absorption and utilization decrease due to breakdown of the digestive system with age. Research has shown that senior horses experience poor nutrient absorption, which occurs particularly with phosphorus, vitamins and protein. Enzyme production may also decrease.

When we look at a senior diet there are some key points to consider. You want to choose a feed that is:

  • Highly digestible to accommodate less efficient digestive system.
  • Look for higher and improved protein quality to make up for small intestine inefficiency.
  • Does the feed contain higher fiber, and can it be fed as a complete diet, to make up for decreased large intestine efficiency, and possibly replace hay if the horse has dental problems.
  • Higher fat helps provide added safe calories.
  • Enhanced vitamin and mineral fortification are needed because of loss of digestive efficiency.
  • Use of pre- & probiotics in senior feeds can aid in gut health and the digestion of fiber.
  • Does the feed have the ability to be served as a mash? Not only are senior feed mashes highly palatable, but they also kelp keep the senior horse hydrated.

Below are the results of a recent feed trial. Cleo is an 18 year old Quarter Horse mare. We changed the diet from a maintenance level feed to senior feed. The results after 6 weeks were impressive!

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, on her "maintenance" feed diet.

This is Cleo, on her “maintenance” feed diet.

The Value of a Horse Feed

On a recent visit to an area farm, the owner confided that she was considering making a feed change.  She said she did not have any problems with the current product she was using, but she thought she could go less expensive product since she was done showing for the season.

The current product she was feeding was $19.99 per 50lb bag.  She mentioned there was a local mill that had a feed for only $12.99, and the ingredients listed were the same.

I reviewed the tag with the customer and pointed out a few obvious differences.

  1. Feed ingredients are not listed on the tag in order of inclusion, like pet foods or foods for human consumption.
  2. Although the protein levels appeared to be the same, the bargain feed did not  guaranteed the amounts of limiting amino acids for the horse, lysine, methionine and threonine.
  3. The amount of vitamins and minerals were based on the proper feed rate for the horses weight.
  4. There was no mention of added biotin, prebiotics and probiotics, or chelating of vitamins and minerals.

We then did the math to see what she would save on 1 horse per day on the bargain feed.

Current Feed:   $19.99 /50lbs= $0.40 cents per pound

  • Feeding rate: 0.25 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight
  • 1200 x 0.25 = 3lbs per day
  • 3lbs x 0.40 = $1.20 per day

Bargain Feed:  $12.99/50 pounds= $0.26 cents per pound

  • Feeding Rate: 1%-2% Of Horse Body Weight per day for Maintenance
  • 1200 x 1.0 % = 12lbs per day
  • 12lbs x 0.26 = $3.12@ day
  • But it could go as high as 2% feed rate!
  • 1200 x 2.0% = 24lbs per day
  • 24lbs x 0.26 cents = $6.24 PER DAY!!

So, $1.20 per day vs.  $3.12 to $6.24 per day.  The value feed would cost an additional $1.92 -$5.04 per day to maintain a 1200 pound horse based on the manufacturer’s recommendations for a 1200 pound maintenance level horse.

The current feed was indeed a better value!  Now, this may be an extreme difference, but it does pay in the end to always do the math, even if the feeding rates or prices aren’t so different.  And don’t forget to factor in the value of additional things found in higher priced feeds such as prebiotics, probiotics, and biotin, that might not necessarily be reflected in the feeding rates.

How Much Horse Feed Does Your Scoop Hold?

I visited a horse owner that had just purchased her own farm this spring. She said she was following the same feeding program that was followed at the boarding barn, but the mare had gained weight. A quick evaluation showed the mare had defiantly crossed the line to a good solid body condition score of a 6.

We knew the forage had not changed as the owner purchased her hay from the boarding barn. When we weighed out the mares daily ration of hay, we came up with 25 pounds per day on average. The mare weighed 990 pounds so she was receiving just over 2.5% of her body weight per day in hay. This was on target with her diet at the boarding barn.

The pasture was still being fenced, so she had a sand ring as turnout. Definitely no added calories there! The mare was also receiving the same amount of work, if not more, since she was now at the owner’s home.

The owner said she had purchased the same feed and still feeding 5 pounds per day, divided into two feedings. She then asked if our formulation had changed.  We walked into the feed room and I checked the product. It was the same feed the mare was previously on, and I assured her we had not made any changes.

I then asked how many bags of feed she was using a month. The owner replied “4 … exactly 1 per week.” I quickly did the math: 50 pounds/ 7 days is 7+ pounds per day.

I asked the owner if she had weighed a serving of the feed. She replied “No” because it was the same kind of scoop the boarding barn had used. However, when we weighed her scoop it held 3.5 pounds of feed when filled, not the 2.5 pounds she thought she was providing.

The above scoops and resulting weights are for SafeChoice Horse Feed. Weighing your scoop needs to be done with the product you are feeding, as there are differences in weight for various feeds.

With the extra source of calories identified, we adjusted the mare’s diet and she is on her way back to a healthy body condition!

Replacing Hay with Complete Horse Feed

A large boarding barn asked me to stop out and review their feed program as they were going to be making a change. The farm has over 100 horses in their care, and wanted to review the proposed change prior to placing their order.

They were currently feeding an economy pellet with an average feed rate of 6 pounds per horse per day. The new product the owner was considering is a mid range product that contains added fortification, as well as biotin and yeast culture. This would be a great enhancement to their current feed program, especially since their forage was not the best this year.

As I visited with the farm owner he explained that he was running dangerously low on his hay supply. He had priced hay from various sources, but the costs were excessive. He felt that if he transitioned the farm to a complete feed product, he could reduce his hay feeding rate by 50% per horse, and just use the complete feed.

He stated that even though the product was more expensive per ton than his current feed, but he would be saving money by feeding just the 6 pounds of complete feed per day. It was at that point that I realized he had not read the recommended feed rates for the product he was considering.

I agreed with the owner that complete feeds are an excellent choice to help balance a diet when forage is not readily available, or horses have a problem eating hay. I then went on to explain that he could reduce his hay feeding rate by 50% per horse per day, but he would need to compensate for the difference with additional complete feed beyond the 6 pound level of his traditional grain source.

Moral of the story: Complete feed products are great for horses with limited or no hay diets, but be sure you are following the recommended feed rates listed on the tag!