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.

Taking Weight Off of Easy Keeping Horses

We hear often from people that “My pony is so fat!” It is often followed with, “He doesn’t need to be fed anything – he so much as sees a bag of feed and he gains weight.”

Obesity in horses can lead to laminitis, overheating and numerous other health issues. Ideally, chubby horses should have their nutrition monitored closely. Three good practices to manage these types of easy keepers are:

  1. Limit their forage first and provide a controlled-calorie horse feed to complete the missing nutrients from the forage. This still allows the horse or pony to feel as though it gets fed, too.
  2. If monitored well, grazing muzzles work for overweight horses on pastures, allowing them only small bites of grass but maintaining free access to run with the other horses.
  3. Not surprisingly, most effective is daily exercise. Increasing the amount of calories burned each day reduces the amount that are stored away as fat.

Taking weight off of an easy keeper is no small task, but is well worth it in the long run. Keeping our equine friends fit will help ensure they stay with us for years to come.

Stretching Your Horse Hay Budget

We all know that next to water, forage is the most important part of a horse’s diet. Without it they just can’t survive.

With the high prices of forage there are a few ways you can get a little more out of the forage you feed.

  1. Start by selecting the best quality hay your budget will allow – higher quality means more nutrition in every bite. 
  2. If practical, weigh out the appropriate amount of hay your horse should eat at each feeding so that the excess isn’t wasted. On average, a horse should eat between 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage per day.
  3. You may also choose a feed that contains yeast cultures (prebiotics) and direct fed microbials (probiotics) like Lactobacillus Acidophilus. These elements will help your horse’s hind gut better digest and utilize the forage it takes in.
  4. If your horse is on pasture, a good practice may be to divide your pasture into sections and rotate sections on a frequent basis to allow for maximization of forage produced.
  5. If hay or pasture is in truly short supply, try utilizing a hay extender product.  While it is always beneficial to keep at least some long-stemmed roughage in the diet, using a hay extender can make the few bales of hay you have last quite a bit longer.

Managing Horses with Gastric Ulcers

Last week a horse owner contacted me about changing her horses diet.   She stated that they are ¾ of the way through show season and he is just “off his game”.  It seems that the horse was showing a lack of appetite and not finishing his grain. In addition, his disposition seemed to have changed, being rather grumpy and his performance level was suffering.  A few times he had shown signs of mild colic over the past two months.

I suggested the owner contact her veterinarian, as it sounded like the horse may have an ulcer.  I explained that the percentage of horses with ulcers continues to increase, and that higher intensity levels of training are correlated with an increase in ulcer incidence.  The ulcers often occur in the upper third of the stomach, which does not have a mucus layer and does not secrete bicarbonate that helps to buffer stomach acid.  It is also interesting to note that ulcers have not been founded on pastured horses.  This is likely due to the fact that as a horse grazes, it produces large amounts of saliva, which contain the bicarbonate and amylase needed to provide a buffer for the stomach lining. 

The owner was not pleased with my answer, but agreed to call the vet.  Within the week she contacted me and said the horse had been diagnosed with a gastric ulcer.  He was now on medication, but we needed to make dietary changes as well.  I suggested the following “back to basic” steps to help manage her horses condition:

  1. Allow the horse to be turned out or hand grazed.
  2. If access to pasture is not possible, good quality hay is a must.  Recent studies indicate that legume hay is an excellent choice, possibly due to the high calcium content which may help to serve as a buffer.
  3. Breaking the daily rations into smaller more frequent meals also help keep saliva production constant and protect the stomach lining – more like “grazers” instead of “meal eaters”.
  4. High starch diets also tend to aggravate ulcers due to increased acid production. A high fat high fiber feed is ideal.

In essence, to help keep them from suffering the ill effects of ulcers,  we need to let our horses just be horses.

Feeding a horse with Cushing’s Syndrome

As the number of horses known to have Cushing’s Syndrome increases, questions on how to feed horses with this condition also increase.  As a starting management practice, your veterinarian may recommend pergolide as an added medication for your horse.  This is available from a number of pharmaceutical sources by prescription.

When it comes to feeding them, though, here are a few tips that may help make life a little easier:

  1. If your Cushing’s horse has some joint problems, you may want to also consider using one of the chondroitin sulfate + glucosamine products that are available in supplement form.
  2. Cushing’s syndrome horses require a hay or pasture source that is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), so you might want to have your forage tested.
  3. They do well on senior feeds that are fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and organic trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support immune response.
  4. Feeding directions need to be followed to make certain enough senior feed is being fed as these older horses may not be able to utilize forage very efficiently.
  5. If your horse is not maintaining weight, you may need to increase the feeding rate of the senior feed or add a low starch, rice bran based high fat supplement.

Most senior horses with Cushing’s Syndrome do very well on a senior feed and appropriate medication.  Cost of pergolide can vary greatly and your veterinarian may be able to direct you to the best source.  Good luck, and please let us know if we can help!

Judging Hay Quality for Horses

Because hay is such a common part of a horses diet, judging quality on visual inspection is important, as lab analysis is not always easily available.  Here are three simple things to look for to help you select the best hay for your horses and your money.

  1. The initial check that most people are familiar with is color and smell.  Horse hay should be bright green and smell slightly sweet.  Brown hay indicates either a problem in the baling process, such as being rained on, or age.  Acrid or musty smells generally indicate the presence of mold.
  2. Another sign of good horse hay is the leaf:stem ratio.  The more leaves, the better, since the leaves are where most of the nutrition in the hay is stored.  Hay that has too many hard, woody stems is difficult to digest.  Even if it cheaper, most horses will pick through and leave the bulk of the stems behind, costing more in the long run.  High quality hay is fine-stemmed, pliable, and full of leaves.
  3. Type of hay is another factor.  Grass hays, such as timothy or orchard grass, generally provide sound basic nutrition.  The higher the concentration of legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, the higher the energy content.  High quality alfalfa is generally better than high quality grass hay, but good quality grass hay can be better than average quality alfalfa hay.

The best thing, in the end, is to have hay tested.  This is not always feasible for every load, but if your hay source is consistent from load to load, this may be a good option to get a general feel for what nutrients your hay contains.

Management Practices: Reducing the Risk of Colic

Colic is one of the leading health problems facing horse owners. According to the USDA’s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine Study 1998, about 4% of the horse population experiences colic each year. Colic rated second only to old age as the cause of death in equines. The same study indicated that horse owners most commonly identified “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed related.

Feeding management and non-feeding-related management practices can all have an impact on reducing the risk of colic.

The following management practices can aid in reducing the risk of colic:

  1. Parasite Control: Includes proper sanitation and regular deworming per program.
  2. Dental Care: Be sure to schedule regular dental exams as needed.
  3. Fresh Clean Water: A lack of water in both cold and warm weather may increase risk of colic.
  4. Consistent Diet: Avoiding sudden changes in either hay or grain may help reduce risk.  A survey by Dr. Noah Cohen et al in Texas indicated forage changes are associated with colic more frequently than changes in the grain portion of the diet.
  5. Avoid Starch Overload. Starch overload, or allowing undigested starch to get to the hindgut, is a major cause of gas colic.  Limiting meal size, maintaining equal feeding intervals, and selecting controlled starch feed products for a feeding program, may help reduce the risk of starch overload. 
  6. Feed Additives. Some feed additives, such as direct fed microbials and yeast culture, may also be beneficial in improving forage utilization and digestion.

Colic prevention—rather than colic treatment—is clearly much better for both the horse and the horse owner.

Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.

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.

Reading Horse Feed Directions – How Much to Feed?

When horse feeds are formulated, they are developed to provide nutrition to all sizes of horses – nutrient needs go up as the size of the horse goes up.  So, feeding directions are often provided in the following format:

  • Activity Level                   Lbs of feed per 100 lbs of bodyweight
  • Maintenance                     0.3-0.5
  • Light Exercise                   0.4-0.6

So, how do you figure out how much to feed your horse? Start with knowing the weight of your horse.  Then, divide that weight by 100, and then multiply the result by both of the amounts of feed given in the directions above.  The resulting two numbers will tell you the range of how much to feed your horse to give them the nutrition they need for both their size and their activity level.

Example Feeding Directions:

1200 lb horse, in light exercise.

  1. (1200 ÷ 100) = 12
  2. (12 × 0.4) = 4.8
  3. (12 × 0.6) = 7.2

In this example, this horse would need to eat between 4.8 and 7.2 lbs per day of this feed to receive the nutrition he needs.  Some horses that are easier keepers can fall to the lower end of the range, while harder keepers may need to push the upper limit.

If you do this math for your horse, and find that you are feeding outside of the designated range, you should search for a feed that is more suitable to your horses needs.  Hard keepers, for example, may require a feed that is higher in calories per pound, while easier keepers might require a feed with fewer calories and more concentrated levels of vitamins and mineralsSuch a feed might cost more per bag, however the ability to pack more punch in a smaller feeding might actually result in a cost saving!