Quidding – More Than Just a Funny Word

Quidding of HayIf you’ve walked by your horses feeding area or water trough and noticed slimy balls of half chewed food laying on the ground, your horse may be quidding. Quidding is a response to mouth pain in which the horse loses or spits balls of semi-chewed food stuffs out of their mouth.

The most common cause of quidding is teeth that are uneven or that have sharp points. This does not allow the mouth to close properly and makes chewing extremely difficult.  There is a host of other mouth issues that can lead to this problem as well, including cavities, abscesses, and unseen injuries. This problem most commonly occurs in older horses, however all ages can be affected.

Besides the fact that quidding is an indicator that there is something wrong (and probably painful) in your horse’s mouth, this is an issue for a very simple reason: if the feed is falling on the ground, it is not being ingested and used by your horse. This can result in loss of weight and body condition as the horse may only swallow a fraction of what is being fed.  In fact, one of the first things you should check if your horse starts dropping weight and losing body condition is the condition of the teeth and mouth.

The good news is that quidding can be greatly improved or even cured all together with regular dental care by your veterinarian or an equine dentist. Often a process called floating the teeth can help file down sharp or uneven places on the teeth. Dental exams should happen at a minimum of once per year, even on healthy horses with no known problems. For horses who have dental issues, the check ups and/or treatments may be prescribed more often.

In addition to regular dental exams, a horse with dental issues should be fed a feed that is easy to chew and digest. Make sure the ration is nutrient-dense to make the most out of what they do take in and, if necessary, consider switching the horse with severe dental problems over to a complete feed that may be soaked to soften before feeding.

Feeding the Hard-Keeper Horse that has Ulcers

My horse is a hard keeper, and is also prone to ulcers.  What should I feed?

Horses vary a great deal in what level of nutrition is required to maintain desired body condition and muscle mass.  Horses have not been selected or bred based on feed efficiency, feed conversion or rate of gain, so there a lot of variation between horses.

A horse that is a hard keeper may require more Calories per day to maintain body condition than an easy keeper doing the same work.  One way to help this horse will be to feed high quality forage that has a high Relative Feed Value (RFV) that is associated with higher Digestible Energy (DE) per pound.  A good choice might be an alfalfa or alfalfa grass mix that was cut at early maturity so it has fine stems and lots of leaves.  This hay could be fed free choice or at least 3-4 times per day at a rate of about 2% or above BW/head/day.

The hard keeper may also benefit from a commercial feed that is high fat (8-9 % or higher) and controlled starch and sugar (so it can be fed at higher levels) with amino acid fortification (lysine, methionine and threonine) to help maintain muscle mass.  This feed can be fed a minimum of 2 times per day, and preferably 3-4 times per day so that the quantity being fed can be increased while controlling risk of starch overload through smaller individual meals.  The quantity can be increased with the desired forage to produce weight gain, and then adjusted to maintain desired weight.

A high fat supplement that is 20+% fat can also be used as a top dress.

This feeding plan may also be useful in reducing the risk of having ulcers redevelop after a horse has been treated with appropriate medication.  Free choice forage or pasture is a good option so the horse’s stomach is not empty for long periods of time.  Alfalfa contains levels of calcium and magnesium that may be useful in buffering acid in the stomach.  High fat, controlled starch feeds fed in small meals at frequent intervals may also be useful in reducing the risk of re-occurrence.   A feed that contains specific metal amino acid complex trace minerals may also help improve gut health and digestive tract tissue integrity in the stomach.

Cribbing: Not Always Just a Bad Habit

Cribbing, the process of a horse biting down on a stationary wooden structure, applying pressure and then breathing in deeply, can be destructive to more than just your barn and stalls!

A wooden fence that has been chewed by a cribber.

While cribbing has traditionally been thought to be just a vice or bad habit, new information indicates that a horse that cribs may be responding to a digestive upset. The act of cribbing produces excess saliva. This saliva helps to buffer the stomach and can calm the pain of things like ulcers and other digestive problems.

If you have a horse that cribs, the first step should be determining why the problem started. This may very well include a trip to the vet to rule out gastric ulcers or digestive issues. In cribbers who are diagnosed with ulcers, the behavior often stops or is reduced when treatment for the ulcers is started. Cribbing can also be caused by extreme boredom and is usually associated with horses who spend most of their time in stall situations.

It is important to note that cribbing is not a learned behavior – horses don’t start cribbing because they see their stablemates doing it. Rather, in a group of horses that all begin to crib the catalyst may be management practices that lead to some type of gastric distress. Some of these practices that can lead to cribbing include:

  • Not providing enough long stemmed forage
  • Feeding large grain meals all at one time
  • Not providing a properly balanced diet
  • Not giving adequate access to salt
  • Inadequate turn out time

The bad news is that once a horse has started cribbing, it can be a hard habit to break. As the horse bites down on the wood and inhales, endorphins are released that can give the animal a “high”. That is why it can be very difficult for the horse that has started cribbing to stop – they get addicted to what it does to their body. Unfortunately, cribbing is a very good way to cause colic (as well as destroy property), so all possible steps should be taken to end the behavior.

Once the source of the cribbing is confirmed and addressed, some recommendations to help stop the behavior and break the addiction can include:

  • Adequate long stemmed forage provided throughout the day
  • Plenty of turn out time with opportunities to interact with other horses
  • Stall toys to help ease boredom
  • Placing feed in multiple locations around the pen to make the horse mimic his natural grazing behavior
  • Feeding grain meals in small amounts several times per day rather than all at once
  • Providing a balanced diet
  • Giving ample access to loose white salt
  • Using a special cribbing collar or strap
  • Covering wooden surfaces with anti-chew paint

Treating the cribbing horse can be a challenge, but remember that the first step is figuring out why the problem started. Your horse’s cribbing may just be his way of telling you that he is in pain and needs your help.  



Starch Levels in Feed

In my previous blog post on this topic, we explored the role starch plays in the horse’s diet.  After (hopefully) warming you up to the idea of how useful this nutrient can be, I’d like to now dig in to how you can compare and contrast the varying levels of starch (and sugar*)  in feeds and hopefully this information will  help you compare and contrast to choose the best option for your horse.

Contrary to what you may have been told or read, most horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.  If you have a horse that has been diagnosed with a form of equine metabolic disease, you will need to limit your horse to a ‘low’ controlled starch and sugar diet….which includes forage (hay and pasture).  Fructans, the sugars in forages, are too often overlooked when assessing the total diet of an EMS horse.  

Even if your horse has not been diagnosed with EMS, it is still important to understand the starch level in his diet and take it into consideration for your overall program. Think you know how to compare starch levels from one feed to another?  You might be surprised to find out that a bit of math is required. Simply comparing the percentage of starch on feed tags doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  To get to a true comparison, it is important to factor in the recommended feeding rate, which is, after all, what the horse experiences.

Let’s compare two feeds that are marketed as ‘low starch’; one has a starch maximum guarantee of 7% while the other has a maximum of 11%.  Pretty easy to tell which one is the lowest, right? 

Look beyond the percentage to find what's really in the feed

Not quite.  For our example,  let’s say we have a 1,000 pound horse at maintenance level activity.  Feed A, with 7% starch is recommended to be fed at a rate of 6 pounds per day, meanwhile, Feed B has a starch maximum of 11% and is recommended to be fed at a rate of 2.5 pounds per day.

Here is the formula to use:  Starch % * pounds fed/day *454 (converts to grams) = grams of starch fed/day


Applied to our example scenario, here’s how the math works out:

Feed A:  7% starch x 6 pounds fed x 454 = 190.68 grams of starch per day.

Feed B: 11% x 2.5 pounds of feed x 454 = 124.85 grams of starch per day.

Wow – a big surprise!  Not only is the 11% starch feed actually lower in grams of starch per day than the 7% product, the difference is actually rather significant given how different the percentages were.   It is important to keep in mind that it all comes down to what your horse actually ingests, so understanding the recommended feeding rate in pounds and then weighing your feed to hit that mark is what will make the difference.

It’s also important to understand that horses who do not experience a form of EMS have a higher tolerance for starches and sugar in their diet…and in fact, the performance horse will actually need those nutrients to support their activity levels.  It all comes to down to understanding what’s in your feed and how much you’re giving them.

*Though this blog article addresses ‘starch’ the same principles apply to determining the amount of other nutrients in a feed. 

Feeding HYPP Horses

HYPP horses need low potassium diets when compared to “normal” horses – less than 1% potassium in total diet including hay + grain.  But, a percentage in a feed is really only a percentage and doesn’t tell you what you really need to know – which is, how much potassium your horse is actually getting in the total diet.  This number will depend on the percent of potassium in each feedstuff, and how much of each feedstuff is being fed. 

Hay Selection:  Hay makes up the majority of the diet so typically contributes the most potassium. It’s best to have your hay tested if possible, but if you can’t do that, keep in mind the following:

  • Oat hay and grass hay are the lowest in potassium
  • Orchard grass is high in potassium so stay away from that.

Feed Selection:

  • Textured/whole grain based feeds tend to be lower in potassium then pelleted feeds, since whole grains are naturally low in potassium, where some ingredients used in pellets tend to be higher potassium sources.
    • “Sweet” feeds may or may not use a lot of molasses, which is high in potassium. The “wetness” of a sweet feed may come from vegetable oils rather than molasses, so don’t automatically rule sweet feeds out. 
    • Some pelleted feeds can be a good choice if the horse is N/H and doesn’t have many episodes, but may not work for horses that are H/H and have severe or many episodes.   
  • Higher fat and calorie feeds may allow you to feed less, and this can lower total potassium as well when you can feed less to maintain body condition.
  • Do not feed electrolytes containing potassium. 
  • Do not use high levels of cane, molasses, or bran mashes because they may be high in potassium.

Doing the math: To determine how much potassium is in your HYPP horse’s total diet, you’ll need to do some good old fashioned math!

To check for total potassium in the diet:

(Pounds of hay x percent potassium in hay) + (pounds of grain x percent potassium in grain) / total lbs of feed

Example: If you feed 15 lbs of hay at 1% potassium and 6 lbs of grain  at 0.8% the calculation would be:

((15 x .01) + (6 x .008))/21 lbs of total feed = 0.942% potassium in total diet

From this example, the horse should do well on this diet.  If the horse can maintain body condition on less hay or grain, or if the hay tested lower in potassium, then that would be less potassium in the total diet as well. 

Other Considerations:

  • Starch Intake: It is a misconception that HYPP horse need low starch.  They actually need sufficient starch as a source of glucose, because glucose stimulates the release of insulin and this promotes potassium uptake by the cells.
  • Management:  HYPP horses should be turned out as much as possible and/or placed on a regular exercise program. 

Hay Soaking: All Washed Up or Good Management?

This article is courtesy of Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Soaking hay in water is a common strategy used to manage the nutrition of some diseased horses.  Current hay soaking recommendations include soaking hay for 30 minutes in warm or 60 minutes in cold water for removal of carbohydrates (Watts, 2003).  Soaking hay is commonly done to manage horse diagnosed with laminitis, Polysaccaride Storage Myopathy (PSSM), hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

  • Researchers have suggested that diets contain less than 12 and 10% nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) for horses affected with laminitis (Frank, 2009) and PSSM (Borgia et al., 2009), respectively. 
  • Reynolds et al. (1997) determined that a diet less than 1% K is necessary for horses diagnosed with HYPP.
  • Moore-Colyer (1996) determined that soaking hay for 30 minutes reduced respiratory problems for horses diagnosed with COPD or heaves. 

However, how efficient is hay soaking, and are additional essential nutrients lost during the soaking process?  Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out to determine the impact of water temperature and soaking duration on removal of NSC, crude protein (CP), minerals, and dry matter (DM) from alfalfa and orchardgrass hays. 

Four hay types were soaked, including bud and flowering alfalfa, and vegetative and flowering orchardgrass.  Individual flakes were submerged for 15, 30 and 60 minutes in 25 liters of cold (72°F) and warm (102°F) water, and for 12 hours in cold water.  A control (non-soaked) sample was also evaluated.  Water temperatures were determined by using the cold or warm only faucets, similar to practices implemented by horse owners and managers.  Subsamples of entire flakes were submitted for nutrient analysis at a commercial laboratory.

  • Prior to soaking, both alfalfa hays were below the 10 and 12% NSC threshold for horses diagnosed with PSSM and laminitis, respectively, and would not have required soaking. The orchardgrass hays were above these thresholds, however, after soaking for 15 to 30 minutes were at or below 10 to 12% NSC. 
    • Although soaking hay for longer durations did further reduce NSC content, it is not recommended.  All horses, even diseased ones, require carbohydrates in their diet. 
    • The severely limited NSC content in hay soaked for greater than 1 hour, combined with increased fiber amounts (fiber components are not water soluble, thus they are concentrated in soaked hay), brings into question the palatability and availability of nutrients in hay soaked for longer periods of time.
  • Crude protein leaching was variable in soaked hays, something other researchers have also observed (Moore-Colyer, 1996).  More importantly, previous research looked at the nutrient availability and quality of rained-on hay fed to steers and suggested the nitrogen remaining in rained-on hay is more stable, water-insoluble (Rotz and Muck, 1994), and possibly less digestible by ruminants (Licitra et al, 1996).  Additional research is needed to evaluate this concept when feeding soaked hay to horses.        
  • Calcium (Ca) is not as prone to leaching during soaking compared to other minerals, and appears to be dependent on hay maturity.  As soaking duration increased, leaching of Ca increased in alfalfa bud and vegetative orchardgrass hays (immature hays).  However, soaking had no effect on Ca leaching in the more mature hays. 
    • Conversely, magnesium (Mg) Mg and phosphorus (P) levels were reduced in all hay types as a result of soaking, with longer soaking durations leading to greater reductions.  Because Ca is not as water soluble as P, high Ca:P ratios were observed in hays soaked for  longer durations, specifically after 12 hours. 
    • Ideally, Ca:P ratios should range from 1:1 to 3:1 (up to 6:1) in horse diets (NRC, 2007).  The high Ca:P ratios observed after longer soaking durations were exaggerated in alfalfa hays which had higher Ca:P ratios prior to soaking. 
    • After 12 hours of soaking, a deficiency in P was observed and ranged from a shortage of 1 to 8 grams for a 500 kg horse in light work (NRC, 2007), and Krook and Maylin [32] suggested that osteochondrosis may be associated with excess dietary Ca. 
  • Soaking both alfalfa and orchardgrass hay for 12 hours was necessary to sufficiently reduce K concentration to recommend levels prior to feeding horses diagnosed with HYPP (Reynolds et al, 1997).  Although K levels can be reduced by soaking, neither alfalfa nor orchardgrass hay is an appropriate option for horses diagnosed with HYPP due to the naturally high levels of K. 

Owners should rely on forage analysis as the primary method of determining the appropriate hay for horses, especially when feeding horses diagnosed with laminitis, PSSM, HYPP or COPD.   Hay soaking for short durations (15 to 30 minutes in duration) is an acceptable management method, but should only be used if ideal hay is not available.  Hay should not soak hay for greater than 1 hour.  Soaking hay for long durations resulted in severely reduced NSC content, high Ca:P ratios, shortage of P in the diet and significant losses in DM.

My Horse Doesn’t Feel Good, What Should I Feed It?

Strangles abscess under a horse's jaw.

There are a number of potential illnesses which can cause horses to go “off feed” for varying periods of time.  Upper respiratory issues, such as strangles and influenza, may cause the horse to lose appetite and reduce feed intake.

There is a bit of a trade off with the nutrient requirements of the horse that is off feed due to illness.  On one hand, the horse may be moving around less because it does not feel good, so it is not burning up as many calories.  On the other hand, immune response and maintaining/building new tissue requires adequate Calorie intake, along with amino acids, minerals and vitamins, and adequate water intake.  There is also a difference between a healthy horse that is experiences reduced feed intake, and a sick horse that experiences reduced feed intake.  The body of the healthy horse conserves resources, while the sick horse has to expend resources to get well.

The following steps may be useful for the horse that is experiencing reduced feed intake due to fever or upper respiratory issues:

  1. Horses with a contagious condition such as strangle or influenza should be properly isolated with appropriate biosecurity measures to prevent the spread to other animals.  Biosecurity is a separate topic and is very important.
  2. Water should be available free choice, preferably from buckets, so that consumption can be monitored and so that the buckets can be cleaned regularly.
  3. Palatable forage should be used.  If a horse already has a respiratory issue, care should be taken to make sure the forage is dust free.   It may be dampened or soaked if needed.
  4. A palatable well fortified feed should be used to help maintain intake and provide the nutrients required to support immune response and healing, particularly adequate amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins.  Anti-oxidants such as selenium and Vitamin E may be useful.
  5. A feed with added fat may provide easily digestible Calories with reduced risk of metabolic disturbances.
  6. The goal should be to support the horse during the illness, and minimize weight loss and muscle wasting.

Regardless of the age of the horse, a senior horse feed may be a good option.  Senior horse feeds are very safe, highly digestible, highly palatable and well fortified.  They are designed to be used as complete feeds or with limited forage intake and can be made into a mash if needed.  They work well for many recovery conditions.

If a horse is in training, care must be exercised in that even a few days of stall rest can result in some loss of bone density and soft tissue strength, so training needs to be adjusted accordingly to reduce the risk of injury.  Also, lung function may not be back to 100% for several weeks following a respiratory infection.

Horses that are ill, and particularly ones that are severely emaciated, should be under the direction of a veterinarian.

Managing The Horse With Cushing’s

The vet has diagnosed it and the reality begins to sink in – your horse has Cushing’s disease. Now what?  Cushing’s is an endocrine disease caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland that is most often seen in older horses and ponies. This tumor results in high cortisol and is most often exhibited by  hyperglycemia (high glucose), excessive thirst, excessive eating, excess urination and a shaggy haircoat.  At this time there is no cure for Cushing’s but by keeping a close eye on nutrition and management, we can improve the quality and possibly lengthen the life span of a Cushing’s horse.

Routine is important to the Cushing’s horse because changes in diet, medication, etc. can have negative effects on health.  Cushing’s horses have a compromised immune system and for that reason, seemingly small or mundane parts of their care become very important.  There are a few management practices that are particularly important: 

  • Deworming – Cushing’s horses can be more susceptible to parasites because of their weakened immune system.  Work closely with your vet to develop a deworming schedule and program that is catered to your horse. Your vet should also be seen regularly for dental care and wellness exams.
  • Farrier Care– Regular farrier visits are important because certain types of leg and foot conditions are more likely with a Cushing’s horse, such as abcesses of the hoof and laminitis. Signs of laminitis can be a tender footed stance and the horse acting like he is “walking on egg shells”. 
  • Grooming – Hair coat and temperature regulation are problems in Cushing’s horses so you will want to help your horse as much as you can by preventative grooming practices. Consider body clipping in hot/humid weather and be mindful of temperature and weather changes. When blanketing, make sure the hair coat is dry and clean to help reduce the incidence of skin issues. Prompt treatment of any wounds or infections is essential.
  • Feeding– One of the main goals in feeding the Cushing’s horse is to control the starch + sugar (NSC) content per meal. This helps to regulate the blood glucose and insulin levels.  The NSC content of the concentrates fed to the horse is important, but even more so is the content of the hay /forage and the combination of the two together. Some guidelines have suggested an NSC maximum value of 10-13% based on the total diet (forage + concentrate). Testing your hay will give you a good idea of the NSC values.
  • Consider a feed that is fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and complexed trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support the immune system.

Following these tips will help improve the quality and possibly length of life for the horse diagnosed with Cushing’s.  If you have specific questions regarding your horse, please work with a qualified nutrition consultant or your veterinarian.

Feeding “George”: A Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Horse

Previously, I introduced you to George, my ‘Heinz-57’ PSSM positive horse.  Though his test results came back positive for Type 1 PSSM, his diagnosis does not mean his athletic career is over. With some diligence and routine, George is able to lead a normal life as a successful working partner.

One key to managing his condition is maintaining consistency in his diet and routine. Remember, he would get sore every time the hay changed, particularly if it had alfalfa in it.  First I work to ensure that George’s total diet is properly balanced which starts with controlling the starch and sugar energy sources in his hay and grain ration.  I buy larger quantities of grass hay (no alfalfa) that will last awhile, a full year if possible. I also have my hay tested before buying it to make sure it isn’t too high in non-structural carbohydrates (12% NSC or less), and that the rest of the nutrients are within an acceptable range for good quality hay, as this is the bulk of his diet. The lower the NSC in the hay, the more room there is in the diet to add calories from fat. More on that below.

To balance his hay, he gets a controlled starch feed concentrate that is fortified with essential amino acids, complexed trace minerals, pre- and probiotics.  If I need to add calories to his diet to support higher levels of exertion during training and show season, I add a balanced fat supplement to the concentrate component of his diet.  To meet the total caloric requirement it is recommended that PSSM positive horses receive no more than 10% of the digestible energy from non-structural carbohydrates (starch and sugar), and 15-20% of the digestible energy should be supplied by fat.  Remember, this applies to the total diet, contributions from grain plus forage.  Working with a qualified equine nutritionist is a great way to figure all of this out.  In a nutshell, I control the sugars and starches in his total diet (low NSC grass hay and low calorie, controlled NSC grain) and add a nutritionally balanced fat source when extra calories are needed. The only supplement he gets is vitamin E, which helps boost his antioxidant status (helps fight oxidative stress), and supports muscle recovery after exercise.  Because his total diet is balanced for selenium, I don’t supplement this mineral to avoid potential toxicity.

Estimating his weight and doing a regular body condition score help me adjust his diet and exercise routine accordingly, so he maintains good muscle mass and avoids excess fat deposits.  In addition, I make sure to minimize stress as much as possible by keeping his routine consistent.  His daily ration is divided up into 3 meals to avoid one large grain meal and he has access to hay for most of the day.  He gets a minimum turnout of 8 hours every day with a buddy and limited access to fresh forage.  I also exercise him at least 6 days a week.  With this management routine, regular veterinary and farrier care, he has never “tied-up” on me, and continues to excel in dressage with the occasional hunter pace thrown into the mix. Providing good quality of life is a top priority, especially when it comes to managing even the most challenging horses, and I think George would agree, he is doing great!

Meet “George”: A Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Horse

I’m proud to introduce you to George, a “Heinz-57” draft cross, and my current equine partner.  He is the result of a ½ Thoroughbred, ½ Percheron (dam) x ½ Hanoverian, ½ Paint horse (sire). I’ve had the privilege of knowing George since he was a weanling, and bought him as a yearling.  It wasn’t until I started him under-saddle as a three and a half year old that I started noticing behavioral changes (crankiness – not like George), non-specific muscle soreness, and a transient, almost undetectable gait abnormality, all of which happened to be associated with new hay delivery.  I won’t mention how much I’ve spent having him worked-up, imaged, adjusted, fitted and many more things to get to the bottom of what his body was trying to tell me.  We were coming up empty handed and frustrated.

It wasn’t until after I returned from an equine nutrition symposia that it occurred to me to have him tested for polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). PSSM causes the horse’s muscle cells to store energy (glycogen) in excess, which can result in a variety of symptoms, the most severe of which is tying up after aerobic exercise.  Nearly all of the classic signs were there, short of a bad tying up episode.  Wouldn’t you know it, he came back positive for Type-1 PSSM a.k.a. EPSM, tying- up syndrome/exertional rhabdomyolysis/Monday morning disease, set fast or azoturia.  There is more than one version of PSSM (Type-1 is most common) and the diagnostic tests for each are unique.

Recent advances in equine genetics have made testing a blood, muscle, or hair follicle sample possible.  As it turns out, three of the four breeds that George represents have been identified as prone to carrying the genetic mutation responsible for PSSM.  Unlike some other recessive genetic diseases, PSSM is inherited as a dominant gene; in other words having just one copy of the mutated gene means the horse has the disease.  Horses lucky enough to inherit 2 copies of the gene can be more severely affected.   The good news is, with a little diligence, these horses can be managed and go on to have a good quality of life and successful athletic careers; both of which I want for George. 

Diagnostic information can be found at the University of Minnesota Neuromuscular Diagnostic lab website: http://www.cvm.umn.edu/umec/lab/home.html