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.  

 

 

Managing Feeding Programs on the Road for Show Horses

The show season is in full swing and horses are subjected to the stress of going down the road on a regular basis. This travel schedule imposes additional requirements for managing the feeding program. Horses like consistency. Changes can cause emotional and physical stress. The more we can keep the routines the same, the easier it is for the horses to cope with the challenges of travel and competition. The following are some suggestions that may be useful to help maintain the body condition, appearance and performance that is required to maintain the competitive status of the horse.

First and foremost, it is critical to maintain water intake while traveling and while stabled away from home. The water may taste different at different locations. Horses should have fresh clean water available at all times when stabled at shows and should be offered water as needed between classes.

  • When traveling, horses should be offered water on a regular basis. I recommend offering water every 2 hours while hauling and others may have different schedules that work for them.
  • If horses are reluctant to drink water that smells different due to chlorination or water source, it may be useful to flavor the water at home with something like wintergreen or vanilla so that you can do the same when traveling.
  • You need to make certain that whatever you use does NOT contain caffeine or anything that will trigger a positive drug test!
  • If you are going to flavor the water, do it well in advance of travel so that the water at home smells and tastes like the water while traveling.
  • If horses get dehydrated during a show, the risk of impaction colic may increase, particularly during hot weather. The horses may also not perform up to expectations, particularly in multiple day or multiple event competitions.
  • As a judge and as an announcer, I can see the difference in some horses from day 1 to day 3 of an event.

Second, maintain your feeding schedule as close as possible to routine followed at home. You may have to adjust slightly to accommodate classes.

Third, monitor body condition carefully and adjust feeding rates to avoid excess weight loss while traveling. A horse can tuck up badly if it goes off feed and water.

Fourth, select a horse feed that will help reduce the risk of metabolic issues and will help maintain intake to maintain body condition and bloom. Added fat, controlled starch & sugar products with balanced amino acids and added key vitamins work well for virtually all classes of show horses.

Pre-season preparation involves achieving desired body condition, coat condition, hoof condition and the required training. Managing the horse during competition is essential to maintain the competitive edge!

Following Feeding Recommendations

Is anyone taking a road trip this summer? Chances are, if you are heading somewhere in your car you will probably consult a road map or at least plug the destination into your GPS or smart phone. We do this so we can get where we want to go and do what we have planned. The same can be said for directions on horse feeding. They help us get our horse in the condition we want him to be so that we can do the events or activities that made us get a horse in the first place.

We have a pretty good road map attached to every bag of horse feed that is purchased.  Feed tags not only list ingredients & guaranteed analysis, they also give detailed directions for feeding.  The normal result of shortcuts during a road trip is usually being somewhere you don’t want to be. With your horse, taking shortcuts when it comes to feeding rates can mean a horse who is underweight or overweight, getting too much or being fed insufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, among other issues.

My challenge to you is this – look at your feed tag and consider the following:

After you establish the above items…

  • Is the amount I am giving my horse within the tagged recommendations according to weight and activity level?
  • Am I feeding to accomplish something with my horse? (ie: weight gain or weight loss, lactation, etc.)

If you are in the parameters set by your feed tag on what you are giving your horse, good for you! If you are not, you need to ask some follow up questions:

  • Am I willing/able to change my feeding to match what the tag recommends? If the answer is no, then the question becomes:
  • Am I willing to change my horse’s feed to match how I am feeding him?

Many times we continue to do something just because it is what we’ve always done. By answering the questions above, it may become clear to you that your best feeding option may be changing feeds. Sometimes, this may mean switching to a feed with a lower feeding rate and higher fortification in order to accurately meet your horse’s needs (for example if you are currently underfeeding a senior horse).  Other times, you may find that you don’t really have an easy keeper – you are just feeding him a bit too much. Don’t neglect the feeding directions on your feed tag – they are the road map for a long, healthy life for your horse.

Body Condition Scoring Horses – a Hands-On Project!

Most of you met our old horse, Fred, in an earlier blog post I did. Well, I am happy to report that Fred is flourishing in his new home and we like to think that he likes it here quite well.

However, our temperatures have been getting quite cold, in the teens and  mid 20s for highs, and I was concerned with how well Fred was holding his weight. The snow cover has been consistent, so I knew he was not doing too much in the way of grazing. He gets about 1.75% of his body weight in hay each day along with a ration balancer, but with his age and the cold weather I wanted to see how he was really faring.  With the short daylight hours of mid winter fully upon us, it is hard to see his exact condition during the work week when we are gone during the day.

So last Saturday I went out to check on him during daylight hours and was pleased to see that he looked pretty good – pretty fluffy with all that winter coat – but still pretty good from where I was standing (about 10 feet away). I went into the pasture and put his halter on and began to feel over his ribs and topline. Contrary to what he looked like from a distance I determined that underneath all that hair, Fred had lost some weight. I could feel his ribs fairly easily and after palpating along his topline I could tell he was just starting to lose condition there as well.

Viewing him from the fence was one thing, but getting my hands on him was a different story and I realized we needed to change his diet and replace his ration balancer with some senior feed to get additional calories into him. We are in the process of transitioning him onto his new feed and so far he is doing great.

I learned a valuable lesson, though – when evaluating the body condition score of your horses (especially under all that winter hair) you have to get your hands on them! I now have a reminder set on my calendar to body condition score Fred every month. I don’t want to have any springtime surprises when all that hair sheds off!

What Makes it ‘Premium’ Nutrition?

Aside from price, how do you know if a feed that is advertised as premium nutrition, really is? Here are some tips to help you decode the premium puzzle.

First, a word about forage….Forage, being hay and/or pasture, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet.  Therefore, the amount of effort and investment you make in your feeding program should be heavily weighted toward offering your horse the best quality forage you have access to.  Your feed selection should complement your forage. Feed or supplemental fortification should fill gaps in forage nutrition, but the most important aspect is the quality of forage, as that makes up the majority of your horse’s source of energy.  Always consider your horse’s forage first and foremost.

What is on a tag?  Onto the feed concentrate; the most important aspect of your feed choice is the nutrients the feed will provide for your horse.  When you buy premium nutrition, you expect to get premium results…but, what you pay for may or may not be what you get.  So how can you tell?

First, check the tag for guaranteed analysis of nutrients.  A premium feed will be formulated to deliver your horse the optimal nutrition for their age and activity level.  Each horse varies to some degree in their metabolism and requirements, but in most cases, optimal nutrition will be formulated to provide the most digestible nutrients in levels that ensure your horse makes the most of every meal. 

With regard to nutrient levels, is more actually better? Not always.  Sometimes more is just more.  Take into consideration minerals.  Mineral fortification of a diet is only as good as the amount that is absorbed, so having more copper, zinc or manganese listed on the tag doesn’t mean that your horse is making use of it all.  Look for key words that indicate digestibility; for minerals, ‘organic’ means the mineral is tied to an amino acid and is readily absorbed.  For proteins, look for guaranteed levels of ‘lysine’, ‘methionine’ and ‘threonine’.  These are the protein components that matter most to your horse.  Sometimes more is just…well more.

In the scoop…Another way to compare feeds is to determine y how much you have to feed to give your horse the optimal level of nutrients guaranteed on the tag.  Most feed companies formulate their rations to provide an amount of digestible energy (DE) which determines the rate (or amount) which they recommend you feed.  All other nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals, are concentrated based on that feeding rate.

For example, you have two different feeds you are considering for your horse who is at a ‘maintenance’ level energy requirement (meaning to keep his body condition score at or about a 6).  Feed A recommends you give him 2.5 pounds per day, while feed B recommends you feed a minimum of 4 pounds per day.  Keep in mind that  if you feed less than the recommended 4 pounds of feed B, not only will your horse not get the DE for his activity level, he will also not get the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (if they are guaranteed). Keep in mind percentages on the tag are only as good as the rate at which they are fed.

Functional Ingredients…..There are ingredients that provide the diet with big nutrients such as fat, fiber and protein.  There are ingredients that provide micro nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins.  And then there is a whole other class of ingredients are called ‘functional’ ingredients.  These items are intended to enhance the efficiency or digestibility of the feed, meaning your horse gets more out of every bite.  Consider prebiotics and probiotics for example.   Through research, both of these functional ingredients have shown to enhance the digestibility of many nutrients and improve overall gut health.  The addition of prebiotics and probiotics to a diet is intendedto aid your horse in getting that optimal nutrition for a premium result!

Valid Research… One last thing to take into consideration; a feed brand or company that has a research program is far more likely to understand the digestibility of ingredients and the nutrient requirements of the horse, versus a company that does not conduct research.  Many aspects of optimal nutrition, such as understanding digestibility, aren’t found on a tag, but are proprietary to the researching company.  Before you consider a feed that is advertised ‘just as good as, only cheaper’, consider what makes the real deal.  In most cases, a company that copy-cats a popular product doesn’t get you to the same level of quality, premium nutrition as the original.

So, is it really a premium feed?   Check the tag to find out.  Armed with this information, you can answer this question for yourself!

Horse Nutrition 101

Horse nutrition is confusing! So many things to consider for your horse, and then on top of that, every horse has different needs…Where is a new horse owner, or even someone who has been around horses for a while that is now interested in nutrition, to begin?

Here’s a quick list of past blog posts that will give you the basics – a “Horse Nutrition 101” class list, so to speak!

Determining How Much Should Your Horse Eat:

Basic Needs:

Understanding Horse Feeds:

There is much more beyond just these topics, but horse owners should all have a good handle on the basics to keep their horses happy and healthy!

Grazing Muzzles – A Good Tool for Easy Keepers

Many of us are faced with the dilemma of an easy keeper – these horses seem to get fat just by looking at pasture, much less being turned out on it! We know we need to limit their intakes, but it feels cruel to lock them away from the green grass, especially when their more slender pasture-mates are able to graze for hours every day and not put on an ounce (I have a friend like that, and I work hard not to hold it against her!).

Grazing muzzles are a great way to limit your horse's intake on pasture

The health and well being of these easy keeping, plump horses and ponies can greatly benefit from a reduced caloric and controlled starch and sugar intake. Luckily, horse owners have a tool that can be utilized to help with this problem – grazing muzzles. Grazing muzzles allow horses to run, roam and feel like they are grazing all day, but still have their intakes reduced. The basic make up of the grazing muzzle is similar to a halter, usually with a piece of rubber affixed to it that fits over the mouth and has a small opening. This greatly reduces the amount of grass eaten and can help with weight control on those chubby horses and ponies.  

Additionally, it allows the horse to get the benefits of turnout, including socialization and exercise which can help alleviate some of the boredom related issues that may be found in horses that are kept in dry lot or stalled situations (weaving, cribbing, etc.).

Some key things to consider when using a grazing muzzle:

  • Does your muzzle fit the horse properly? Similar to proper halter fit, the muzzle shouldn’t be too tight or too loose.
  • Is your fencing safe for use with a muzzle? Think about catch points like stray wires, etc. that the muzzle could get caught on. Some basic changes or repairs to fencing may be required.
  • After you have turned your horse out with a muzzle, monitor water intakes. Horses can drink just fine with a muzzle on, but it may take some getting used to.

With the right management, grazing muzzles can be a wonderful tool to allow your horse the freedom of the pasture without adding extra pounds.

Keeping Hens and Horses

So you’re in your favorite feed store, buying your horse a few bags of feed, some treats, a bale of…. What is that you hear? The peeping of little chicks?!?!? You follow your ears to the tanks full of fluffy balls of cuteness, all the while listing to yourself the reasons why you can’t have chickens – where would they stay, what would they eat, they couldn’t possibly be good to have around horses…could they?

Chickens enjoy pecking at stray bits of feed

Actually, keeping chickens along with horses is a time honored tradition that certainly can be manageable, and even beneficial for you (and your horse)!

  • Chickens are opportunists. When a pellet or kernel falls, they’ll be there to pick it up. This saves your horse from mouthing around on the ground to find bits of feed (a practice that can lead to ingestion of dirt and sand) and it reduces the amount of feed that is wasted.
  • Chickens are good horse trainers. A horse that has had exposure to poultry won’t “have his feathers ruffled” by sudden movements, loud noises, or the occasional appearance of an egg…
  • Chickens help prepare your horse for the trail. If you plan to take trail rides where wild turkeys, partridge, chuckar, etc. populate it can be beneficial to have your horse used to the patterns and noises of fowl by keeping a few chickens around. A little exposure to flapping, squawking and scurrying can go a long way to desensitizing your horse to those types of events out on the trail.
  • Chickens are nature’s fly traps. You and your horse hate bugs – but chickens love them. Chickens eat flies, worms, grubs, bees; if they can catch it they’ll nibble on it, which means it won’t be nibbling on you or your horse.
    One of the best things about raising chickens!
  • Chickens are low maintenance. Provide them with a cozy place to sleep, fresh clean water, free choice oyster shell for strong eggshells and some layer feed and they will be happy and healthy.
  • Chickens are pets with benefits.Besides being a colorful and entertaining addition to your stable yard, chickens provide one thing your horse can’t – breakfast! Now if they could only cook it and serve it to you in bed…

Grain Mites in Horse Feed

Have you ever had the following situation happen to you? You go out to feed your horse and notice a fine dust on the outside of the feed bag. You look closer and realize the dust is moving! Yes, you can see all those little bugs bustling about, in search of food and other little bugs to reproduce with. Yuck! Where do they come from? Is the feed safe to give to your horse? Can they harm you?

Magnified image of grain mites

It turns out that these little critters are grain mites (Acarus siro L). Grain mites are common and exist in all grains, but only thrive and appear when the conditions – temperature and humidity – are just right for reproduction and growth. Their ideal environment is warmer than 77 degrees F, and over 85% humidity. Hence, you would have more problems with them in the warmer months of the year. Temperature changes, condensation, and poor ventilation may produce areas with enough moisture to encourage mite infestation.

If you have infested feed you should not feed it to your horse. These mites can contaminate the feed with allergens and can also transfer nasty germs. Infestation can negatively affect palatability and when animals are fed infested products the results can be decreased intake, inflammation of the intestines, diarrhea, impaired growth and allergic reactions. The good news for you personally is that these mites do not bite humans.

To help reduce your incidence of mite outbreaks:

  • Store your feed in a cool, dry place
  • Use your oldest feed first
  • Keep no more than a two week supply of feed on hand (especially in hot weather) to ensure freshness
  • If you store your feed in a container, clean it regularly between fillings to prevent buildup of fines
  • Keep your feed area clean and neat
  • Air movement, such as from a fan, can help prevent outbreaks

If you do have an outbreak in your feed room, remove affected feed from the room immediately and thoroughly clean the area. Pyrethrin can be applied to the area with a hand held fogging machine or aerosol spray can.

Feeding Horses for Sales Preparation

Nutrition has an important role in sales preparation for all horses.  If you want to maximize the value of the horse, it is essential to have the horse looking its best at sale time.

There are a number of key elements including the following:

    • Size and body condition – Young horses being prepped for sale should be on a smooth growth curve to avoid growth spurts and to reach optimum height at sale time.  Size for appropriate age is a plus for most disciplines.  The sale horse should normally have a body condition score at 5 or slightly higher.
    • Muscle, not fat – The modern sale ring rewards horses that have well developed muscles rather than just being fat.  Thin is not good, but obese is not desired. 
    • Hair coat – Slick and shiny is always good.  This will require a combination of grooming, health care and nutrition.
    • Hoof quality – High quality feet with no growth or fever rings are essential.

Sale preparation is an ongoing process for young horses.  If they are weaned properly and maintained at a Body Condition Score of about 5, there will not be as much pressure for a sudden feeding change when they are being prepared for a sale. Solid sale preparation takes a minimum of 90 to 120 days of exercise, proper nutrition and grooming. 

Having a quality feed program is essential to have horses looking and feeling thier best. Here are a few keys to developing the optimum program:

  • Have a good quality forage or pasture available to help develop body condition. 
  • A grain product should contain added vegetable oil to provide a safe energy source as well as to help hair coat. 
    • Depending on the forage, a 12 or 14% protein feed that is fortified with amino acids (lysine, methionine, threonine) to develop muscle mass should be used. 
    • The feed should contain balanced macro minerals and trace minerals to support bone remodeling and develop bone strength. 
    • The feed should also contain added vitamins A, D, E and Biotin for proper metabolism as well as hair coat and hoof quality. 
  • Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available.

Feeding rate will depend on current body condition, desired body condition at the time of the sale, and the amount of exercise that the horse will be getting.  If the sale is in 90 days and the horse needs to gain 90 lbs, the horse needs to be fed for maintenance, work and weight gain.  Weight gain of 1 pound per day will require an additional 3+ pounds of feed per day in addition to maintenance and work.  No more than 0.5% BW in feed should be given at any meal and meals should be spaced at equal intervals.