Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?

I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college.  Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation.   After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.

One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.hand feeding red size

I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.

With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.

One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation.  She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.

I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.

Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.

2 Replies to “Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?”

  1. My 22 year old coloured gelding has started eating my younger horses droppings. Grass is short due to winter but I feed hay, multi vitamins and seaweed supplement which I mix in their Dodson and Horrell SAFE AND SOUND feed. Why is he doing this?

    1. Hi Jayne,

      Thank you for your question about your 22 year old horse that has started eating the manure from your younger horse.

      Unusual eating behavior ( sometimes referred to as pica) can be caused by a number of factors and may cause the horse to eat manure, eat dirt, eat bark off trees, chew on board fences, chew on stable mate’s mane & tail or chew on tool handles or leather equipment.

      I usually suggest going thru the following check list for the most common causes of unusual eating behavior:
      1. Lack of salt. Offer loose salt free choice as horses will consume more readily than block salt. Lack of salt can trigger a number of unusual eating behaviors (eating manure, eating dirt, chewing on objects, chewing on tool handles etc.) 2. Fiber intake in the diet might be inadequate. If a horse does not feel full, it will look for other things to eat. Make sure there is adequate long stem roughage available. Fences, trees, manes, and tails may suffer if there is not sufficient roughage!
      3. Phosphorus deficiency. Horses have quite limited “nutritional wisdom”, but phosphorus deficiency will trigger unusual eating behavior, including eating manure or dirt. Offering a free choice Calcium, phosphorus and salt mineral may be useful.
      4. Protein deficiency. Again, horses have limited “nutritional wisdom”, but inadequate protein or poor quality protein may trigger some of the above unusual eating behaviors. Evaluating the forage and the overall feeding program is useful.
      5. Ulcers. Horses that have ulcers will sometimes eat dirt or manure as well as chew on other objects. The saliva produced when chewing has a buffering effect.

      I always start by offering loose salt free choice, making sure fiber is adequate. If that does not remedy the problem, I will then go to offering a good mineral product (calcium, phosphorus, salt combination, perhaps with some trace minerals) and perhaps a full ration evaluation. Other behaviors may help decide if ulcer assessment is needed.

      Best wishes,

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