Fiber Sources for Senior Horses

The health and well being of senior horses are important topics to horse owners as these horses are frequently considered treasured members of the family.  There are many different criteria that are applied to determining when a horse would be considered a “Senior Horse”.  One of the important criteria is when we determine that, because of changes in ability to chew pasture or hay, we need to consider different forage options for our old friend.  Quidding (spitting out unchewed wads of hay) is one of the signs we look for in making this determination.  Inspection by a veterinarian may confirm that the condition of the teeth requires an adjustment in fiber sources.

Fiber Source Options

  1. There are now a variety of Senior Horse Feeds available that can be fed as a complete diet. These feeds are designed with sufficient fiber to help maintain gut heath as well as providing the required energy, protein (amino acid balanced), minerals and vitamins for the balanced diet.  They will also normally contain added pre and probiotics to help maintain gut health.  For horses with extremely poor teeth, these feeds can be made into a mash as well to make consumption very easy.
  2. Dehydrated alfalfa or alfalfa/grass pellets may also be used as a good fiber source. While not a complete balanced ration, these products work well for senior horses as they require minimal chewing.  They can also be soaked to form an easily consumed mash for horses with limited chewing ability.   Diet balancer products work well with this type of product to provide the addition amino acids, minerals and vitamins that are required to provide a balanced diet.
  3. Beet pulp is also a good highly digestible fiber source and is a good source of calories. Again, beet pulp is not a balanced ration, but may be added to a diet to provide energy.  Beet pulp pellets or beet pulp shreds can also be soaked for ease on consumption.
  4. Soy hulls are also a good highly digestible fiber source. Soy hulls are more likely to be used as a part of a Senior Horse Feed rather than being offered as a separate product.

Monitoring Body Condition Score and Topline Evaluation Score can help determine what changes may be needed in the total diet.  Loss of Body Condition Score tells us that our senior horse needs more Calories.  Loss of muscle mass may tell us we need a better amino acid profile in the diet.

Senior horses also need access to salt, preferably loose salt, free choice and free access to fresh, clean water.  Water temperature is important to senior horses as water that is too cold may cause discomfort to badly worn teeth and may limit water intake, which can contribute to other problems such as impaction colic.

Providing an appropriate fiber source is a key management tool to help our old friends enjoy a long and happy life!

Pasture Management – How to Prepare for Fall

Managing pasture can be a very important tool in controlling feeding cost for all livestock, including horses being kept on small acreages.  If pasture is going to provide a substantial amount of the required nutrition for a horse, it takes about 2-3 acres, per 1,100 pound adult horse.

Even with adequate acreage, weather conditions can limit pasture regrowth and decrease the amount of forage available.  Avoiding over-grazing is important for both the pasture and for the animals.   Keep the following in mind:

  1. Remove animals from the pasture when plants are grazed down to 3-4 inches in height. Grazing  too long and allowing animals to eat the grass off too close to the ground, will kill the grass and turn the pasture into a dirt lot where the only green plants are weeds, potentially requiring expensive renovation.   Also, if animals eat the grass too close to the ground on sandy ground, the risk of sand colic may increase.  Animals may also consume potentially toxic weeds if no other forage is available.
  2. If you have limited acreage, consider purchasing some temporary fencing so that you can rotate the pasture. The outer fencing should be a safe, permanent fencing.  You can cross fence the pastures with temporary fencing such as capped steel posts and appropriate electric wire.  By allowing the animals to graze one section, then moving them to another, total pasture yield can be increased substantially, helping to control total feed costs and improve pasture health.  Clip and drag the pastures after you pull the animals off to control weeds, parasites and flies.
  3. As pasture declines, you will need to adjust the amount of forage that is offered to maintain dry matter intake and nutrient intake. If the forage available is lower protein and lower energy than the pasture has been, you may have to adjust the concentrate portion of the diet. If you are using a ration balancer, you may need to move to the higher feeding rates.  If the higher feeding rates do not maintain Body Condition Score and Topline Score, you may need to switch to a different feed to allow higher feeding rates.  It is essential to monitor both Body Condition Score and Topline Score.
  4. Declining pasture quality can be a particularly serious issue for young growing horses, pregnant mares and senior horses.
  5. Make certain that fresh clean water is available at all times and that salt is available at all times. If you are not feeding a balanced feed or ration balancer, offer appropriate mineral free choice as well.
  6. If space is very limited, keep a dry lot area where animals can be fed and watered to prevent areas of pasture from being overgrazed.

Managing the pastures and selecting the right feeds as pastures change can help manage total yearly costs as well as improve animal health and condition.

Biosecurity Considerations for Reducing EPM Risk

EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis) is a moderately common neurological disease. In the late 1980’s the parasitic organism was identified as Sarcocystis neurona and an antibody test was developed.  Sarcoscystis falcutula has also been identified as potential cause of the condition and is less common.

Sarocystis neurona is now known to be present throughout the Western Hemisphere. The opossum has been determined to be a host within the cycle, with birds acting as intermediaries for the parasite. The incubation period for the disease is still unknown.

EPM affects different neurons throughout the neurological system and can result in dragging or spastic gaits. One side of the body may be affected, but not the other. If it affects the cranial nerves, the horse may have problems eating or drinking, have facial twisting, or undergo changes in the position of the eyes and ears.

Severely affected horses may become recumbent and have seizures.

Diagnosis of EPM is based upon finding antibodies or a DNA detection test from either blood or cerebrospinal fluid.  There are still some challenges with accurate diagnosis.

A vaccine was developed, but has not been verified as effective at last report.

Biosecurity and Feed Security

It is very important to reduce the risk of horses consuming forage, water or feed that has been contaminated by opossums or any animals that may have consumed opossums.

Forage should be stored as securely as possible to minimize risk of contamination by fecal material and feeding management should be designed to reduce risk of contamination by opossums.

Pelleting and processing feed reduces/eliminates the risk of EPM transmission in feed or supplements. The feed should be securely stored in covered containers to prevent contamination on farm as contamination on the farm is a real risk.

To the degree possible, water sources should also be secure.  A challenge with natural water sources!

Avoid having cat food or other food sources that attract opossums in the barn and stable areas.

Good biosecurity and sanitation are keys in reducing the risk of EPM for horses.

Keep the Weed Seeds out of the National Parks, National Forests and National Grasslands

As horseback riders seek to take advantage of riding in the great outdoors, they need to be aware that National Parks, National Forests and National Grasslands will generally have a policy in place that any forage or feed that is brought into the area needs to be weed seed free.  Because there can be a hefty penalty, with fines up to $10,000 or 6 months of jail time,  it is highly advisable that riders check in advance the requirements of specific locations prior to bringing feed or hay into the location.

The North American Weed Management Association (NAWMA) has established the accepted standards for forage or unprocessed hay as well as for cubes and pellets made of forages.  The forage and unprocessed hay products will normally be identified by a bale tag or a twine of particular color.  The price for these products will normally be higher than for uncertified products.  Cubes and pellets will generally be identified by a certification tag indicating compliance with the North American Weed Free Forage Certification Program.

Riders can make a choice between long stem forage and pelleted or cubed products based on their feeding requirements and how the animals will be managed.

Commercially processed feed pellets and grain products that are processed by fine grinding along with heat treating and pelleting normally do not need to be certified as the processing is considered adequate to prevent the presence of viable weed seeds.

It is fairly common for riders to use both a certified forage/forage product and a commercially produced feed to meet the needs of animals while riding or packing into these great outdoor opportunities.  As always, free choice salt and fresh clean water needs to be a part of the feeding program.

The basic principle of not introducing any non-native or noxious weeds needs to be carefully implemented to preserve the wonderful riding opportunities that are available.

There are multiple options to consider as a trip is planned.  Various web sites can provide information about sources of forages in a given location.  The website www.trailmeister.com is a very useful resource as well as the state Crop Improvement Associations and the specific National Park, National Forest or National Grassland web sites.

Keep the Mold Away – Tack and Feed Room Ventilation

As we deal with heat and humidity, attention is often appropriately focused on the comfort of our animals.  We sometimes neglect to think about the impact of heat and humidity on our tack and on our feed.  Controlling humidity and temperature in areas where tack and feed are stored is also very important for the success of an equine operation.

Tack that is exposed to high humidity and warm temperatures can mold/mildew very quickly with resulting damage to leather.  The following steps might be useful to consider:

  1. Make certain there is adequate airflow thru the tack room. This may require having windows that allow ventilation or the addition of fans to move air thru the tack room.  Locate the air intake and air exhaust areas so that air flows thru the room, not just at ceiling level.  If you install exhaust fans, consider where the air will be coming in to reduce exposure to dust or contaminants.
  2. Do not store wet saddle pads/blankets in the same area as leather tack. Do not put pads/blankets over the top of saddles on saddle racks.
  3. Make certain there is space between saddle racks to allow airflow between saddles.
  4. Consider using a de-humidifier in the tack room. If possible, install so it drains automatically instead of requiring manual emptying of the water container.
  5. If design and electrical wiring are adequate, consider a window air conditioner for the tack storage area.

Feed room ventilation is also important.  Feed may absorb moisture from the air and mold even if it arrives at the farm at a suitable moisture level from the store or the feed plant.  If possible, store feed out of direct sunlight as moisture migration can take place within feed bags, causing moisture to accumulate in one area of the bag.  This is also a problem when feed is stored in bulk bins.  The feed on the sunny side can heat up and cause moisture migration in the bin.  The bin should be ventilated to allow moisture to escape but must be set up so moisture does not enter when it rains!  Depending on material, bins can be painted with reflective color to help reduce heating.

During warm, humid weather, do not buy large quantities of feed at one time and make certain the feed is rotated properly so that bags are used up and bins are emptied and cleaned/inspected regularly.  If bags are stacked, make certain that they are stacked on pallets or material that prevents moisture contact/accumulation at the bottom of the stack.  Stacking bags directly on top of concrete or dirt floor makes the bottom bags very prone to getting damp and molding.

Pest control is also important for both tack and feed storage areas.  Rodents can quickly damage tack and can contaminate feed.  Keeping the areas clean and using commercial pest control may be one option to consider.

Keeping both tack and feed protected from excess heat and humidity is an important part of barn design and barn management!

Drink Up! Keeping Your Horse Well Hydrated

Many regions of the country have been experiencing high heat and humidity this summer, so naturally, the concern of proper hydration comes to mind. Reduced water consumption in horses may impair performance and increase the risk of impaction colic. Additionally, horses may sweat more profusely, resulting in faster dehydration. So what’s a horse owner to do?

The first key element is to make certain that horses have ready access to clean, palatable, cool water at all times or at very frequent intervals. Horses will normally consume about 1 gallon of water per 100 lbs body weight, so an 1100 lb horse will require a minimum of 11 gallons of water per day. This quantity can increase substantially during periods of exercise, high heat/humidity or for lactating mares.

Some tips to keep in mind to keep water consumption up:

  • Horses do not like to consume warm water in warm temperatures. Automatic waterers or large tanks, located in the shade and cleaned regularly, may be good options. If water is supplied in buckets, they need to be cleaned regularly and re-filled regularly.
  • If you are traveling to a show or other competition, it is essential to monitor water consumption, particularly if temperature conditions change.
  • It is routine in many barns to flavor the water with something like wintergreen or peppermint at home so that you can flavor the water in new facilities to match the home water.  Read here for tips on training your horse to drink water away from home.
  • Do NOT use soft drinks or any material containing caffeine as these can trigger positive drug tests.
  • Taking horses to facilities with chlorinated water can sometimes reduce water consumption without proper precautions.

The second key element is to make certain that salt is offered free choice. Things to keep in mind for salt consumption in horses include:

  • Horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day, and this can increase to 6 ounces per day with exercise in hot weather conditions.
  • Loose salt is consumed more readily than salt blocks in many cases.
  • When evaluating the total diet for salt consumption, commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt. It is not typically any higher than this, due to problems with palatability.
  • If a horse has been salt deficient or is bored, they may over-consume salt while in a stall.
  • Additional electrolytes, commercial or personal recipe, may be used per directions before, during and following completion, but care must be taken to ensure that the horses are drinking adequate water. Administering electrolytes to a horse that is not drinking properly, or allowing a horse to over consume salt without adequate water, can lead to electrolyte imbalances. If electrolytes are added to the water, plain water should be offered also.

Horses need to be offered water throughout the day at a competition, and should be re-hydrated following exertion. They cannot cool out and recover properly without being re-hydrated. Keeping horses properly hydrated and maintaining electrolyte balance is extremely important in order to make a safe transition from cool temperatures to summer time and competition.

Lighting & Nutrition for Breeding Late Winter/Early Spring

Mares that are not pregnant at the end of the year should be getting careful attention in December and January to make certain that they are ready for the start of the breeding season. Horses in North America have a universal birthday January 1, so it may be desired in some cases to be breeding as early as possible while making certain that foals do not arrive in December.

The use of artificial lighting to help prepare mares for breeding is a fairly standard management tool. A common practice is to put mares under lights in early December to help get mares cycling by mid to late February.  Breeding earlier than mid-February is not recommended as a short gestation period might result in a December foal and a very young yearling!  There are multiple lighting systems, but all deliver 16 hours of combined artificial and natural light.  While you can use a light meter to measure illumination, a common rule of thumb is that you should be able to comfortably read a newspaper in any of the stall or paddock area when the lights are on.  (Reading your backlit smartphone does not count!) One caveat is that if you have mares that are due to foal very early, you may want to avoid putting them under lights as this has been reported to shorten gestation a few days.  Again, you do not want yearlings that are only a few days old!

Body condition is also very important at this time of the year. If you have open mares that are below Body Condition Score 5, now is a good time to increase the plane of nutrition so that they are maintaining or gaining a slight bit of weight.  If they are over BCS 6, do NOT put them on a diet as a negative energy balance (losing weight) may interfere with normal estrus cycle.

Much of the country is having some unusually cold weather in late December 2017 and early January 2018. Mares that are experiencing cold weather need to have access to unfrozen water, loose salt and adequate quality forage, supplemented with a balancer or grain product to maintain body condition.

Proper veterinarian examination, artificial lighting and good nutrition can set the stage for a successful early breeding season

Artificial Lighting: Preparing for Early Breeding, Bradford W. Daigneault, M.S. University of Illinois/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Local Extension Councils Cooperating, November 2012 is a good article on lighting for reference.

Beware of Loss of Body Condition in Cold Weather

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight thru the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs.  Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss.  This is particularly important for older horses.  The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming.  It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times.  If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day.  Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply.  A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather.  Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic.  A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition.  Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind.  Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind.  Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat. State regulations may dictate shelter requirements.

Fourth, feed more!  A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone.  Wind chill increases the energy requirement also.  Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option.  Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance. Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)  Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.  This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.  If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.  If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.  Shorter periods of extreme cold may cause more rapid loss of weight.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for spring!

Fall Check List for Broodmares – Verify Pregnancy & Plan for Next Year

One of the most important development periods in the life of a foal is the last six months of gestation when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare. The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the sixth month of gestation. Mares that foaled and were re-bred or were bred in the first four months of the calendar year may now be entering sixth month of gestation, so a fall check-up is an excellent idea.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  1. Verify that all bred mares are pregnant. If there are open mares, now is the time to assess potential problems and prepare them for breeding the next season. If a mare was pregnant and has lost the pregnancy, now is the time to plan her program. If she needs to go under lights, that should happen about December 1. If Body Condition was an issue, now is the time to bring her up to desired score.
  2. Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding. If they need to gain weight, now is an excellent time to gradually increase the energy intake of the diet so they will be in the desired body condition at foaling. If they are a bit too heavy, increased exercise or slight reduction in energy intake may be useful while still maintaining amino acid, vitamin and mineral intake for the developing foal. Drastic weight loss is NOT recommended!
  3. Lysine, methionine and threonine, the first three limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development. Amino acids are more critical than crude protein.
  4. The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves. Trace minerals are also critical for immune support. A good vitamin program is also essential.
  5. A regular health care program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but is unlikely to provide adequate amino acids, vitamins and minerals. An appropriate ration balancer product may be used from month five to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients. A feed designed for broodmares and foals can be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals. This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed. Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly during gestation can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year.

Feeding Foals During Weaning and Post Weaning – An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Properly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone!

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.  The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day. Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification. Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them. The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds! The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan. Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal if that can be avoided.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.

There are a number of ways to separate the foals from their mothers and many farms manage in different ways.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score. Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning. This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage. The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.  This limits nutrient availability and may limit growth and development.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition. Uniform growth and maintaining target body condition is essential to reduce risk of certain types of Developmental Orthopedic Disease. One of the things we want to avoid is letting the weanling get off normal growth rate, then deciding to push for rapid growth as a yearling to hit target for show or for scheduled sales.