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!

Does feed affect attitude in horses?

Nutrena Warmblood Horse Annick-7120I was recently asked by a fellow horse owner if I felt diet could play a role in the disposition of her horse.  My answer was “Yes, equine diet can have some influence on equine disposition.” But the answer is multifaceted.

Feeding Schedules

Horses by nature are grazing animals. Their stomach is small in relation to their body size, as they are flight animals. Their stomach continuously secretes acid which is buffered when they are chewing and creating saliva. A horse should consume approximately 2% of their body weight per day in forage.

Unfortunately, domestication has made horses more of a meal eater while in confinement, increasing the incidence of ulcers and other issues. Many of the farms I visit have feeding schedules which provide the bulk of a horse’s caloric intake within an 8 hour time frame, such as two feeding per day at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

I realize that feeding large barns can be labor intensive and more frequent feeding per day is not always an option. However, spacing the meals further apart and using tools, such as slow feed hay nets or hay racks, can slow the consumption rate to replicate grazing. For owners that board their horses, I often suggest providing treats of chopped forage or hay extenders to provide additional chew time and alleviate boredom.

Feeding Program

The dietary balance may also play a role in horse’s disposition. Many horse owners still believe that too much protein in the horse’s diet will cause behavioral problems.  The reality is that concentrates high in NSC (Non-structural carbohydrates, or starch and sugar) may cause behavior challenges in some horses. Many feed companies now list the NSC on their feed tags, but keep in mind you must add both the starch and sugar percentages together to get the total picture.

The dietary needs of a horse depend greatly on his daily workload.

  • A race horse or high-performance eventer will have both higher total caloric demands, and higher NSC demands, to support glycogen repletion. I often tell my students you would not condition and plan to run the Boston Marathon on a low non-structural carbohydrate diet.  We also know that added fat (oil) in an equine diet may have glycogen sparing effects, and may have a calming effect on some horses.
  • On the other hand, a maintenance or pleasure horse will have lower total caloric demands and lower NSC demands and may require a different balance of energy sources.

Bottom Line: High energy intake, particularly from non-structural carbohydrates, coupled with limited work and limited turn out is rarely a good combination!

Body Condition

Body condition and weight management can also influence a horse’s disposition. A horse with leg or joint issues carrying too much weight may be less than accommodating when asked to work. Keeping the horse at a moderate body condition is a key concern.

The reverse can also hold true, keeping a horse at a low body condition score so that the rider can easily handle the animal is not good management or training. Vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for caloric requirements and a balanced diet.

The Bottom Line

Often times, we really need to examine if the owner has the right horse for the job at hand, and is the behavior of the horse a matter of diet, training, or physical ability?

  • Examine your horse’s diet to see that you are providing adequate forage intake and chew time.
  • Review the overall composition of your horse’s diet and balance the dietary needs with fiber (structural carbohydrates), fats, non-structural carbohydrates and protein.
  • Is your horse at an ideal body condition score?

In summary, diet can be an influencer in equine disposition, but it is not an alternative for the wrong career choice for your equine partner.

Milk Replacer for Foals

foal drinking milk replacer from bucketA friend recently called, asking if I had bottles for foals. She explained that her mare had rejected her foal, and the said they were going to have to start feeding milk replacer.

I then asked my friend if she was aware how many times an hour a young foal can nurse, and there was a long silence on the phone.

So, I explained that a young foal can nurse up to 17 times an hour, and although this does decrease with age, it would take a village to manage the task. At 1 day of age the foals intake can be up to 10% of its body weight.  This consumption will increase up to 25% from about 10 days of age until weaning, so bottle feeding is not a realistic solution.

With that in mind, giving the foal access to milk at all times is feeding in a more natural manner than a bottle fed meal. This will also allow the foal to drink as little or as much as he/she want, which will result in fewer digestive upsets.

The foal can learn to drink from a shallow bowl or bucket very quickly after birth, so I explained to my friend the steps to follow with her foal:

  • First, place your finger in their mouths to stimulate the suckle reflex.
  • While they are sucking, raise the small bowl containing the liquid milk replacer solution up to their muzzle.
    • Always bring the milk up to the foal; do not force the foal’s head down into a bucket!
  • After they start to suck and drink, slowly remove your finger from the foal’s mouth.
  • If he stops drinking, repeat the above steps until he is drinking by himself.
  • The first day, warm the liquid milk replacer to encourage consumption.
  • When the foal drinks without assistance, hang a bucket with the milk replacer solution in it from the stable wall at the foals shoulder height. This will allow the foal to drink whenever it wants, just as if the mare was there.
  • The bucket should be a contrasting color to the wall to make it easy for the foal to find.

From birth to about 4 months of age milk replacers are a great option for orphaned ro rejected foals, or foals needing supplementation. Products such as Foals First Milk Replacer powder by Progressive Nutrition can be fed by the bucket and stay fresh for up to 12 hours.

I encourage any farm that is expecting a foal to have at least a 15-pound bucket of milk replacer on hand. It is well worth the investment!

Feeding and Managing Pregnant Mares: Prenatal Nutrition

Pregnant MareMany broodmares are in the last half of gestation at this time. The latter part of gestation is one of the most important development periods in the life of a foal when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare.  The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the 6th month of gestation, earlier than previously believed.  During the last three months of gestation, the foal may be gaining an average of one pound per day.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  • Maintain appropriate body condition score.
    • Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding.
  • Adequate protein/amino acid intake.
    • Lysine, methionine, and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development.
  • Adequate mineral and trace mineral intake.
    • The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves.  Trace minerals are also critical for immune support.
  • Vaccinations and deworming.
    • A regular vaccination program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce the appropriate antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies.  This is what protects the foal until it can be vaccinated and develop its own antibodies.  The mare should also be dewormed as needed prior to foaling.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but may NOT provide adequate amino acids and minerals for optimal fetal development.  A well-designed ration balancer product may be used from month 5 to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients.  A well-designed feed for broodmares and foals should be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals to avoid the need for a sudden change in feed at foaling. This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed.  Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year if desired.

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?

Critters for Christmas

It’s tempting, isn’t it? Your small child, grandchild, or family friend looks at you with thoseTobyBow14_1 big eyes and says all they want for Christmas is…. A pony. While the plea is endearing, and you do know a guy with a Shetland for sale, time and care must be taken before launching into this decision. Here are just a few of the key points to consider:

Time
All animals require time and attention. If you’re looking at getting a horse for your daughter and she is already spreading herself thin between basketball practice, dance lessons and pep squad, you may want to reconsider. At a minimum, you need to be prepared to have the time to feed and water your horse at least two times each and every day. In addition to that, regular grooming and exercise will take time, as will things like farrier visits, veterinarian check ups, etc.

Space
Let’s face it: a horse is not a backyard animal. They require space to live and space to get exercise. Unless you have a barn and paddock ready to go or are willing to pay for boarding somewhere, buying a horse may not be the best choice for you.

Money
Horses cost money. Not only at the initial time of purchase, but also throughout their life. Dollars can be easily spent on horses in the form of veterinary bills, shoeing, boarding, feed, tack, equipment, supplies, transportation, etc. Make sure you have talked to other horse owners about what to expect for costs (especially those specific to your area – like the price of hay and boarding costs) and that you can afford the hobby before you begin.

Commitment
Almost every little child goes through a phase where they want own a stable full of horses and they swear they’ll ride every day. But when the rubber hits the road, the passion often fizzles. And nothing is sadder than a well-trained, capable horse in the prime of its life, sitting in a pasture with nothing to do and no one to ride it.

Alternatives to horse ownership
So how do you know if horses are going to be a long term enjoyment for you or someone you love? There are several ways to get started in the horse habit without being a full-fledged horse owner. Why not give a gift certificate for riding lessons at a nearby stable? This will whet the appetite of the temporary horse lover, and if they stick with it, it may prove that a long term investment is wise. In addition, many horses are offered for lease instead of sale. This minimizes you exposure to risk in the event that after 2 months the riding habit dies off.

If you decide to move forward with the purchase, well – be ready with wide open arms for the biggest hug you’ll ever receive! Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

Horse in pasture during snow fall

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss. This is particularly important for older horses. The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming. It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times. If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day. Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply. A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather. Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic. A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition. Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind. Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind. Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat.

Fourth, feed more! A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone. Wind chill increases the energy requirement also. Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option. Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

  • A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance.
  • Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)
  • Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.
  • This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.
  • If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.
  • If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for winter activities and is ready for spring when it finally arrives!

Estimating Winter Hay Needs

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Question: We recently purchased a farm and will be housing our two quarter horses over the winter. They are trail horses who are not ridden during the winter. Because I’ve always boarded my horses, I’m not sure how to estimate how much hay I will need for the winter. Can you provide some guidelines?

Response: An adult horse at maintenance will consume between 2 – 2.5% of their bodyweight in feed (hay and grain) each day. For example, a 1,000 pound horse fed a 100% hay diet would consume 25 pounds of hay each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 (when there is no pasture in MN), the horse would consume about 5,350 pounds of hay or 2.7 tons.
  • This would equal 107 fifty pound small square‐bales or six 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 214 small squarebales or 12 round‐bales.
  • It is critical to know the weight of the hay bales; not all bales weigh the same.

If the same horse was receiving 5 pounds of grain each day, their hay needs would be reduced to 20 pounds each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 the horse would consume about 4,280 pounds of hay or 2.1 tons.
  • This would equal 86 fifty pound small square‐bales or five 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 172 small‐square bales or 10 round‐bales.

These estimates assume good quality hay is fed in a feeder to reduced hay waste. When feeding small squares‐bales, hay waste when a feeder was not used (hay fed on the ground) was approximately 13% compared to only 1 to 5% when a feeder was used. When feeding large round‐bales, not using a feeder resulted in 57% hay waste compared
to 5 to 33% hay waste when a feeder was used. Its always best to purchase some extra hay since horses may require additional hay during the cold winter months (depending on their access to shelter).

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, Univ. of Minnesota. Reprinted with permission of the author. For other topics from the Univ. of Minnesota Equine Extension, visit their website.

Tracing the Effect of Trace Minerals in Horse Diets

Trace minerals have a large impact on the overall health and condition of your horse. Feeding them in proper amounts AND ratios is key to helping your horse be as happy and healthy as possible!Understanding the impact of trace minerals in the diet of horses

 

Click the image to enlarge. Please leave comments or questions if you have them!