Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

You’re So Lucky!

This weekend I attended my 3rd Awards banquet for the 2014 show Region 14 Arabian Sport HOrse Rider Handler of the Yearseason. My horse and I completed the season earning state, regional and national championships. Considering that I am 60 years old and have been working with this horse for the past 4 years, I am very proud of our accomplishments. A friend told me we are just “So lucky to win all those awards”. I feel we are blessed to have earned these honors but it is more than luck. I look at the equation like a balanced triangle.

I like to start with the horse. So first I make sure I have the right horse for the job. I purchased my horse Rhinestone Cowboy AF as a potential horse I could show in trail class on the Arabian circuit.

At a local show, a nationally recognized Arabian judge commented he was very correct and would do well as a Sport horse. We watched a few Sport Horses classes and other friends encouraged us to enter the division. They were right and he has proven to be an outstanding Sport Horse Hunter under Saddle. I adjusted my goals for my horse with his development and athletic ability. It was a learning curve for me, and a lot of great people in the Sport Horse industry encouraged us to compete. So having the right horse for the job is important.

Next let’s look at the training aspect. You would not think of sending your child to school and telling the teacher you want the child to read at 6th grade level in 60 days, yet people expect miracles from their trainers. It takes time, patience and more time to properly train and school a horse. It is not within my budget to send my horse out for training, so he is home schooled. That does not stop me from seeking advice, attending clinics or watching trainers work horses. So many of our industry’s professionals are more than willing to help an amateur solve a problem or evaluate a situation, if you just reach out to them, but respect time and professionalism.

The third side to the triangle is diet. You would not train to run the Boston Marathon on a diet of fast food, why would you expect your horse to be any different. I start our program with the best quality hay I can find. I then feed my horse 2% of his body weight per day in hay. I balance the diet with a quality performance horse feed that provides chelated minerals, pre and pro biotics and is formulated at a safe NSC level. My personal choice is Pro Force fuel by Nutrena.

I only attended 3 shows last season one each month during June, July and August. I want the experience to be enjoyable for my horse as well as myself. I realize judging horses is like judging living art work and it is one person’s opinion. If my horse worked a good class, that is what matters to me. It is a hobby and we are there to have fun. We have worked hard to prepare for the show, and we are there to show what we can accomplish. My horse will have good days and bad days, and I need to know when he has reached his limit both physically and emotionally.

As I look at the triangle I feel confident I have the right horse for the job, worked to obtain realistic goals, and provided my horse with a balanced diet. We were blessed with an outstanding year and lucky to have so many great people in the industry encourage us!

Top Tips for Feeding Your Horse This Spring

Toby GrazingFeeding your horse during the longer days and warmer temperatures of the spring season can often be different than your chosen winter-feeding program.

Keep the following diet and feeding considerations in mind to help your horse smoothly transition from winter to spring:

Tip 1: Monitor Your Horse’s Body Condition

We all know every horse is different. This means that some horses will have gained winter weight from working less, while other horses will have shed a few pounds keeping warm in the cold. Before even thinking of altering your horse’s spring-feeding regimen, first evaluate his body condition. With the help of your veterinarian or a knowledgeable equine professional, determine if your horse is too skinny, too fat or carrying just the right amount of weight.

To monitor your horse’s weight without using a scale, you can utilize the body condition scoring method. This system will help you estimate the fat present on your horse’s body. Once you have estimated the level of fat cover, you will be able to more accurately determine whether you should increase or decrease your horse’s caloric intake.

It is important to note that each horse will require a different body condition level that is dependent on a number of factors, including: age, level of work, breed, current or past injuries, etc.

Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Concentrates (Grain)
Many horses are fed grain on a daily basis. Throughout winter some horses need extra grain to maintain their ideal body weight, while other horses have their grain reduced, due to inactivity. Adjusting the type and amount of concentrate or grain your horse consumes should be done slowly and carefully. A horse’s internal digestive system is built for slow changes.

With this in mind, monitor his level of work and body condition. If your horse’s work level is increased, he might need to receive more grain. Conversely, if his work level remains the same, and he is able to safely consume spring grasses, then your horse might need to receive fewer concentrates.

Whatever adjustments are made, make sure your horse is still receiving the appropriate level of essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Achieving this may require a change in the feed product being used. Horses requiring additional calories could be bumped up to a higher-calorie performance horse feed, while those needing fewer calories could go down to a ration balancer product.

Tip 3: Horses Tend to Eat A lot of Forage
It is no secret that horses eat a lot of forage. However, what most people don’t know is that a horse’s forage is only as good as the fiber that it contains. Pastures often lay dormant during winter, which can reduce a horse’s natural intake of grass forage. As a result, many equestrians will feed their horses extra forage via hay or beet pulp. This feeding tactic can be great for the cold months, but it should be re-evaluated in spring.

When spring arrives, most pasture paddocks will be filled with new grasses rich in sugar. Monitor your horse’s body condition score as it begins to consume the rich green grasses. Horses that gorge themselves on spring grasses may encounter some serious health issues. For example, overweight horses or those with Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or laminitis will need to be carefully monitored. High sugar and starch levels of spring grass can aggravate the latter conditions. In these instances, reduced turnout time or a grazing muzzle can help limit pasture intake for certain at-risk horses.

Tip 4: Lots of Fresh Water
This last suggestion holds true in any season: Horses need to have access to plenty of fresh water 24 hours a day. Warmer temperatures and an increase in body sweat can result in dehydration. Make sure that your horse has water access post workout. Some equestrians also add electrolyte supplements to their horse’s feed. These supplements can help replenish essential nutrients during particularly warm or hot weather. Of course, consult your veterinarian if you have further questions.

Spring is a fantastic time of year for horses and equestrians. It is a chance to shed bulky winter clothing and spend time riding to your heart’s content. However, spring is also a time that a horse’s body condition should be properly monitored. If you need to make any changes to your horse’s spring feeding regime, be sure to make the changes slowly and consult a nutritionist or your veterinarian for advice or guidance.

Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods. She has been an avid equestrian for 20 years.

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. 

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

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

Feeding Tips for Stall Rest

Regardless of the diagnosis, when stall rest is on the treatment list, adjusting your feeding program to match your horse’s lack of activity can improve the experience for both you and your horse.

Horse on stall rest

As a curious 2 year old, Toby injured himself and landed in stall rest-land.

Whether recovering from an injury, surgery, or other, stall rest is generally prescribed to limit the movement of your horse to aid in the body’s natural healing process.  Often times, when a horse’s activity level moves from work or competition to that of quiet stall rest, it takes a period of adjustment for him to settle into the new routine.

Altering his feeding program to match this now sedentary lifestyle will help him make the transition.  Please note: all feed and forage changes should be made gradually through a period of 5-7 days so as not to disrupt the digestive system.

For the horse sentenced to a period of stall rest, the name of the game is energy management.  If he is an athlete who is used to getting high calorie feed and plenty of exercise, transition him to a lower calorie feed or ration balancer, with a high quality grass forage.  Reducing the energy he receives from his feed will help manage his weight and behavior.

Selecting a feed that is balanced for amino acids will offer the body aid in the development and repair of tissues, especially muscle and connective tissue. Fortified, balanced levels of vitamins and minerals will aid in immune response as well as minimize bone density loss.  Feed that is fortified with prebiotics, such as yeast culture, and probiotics can aid in the balance of the gut bacteria, overall absorbtion of nutrients and supports the immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids in the feed can also provide support for the immune system as well as help manage inflammitory response in tissue.

Monitor his body condition score and weight throughout stall rest and make feed amount adjustments as needed.  If he begins to gain weight, reduce his feed amount to the lowest advised amount from the feed manufacturer.

If he drops too much weight, slowly increase the feed amount, making sure to stay within the feeding directions.  Increasing the amount of hay can also provide benefits, though keep watch that he doesn’t start wasting.  Health complications or hay quality concerns aside, uneaten hay is an indication that he is being fed too much per meal.

In addition to providing much needed fiber and calories, hay in the stall can also provide a distraction,  curbing destructive behavior such a cribbing, weaving and pawing.  Consider providing stall toys, such as a ball or treat roller to keep his mind occupied and prevent bad stall habits from forming.

Pending the doctor’s orders, hand walking is a common method of providing limited exercise while reducing the chances of further damaging the injury or wound.  Hand walking is also a great way to spend time with your horse, especially if stall rest has taken him away from his normal job.

Once the period of stall rest is completed and he goes back to ‘work’,  transitioning his feed back to the ‘normal’ energy levels should be done with even more caution than transitioning the energy down.  For advise on your specific situation, please discuss with a qualified feed consultant or your veterinarian.

Feeding Tips for Horses with Laminitis

Laminitis in short, is the inflammation of soft tissue in the hoof causing damage to or death of the laminar cells, resulting in the loss of the foot’s mechanical integrity.  The severity of damage is unique to each case with the worst damage resulting in founder which is the sinking of the coffin bone.

Overall management and feeding of horses with laminitis requires special care, since factors such as body weight, starch intake, mineral and energy balance, as well as metabolic function can have a profound effect on the fragile environment of the damaged tissue of the hoof.  If you are managing a horse currently being treated for laminitis or one with a history of laminitis, the most important element of overall care is staying connected to your vet and farrier.  When it comes to feeding, here are some nutrition tips to help you along the way.

  • Weight: weight control and regular exercise help any horse physically and mentally, but the laminitic horse in particular.  Excess weight and stagnation add unneeded stress to an already fragile situation. Once the acute phase has passed, regular turn out and exercise provide essential blood flow to the foot, which provides the nutrients for tissue repair.  Activity is also helpful in managing weight.
  • Pasture:  Lush pasture access should be limited by a grazing muzzle for horses prone to laminitis or those currently being treated for it.  If a grazing muzzle is not available, the horse should be limited to access later in the day when plant sugar (fructans) levels in grass are lower, or be kept on a dry lot.
  • Forage: High quality grass hay is the ideal forage for a horse prone to laminitis.
  • Feed: A product specially formulated for metabolic issues or a ration balancer are the best bet to feed your laminitic horse.  Micro nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for tissue repair, so be sure to check that the feed is balanced for these as well as the essential amino acids.   Avoid feeds which provide high levels of starch per meal as these horses tend to be sensitive to increases in blood sugar and insulin.
  • Supplements: Horses with laminitis may benefit from supplemental magnesium and chromium, both of which assist in sensitivity to insulin.
  • Water: Often overlooked as a nutrient, water is one of the best allies in the defense of laminitis in your horse.  Fresh, clean tepid water is a key to overall health as well as circulation of nutrient rich blood.

Following these guidelines for feeding and management, as well as working closely with your veterinarian and farrier should provide you with the tools you need to manage laminitis in your horse.  With extra care and help from the trusted professionals in your life, your horse with laminitis can live a happy, balanced life.