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!

Supplementing Horse Diets with Omega Fatty Acids

As you look at your horses’ diet, it is important to remember that horses need a balance of both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids for optimal health and performance.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they simply have different roles in the body and must be in balance with each other for optimal health.

As herbivores and nomadic grazers, horses are naturally adapted to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA).  The little bit of fat found in forages, particularly fresh pasture, is naturally high in ALA (omega-3) whereas oils from some grains and seeds tend to be higher in LA (omega-6).  

Total diets (forage + grain concentrates + supplements/treats) that include supplemental fat in addition to grain concentrates tend to have a total dietary fatty acid ratio that provides higher omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids.

Scientists have not yet pinpointed the ideal total dietary intake or ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for horses. Limited research suggests that providing supplemental sources of ALA or EPA/DHA, in addition to a well-balanced forage plus grain concentrate, may provide some key benefits to your horse. Start by basing your horse’s diet on a good quality forage plus a quality complimentary feed that provides omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acid guarantees on the feed tag . Supplementation on top of what the base diet is providing may be worth discussing with a trusted equine veterinarian or nutritionist when supporting horses with pro-inflammatory conditions (e.g. skin allergies or hypersensitivity, joint pain, etc.).

As always, when adding dietary supplements to the horses feeding program, make sure the total diet (forage + concentrates/treats) stays balanced and that changes are made gradually so the horse’s digestive track has time to adjust.  Benefits from providing omega fatty acids in the diet are not realized immediately, but take 30 – 90 days of supplementation before benefits are detectable, so be patient and make sure your expectations are realistic.

 

 

DIETARY SOURCES OF POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS
Omega-6 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids
Corn oil (LA) Flaxseed (linseed) oil (ALA)
Safflower oil (LA) Fish oil (EPA, DHA)
Rice bran oil (LA) Soybean oil (ALA)
Sunflower oil (LA) Canola oil (ALA)
Borage (starflower) oil (LA) Mustard oil (ALA)
Cottonseed oil (LA)
Grapeseed oil (LA)
Peanut oil (LA)
Primrose oil (LA)
Sesame oil (LA)
Soybean oil (LA)

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

Warm Mashes for Senior Horses

Gayle's 32 Year Old Arabian, "Radar's Count"

I received an email from one of my clients asking for a recipe for a “Safe Warm Mash” for her senior horse.   She thought a bran mash would be a good choice, but was unsure as to ingredients or cooking instructions.  The particular horse is 23 years old and a body score of a solid 6. He is showing some early signs of Cushing’s disease. His current diet is grass hay and Nutrena’s SafeChoice Senior horse feed, as well as daily pasture turnout.

I have never understood why so many educated consumers, that take the time to transition a horse gradually from one feed to another over 5-7 day period would want to take this chance.  A one meal change in a horse’s diet may not cause colic or founder, but it can cause enough of a change in the microbial balance to cause diarrhea or gas, especially in a senior horse.   The fact that the calcium and phosphorus ratios in bran are also so out of balance for horses makes me uncomfortable, as we strive for a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, not 1:12 as is in bran.   This is important for proper metabolic function and to maintain bone integrity.

The good news is that there is a safe alternative to making a bran mash!  I contacted my client and told her that she already had the ingredients to make a mash for her horse – his senior horse feed – and the most important nutrient in a horse’s diet – water.  Senior feeds are high in fiber, as well as properly fortified with calcium and phosphorus.  By simply soaking a serving of her horse’s senior feed with warm water for 5-8 minutes until it reaches a consistency her horse will enjoy, she will have a nice warm mash for her senior horse.

When to Feed Ration Balancers

While recently reviewing farms feed program, the manager explained that some of her horses only received 1 pound of grain per day.  She felt their weight was good, but yet they appeared to be lacking something in their diet.  She was wondering what type of supplements she could add.

When we looked at the tag on her feed, the problem was obvious.  Her feed was designed for to be fed at a rate of 0.5 – 0.75 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.  This means that to provide proper fortification for a 1000 pound horse, she would need to feed 5 – 7.5 pounds per day.  By that standard, her horses that were only getting 1 lb per day were not receiving the nutrient fortification they needed for optimum health, and thus her feeling that  “they appeared to be lacking something”.  Her farm was feeding good quality hay at a rate of about 2% of each horse’s body weight, and the overall body condition of the horses was good, but we needed to balance the amino acid and vitamin/mineral fortification.

We reviewed the farms hay test results to establish our baseline.   I explained that she could easily improve her horse’s diet with the use of a ration balancer. Balancers have a low feeding rate, generally from 0.25 to 1 pound per head per day, but they contain a concentrated mix of the extra vitamins, minerals and protein required to help horses achieve their full potential.

She was a little unsure about feeding something with a 30% protein level, but I explained that if you do the math, feeding 1 lb of a 30% protein feed is actually providing the same to a little less than feeding a standard 12% feed at a higher rate.

Key features to look for in a ration balancer include:

  1. Probiotics and prebiotics to enhance fiber and protein digestion, as well as mineral absorption. 
  2. Organic complexed trace minerals to increase the bioavailability – an example of this on the tag would be “zinc methionine complex” in the ingredient list.
  3. Added biotin and methionine, which are important for hoof and hair coat.
  4. Guaranteed amino acids (lysine, methionine, etc), mineral, and vitamin levels.

A good quality ration balancer will provide your horse with dietary essentials, and often no additional supplementation is needed!

Weaning Foals

Early autumn is a time when horse owners are frequently preparing to wean foals from their dams. Proper preparation makes the process much easier. There are several management practices that should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. (Ex: If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day.) Keep in mind that beyond two months of age, the dam’s milk is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth. The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Ensure the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to its health care plan. Vaccination is stressful for the animal, so we do not want to do this at the same time we wean the foal.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled (imprint training is a great tool), taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.
  5. Weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should be avoided during weaning. For example, the day you wean the foal is not the day to change feeds.

There are a number of different ways to handle weaning, depending on the number of foals and the layout of the facility. There are several factors to keep in mind:

  1. There is probably less stress on the foal if it remains in the pen or paddock where it is accustomed instead of being moved to a new location.
  2. Misery loves company. If you have more than one foal, wean at least two at a time and keep them together. If you have only one foal, perhaps you have a nice old gelding who can be a babysitter?
  3. Make certain the pen and paddock are safe with good fencing and no hazards.
  4. Out of sight (and earshot) means out of mind. Mares and their foals tend to calm down faster if they cannot see and hear each other after weaning.
  5. A few days prior to weaning, reduce the mare’s grain intake to prepare her to dry up from milk production. Her udder is going to be somewhat swollen, so don’t plan on cinching her up right away for a trail ride.

Monitor the new weanlings closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition. Because a weanling cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse, some weanlings can become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning from inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

Proper preparation can minimize weaning stress for foals and broodmares and make for a more pleasant autumn for the horse owner, too.

Feeding Broodmares Properly

While visiting an area farm at feeding time I watched the owner give her mare an extra portion of feed since she was eating for two. I know she meant well, but the mare is not due until May. I explained to her that the “extra portion” really isn’t needed – she can continue to feed her mare on a quality maintenance program, including quality forage, until her last trimester.

During this time, the foundation of the foal’s body is being built, so quality nutrition is needed, but it doesn’t put a big strain on the mare just yet. When she reaches the last part of pregnancy, the foal’s body begins to actually grow by around 1 lb per day, and that is when the demands on the mares’ reserves begin. At that point, the owner would be wise to switch to a feed specially designed for broodmares and foals, as these feeds take into account the increased needs of the mare during that last part of pregnancy, and are formulated so a regular portion can be fed instead of having to provide “extra”.

Explaining further, I told her to gradually switch the mare to a broodmare or mare and foal ration, over a period of 5-7 days. Total dietary protein – not just from the grain, but from the grain and hay both – should be 12-14% (depending on amino acid balance) and balanced for all nutrients. It is important that the concentrate portion of the diet provide adequate protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus, as well as other vitamins and minerals. The foal is pulling significantly from the mare’s supply during the end of the pregnancy, and building up stores of nutrients for the first weeks of life on the ground. For example, the foal will not receive any copper from mare’s milk, so it has to store up sufficient levels while still in the womb to last it until it begins eating solids alongside its dam.

Finally, most mare & foal feeds are designed such that the mare should continue on the ration until she is through the heaviest part of lactation, and the foal can begin eating alongside her to adjust to solid feed, then can continue on the same feed through weaning – thereby reducing at least one stressful switch at that difficult time!

Changing Horse Feeds – A Lot Like Horse Training

Most horse owners have a pretty steady routine when it comes to working with their horses, and that includes keeping a consistent feeding schedule and program in place, which is a good thing for the horse.  However, a variety of situations, from moving to a new place, to a change in the horse’s health, can require a change in habits and possibly in diet.

Chris Cox, renowned clinician and dedicated SafeChoice® feeder, offers this advice on preparing your horse for change:  “I never ask a horse to do something I haven’t prepared it to do.  By the time I’m asking a horse to step on to a trailer, that horse has all the preparation it needs to do it – and by prepare I don’t mean desensitize.  I don’t desensitize my horses as much as a lot people do.  It’s easy to overdo it and end up dulling your horse.  It’s okay for your horse to react to something, but if it is properly trained it won’t overreact.”

Chris’s training tip follows easily right in to the realm of changing your horse’s feeding program. Abrupt change, while a horse can manage and get through, isn’t the most desirable scenario.  Gradual introduction of whatever is new to the feeding program, whether it is a change in the amount fed or a change to an entirely different type of feed, should be done incrementally over a period of about 7 days.  This time frame allows the horse’s digestive system to adjust to the new levels of nutrients being digested, and also allows time for the sometimes-picky-eaters to realize that the new feedstuff is, in fact, OK to eat.

Preparing your horse, whether it is in feeding practices, daily schedule, or training, will set you and your horse up to make changes successfully.