Avoiding a Hay Belly

I’ve often heard, ‘my horse has a hay belly, what should I do differently?’ Or,” he’s really big in the belly but he doesn’t have good muscles.”   Apart from a broodmare belly, post-colic surgery effects or a parasite situation, the answer sounds like a nutritional imbalance.  The good news is, once you know what a nutritional imbalanced hay belly is and what causes it, you can make adjustments in your program and avoid it in the future.

What does it look like?

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Have you ever seen a young or growing horse with a big belly while the rest of their body looks small? Or a mature horse that has a midsection that hangs low, while ribs are visible and muscles along the back and hindquarter are hard to find?  How about the ‘pregnant gelding’ situation?  All of these are describing a hay belly.  On a regular basis, you should conduct a body condition score on your horse to check for muscle mass as well as appropriate fat deposition in key areas.  It’s important to check all areas indicated, since a rib or belly check alone doesn’t provide all the information.

What causes it?

When too many low-value calories are consumed without adequate protein (including essential amino acids), the body stores the calories as energy in cells yet the needed protein isn’t available to maintain muscle mass. In the absence of adequate protein, muscles atrophy while stored energy increases. Over time, a hay belly emerges as muscle mass over the top is lost and gut size may expand.

The biggest factor is overfeeding fiber high in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) while under feeding adequate levels of quality protein. NDF is a measurement of cell wall content in plants such as grasses.  As the plant matures, it builds up stronger cell walls so that it may hold itself upright.  The stronger these walls, the less digestible these cells are for a horse.  So when fed very mature hay, your horse is less able to digest that hay, as compared to hay with a lower NDF value (less mature).  In addition to being higher in NDF, the grasses also tend to be lower in the quality proteins; important nutrients for developing and maintaining muscles.

How to prevent a hay belly

First, feed the best quality hay that you can find in the correct amount for your horse’s body weight, age and activity level. The hay that is smooth and ‘leafy’ tends to have levels of NDF that are better for the horse to digest. Hay that is pointy to the touch or looks like it’s a green version of straw should be avoided as it simply offers little nutritional value for the horse.

How do I get rid of a hay belly if my horse has one?

First, check the quality and quantity of hay your horse is eating. If the quality is adequate, then it’s time to reevaluate the quantity fed.  A horse should be fed 1.0-1.75 pounds/100 pounds of body weight of hay per day.  Not a fan of math? Yea, me neither.  Here’s a quick answer: for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds, that would be between 10-17.5 pounds of hay each day, ideally divided into 2 or even 3 feedings. Check to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding, or underfeeding if your horse is actually bigger than 1,000 lbs. Learn to estimate your horse’s weight accurately here.

The last piece of the puzzle is feed. Make sure that the concentrate you provide is offering adequate quality protein.  Total protein alone can’t support or develop ideal muscles.  The right balance of amino acids is needed to build and maintain muscle quantity and quality.  Look for feeds that guarantee levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  These three key amino acids are the most important for your horse. And lastly, check to be sure you’re feeding the appropriate amount of concentrate.  Feeding a balanced diet and adding some exercise to help develop muscle mass and tighten up that tummy is a great way to reclaim that belly!

Group Feeding Tips for Small Facilities

Feeding TimeWe are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage.  The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half.  They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.

With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple.  And oh how they vary!  One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years.  Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper.  Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work.  One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.

We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting.  Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work.  Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:

  • Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
  • Separate the bully of the herd.
  • If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
  • Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
  • Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
  • Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses.  More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them.  This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
  • While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
  • When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc.  to separate the herd.  This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
  • If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.

Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge.  But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need.  What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?

How to Help Your Horse Lose Weight

Is your horse an easy keeper? Or just need to shed a few pounds? This simple, short video gives you the first steps to follow to take weight off your horse.

For specific recommendations on feed selection, or advice on what to do if you’ve already taken the steps outlined in the video, leave your questions in the comments section!

Feeding the Maintenance Horse

Vitamin in half

Feeding below the recommended amount of a particular horse feed, is analogous to only taking half of your daily vitamin.

I am fortunate in my job to speak with horse owners face-to-face on a frequent basis. During these conversations, I enjoy hearing about the horses they own and how great their horse’s look and perform.

Occasionally, I will hear someone mention that their horse looks great on hay alone and they only feed a ‘handful’ of grain in the morning and night, just for the vitamins and minerals.

I delicately point out that the analogous human activity would be chopping your daily vitamin into pieces and taking a fraction of one a day. This is an opportunity to discuss feeding rate, calorie requirements, muscle and hair coat quality, and making sure owners have selected the right feed for their horse.

In many of these instances, the horse in question is an adult in good body condition, on a good quality forage and light work load; in other words, a horse at maintenance activity level.  Even though this horse may be able to keep a good body condition score, without balanced nutrition, they will exhibit less-than-ideal muscling, hair coat and hoof quality.

A well-intentioned owner of this kind of horse might feel they need to provide some form of nutrition supplementation to their hay, as they should, but may not fully understand what is needed or the appropriate quantities. Feed, being as complicated as it can be, is often misinterpreted and either under or over fed. Here’s where we can help!

If a maintenance horse is in good or better-than-good body condition (a 6+) from their hay or pasture alone, they really don’t need more calories in the diet. But they do need something to fill in the gaps that the hay or pasture is not providing. These include vitamins, minerals and quality proteins (amino acids) their body needs for normal tissue repair, hair growth and muscle maintenance.

For this horse, a ration balancer is the ideal solution. A ration balancer (sometimes called diet balancer) is a concentrated form of feed without the energy provided by fats, fibers, starch and sugar of a regular feed. Ration balancers tend to have higher guaranteed levels of nutrients, but significantly lower feeding rates. Don’t panic! A protein level of 30% with a feeding rate of 2 pounds per day means your horse gets 0.6 pounds of protein. Compare that to feeding 6 pounds of a 14% regular feed = 0.84 pounds of protein per day. When you do the math, it’s really in line with a “normal” diet.

If this same horse would be slightly below ideal body condition, a feed designed to be fed to maintenance horses would be appropriate for calories and the balance of other nutrients. Be sure to follow the feeding rates and keep a close eye on how your horse responds to the feed, as you may need to adjust within the feeding rate guidelines.

When it comes to calorie management of the maintenance-level activity horse, remember to watch out for those treats, too. Calorie levels can vary widely so all the work you’re doing to manage intake with the feed scoop can easily be washed away with an indulgence in treats!

Feeding a horse at a maintenance activity level doesn’t have to be complicated. With a few pieces of information and the right feed, your horse can look and feel their best, even if they aren’t heading for the show pen.

How Much Horse Feed Does Your Scoop Hold?

I visited a horse owner that had just purchased her own farm this spring. She said she was following the same feeding program that was followed at the boarding barn, but the mare had gained weight. A quick evaluation showed the mare had defiantly crossed the line to a good solid body condition score of a 6.

We knew the forage had not changed as the owner purchased her hay from the boarding barn. When we weighed out the mares daily ration of hay, we came up with 25 pounds per day on average. The mare weighed 990 pounds so she was receiving just over 2.5% of her body weight per day in hay. This was on target with her diet at the boarding barn.

The pasture was still being fenced, so she had a sand ring as turnout. Definitely no added calories there! The mare was also receiving the same amount of work, if not more, since she was now at the owner’s home.

The owner said she had purchased the same feed and still feeding 5 pounds per day, divided into two feedings. She then asked if our formulation had changed.  We walked into the feed room and I checked the product. It was the same feed the mare was previously on, and I assured her we had not made any changes.

I then asked how many bags of feed she was using a month. The owner replied “4 … exactly 1 per week.” I quickly did the math: 50 pounds/ 7 days is 7+ pounds per day.

I asked the owner if she had weighed a serving of the feed. She replied “No” because it was the same kind of scoop the boarding barn had used. However, when we weighed her scoop it held 3.5 pounds of feed when filled, not the 2.5 pounds she thought she was providing.

The above scoops and resulting weights are for SafeChoice Horse Feed. Weighing your scoop needs to be done with the product you are feeding, as there are differences in weight for various feeds.

With the extra source of calories identified, we adjusted the mare’s diet and she is on her way back to a healthy body condition!

Improving Body Condition After Winter

Every spring, we are inundated with a single question from horse owners: “My horse lost some weight over the winter, but I didn’t notice until he shed out his winter coat and I saw his ribs. What do I do now?”

Winter conditions, particularly in locations further north in the country, can definitely take a toll on horses. Bitter cold temperatures, biting winds, combined with the dampness of snow, sleet, and rain, can all cause the horse to require more energy than normal to maintain condition.  Cover the body with a fluffy winter coat, and perhaps a warm blanket, and head out to the barn a little less often to ride, and it’s easy to miss the early signs that the cold is causing problems.

So now your horse is in tough shape – what do you do to bring him back to condition safely?  Follow a few simple steps, and you’ll have him ready to ride in no time.

Once the horse has returned to proper condition, check your feeding program again, and adjust as necessary. A program designed to gain weight and condition, may be too rich for long term maintenance, unless the activity level of the horse offsets the calorie intake.

Finally, get out on the trails or the show circuit, and enjoy the ride!

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.

Ration Balancers vs Regular Horse Feeds

Gayle shows off her horse, IM ALittle Too Kool~ who is in wonderful condition thanks to a very well balanced diet!

I recently received a call from a horse owner that said she needed to put her horse on a diet. Her 1000 pound mare is a body condition score of 7. Her vet had recommended she put the mare on a ration balancer. When she priced products at the local feed store she thought that the price of a balancer was too high. Since her mare has free access to pasture, she felt that 1 pound a day of an economy feed would be good, with a few supplements. She was wonder what supplements would be best for her mare?

I told her she was on the right track to reduce the horse’s calories, but there was an easier way to put the mare on a healthy diet. I pointed out that the feed tag on the product she was feeding had a feeding rate of 0.5 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. So, for her mare to get the proper fortification of vitamins and minerals listed on the tag, she would need 5 pounds per day.

Cutting the ration down to only 20% of the required feed rate and adding supplements could get costly, as well as establishing an imbalance in micro and macro minerals. I suggested she consider a ration balancer. The concentrated nutrient levels allow for low feeding rates. A good quality balancer will contain prebiotics and probiotics to help support nutrient digestion. They will also feature guaranteed levels of biotin to support muscle, hair coat and hoof development. In addition they will also have guaranteed levels of amino acids to support muscle maintenance and development. Not to mention that a quality balancer will also use organic trace mineral complexes to increase bioavailability and protein utilization.

When we compared the balancer to top dressing the economy feed, the balancer was a much better value on a cost per day basis.  That’s why it’s always important to do the “cost per day” math, rather than getting fixated on the price tag on the bag, and remember to include the cost of supplements needed if a lower-quality, less expensive feed is being investigated.

Feeding Donkeys

In the equine world we certainly do see variation. From Quarter Horses to Arabians, from miniature horses to draft horses – we all know that our equine friends come in all shapes, sizes and colors. But with horses we can usually apply certain rules for feeding across a large variety of breeds with minimal adjustments.

Donkeys are something all together different. While they are related to horses and considered an equid, the way their digestive system functions is much different – donkeys have actually been compared to small ruminants in their capabilities to digest and utilize fiber. While under a visual inspection the digestive tract of a donkey and horse is the same, the way donkeys ferment and use fiber is unique. Donkeys (descendants of the wild ass)  originated as desert animals and are adapted to foraging on coarse plants and grasses. Due to their typical desert diet, their digestive system is much more efficient than that of a horse, and therefore donkeys require a different feeding strategy.

Donkeys do well on high fiber diets that are not rich in protein or carbohydrates

In many parts of the world, donkeys face the issue of malnutrition and starvation. In industrialized countries, just the opposite is true – the main problem among donkeys is obesity. In countries like the United States we present donkeys with energy rich food and usually don’t require them to work very hard for it. People tend to feed these animals just like horses – but a diet that may be perfectly fine for a maintenance horse could cause the average donkey to become grossly overweight. Here are some good tips to follow when feeding donkeys:

  • DO NOT overfeed!
  • Consider age, work requirement, environment and body weight of the animal
  • Monitor body condition continuously using the Donkey Sanctuary Scale
  • Carefully watch levels of carbohydrates and protein
  • High fiber diets are preferred
While you should always provide plenty of fresh, clean water to your donkeys, it is true that they have a lower requirement for water than horses. In fact, donkeys have one of the lowest requirements for water among domesticated animals with the exception of the camel. 
To correctly care for your donkey, remember that it is not just a “horse with longer ears”. Donkeys are unique in their nutritional and care requirements, but they will give you endless enjoyment if you manage them properly. 

 

Powering Ponies

It is very exciting to see the popularity of ponies increasing among adults and children across disciplines, but specifically in the FEI ones such as Eventing and Dressage.  Some notable ponies of late include Theodore O’Connor, Hideaways’sErin Go Bragh, and North Forks Cardi.  Ponies may be shorter in stature, but they are no less in heart and mind than a big horse.  With modern pony breeders focusing on increasing performance traits, more ponies are in the competition limelight. Though they can hold their own amongst the ‘big kids’, ponies do come with a few adjustments to care and nutrition.

Most of us have seen the proverbial fat pony. Then it’s no surprise that one of the most common concerns among pony owners is their pony’s weight.  Most ponies are considered by their owners to be easy keepers, meaning they gain weight just by looking at their feed (or so it seems!) which makes sense when you consider the origination of many of the pony breeds. 

Most breeds were developed in harsh conditions, the Welsh, Connemara, and Dartmoor to name a few, and are recognized for their hardiness and ability to exist on a relatively low plane of nutrition.  Modern ponies are metabolically efficient and adjustments need to be made as they should not be fed as their full-sized counterparts. 

Special care should be taken when selecting the appropriate feed for your pony.  Due to high incidence of insulin resistance and other metabolic disorders among ponies, feeds which provide large amounts of starch and sugar per meal should be avoided.  It is important to note that ponies don’t generally require a different feed than their larger counterparts, rather they simply require less of that feed. 

For low activity ponies, a ration balancer fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids along with a high quality grass forage are ideal.  Daily turnout for these ponies is also advised, though be cautious not to allow excessive grazing on lush pasture.  Exposure should be limited either a dry lot or use of a grazing muzzle if lush pasture rich in fructans and soluble sugars is all that is available.

For a pony in work, a feed that provides energy from high levels of soluble fiber and  fat, fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids is ideal.  Active ponies in regular work or strenuous exercise should consume forage at a rate of about one pound per 100 pounds of body weight, per day.  For a 700 pound pony, that would be approximately seven pounds of hay per day.  Good quality grass hay is ideal roughage for ponies. 

As with horses, it is important to monitor the body condition and weight.  A general guideline to follow for the body condition score for a pony is 5.0-5.5.  Their smaller size can be deceiving when it comes to dishing up feed, therefore it is very important to weigh feed and follow the recommended feeding directions.   

By keeping a keen eye on your feeding and management program, your pony can live a healthy, productive life in trim shape, and can excel in whichever discipline you choose – whether it’s in a dressage arena, or just a competition to see who’s got the prettiest pasture ornament!