Transition to Spring Pasture

It is no wonder these guys are asking to be let out onto the lush spring grass after such a long and trying winter.  What horse owner could resist those molten brown eyes and soft whisper-nickers, as if saying ‘Let me out, I’ll be good…I promise!’   

We work hard and do our best to provide our horses what they need; pasture seems all too natural to resist. It’s only when you understand the unique nutritional properties of early spring forage, that you can feel better about saying ‘not yet’!

If your horse survived the winter on hay, a hasty  introduction to ‘rich’ spring grass can cause a shock to his digestive system.  If at all possible, keep your horse off grass during the initial growth period by designating a ‘sacrifice’ area or dry lot.  The size of the dry lot will depend on your available land, but generally should be large enough to allow your horse to move about freely and stretch his legs. The sacrifice area serves to protect your emerging pasture as well as allowing you an opportunity to ease your horse’s digestive tract onto new-growth grass. If he is kept in a dry lot during this time, you may consider hand walking, lunging or additional work sessions to keep him from becoming too fresh. 

So what is different about spring grass that we should heed warning? As the strong spring sun warms the earth, the grass in your pasture emerges from its winter dormant state. The first few blades have a critical job of transforming sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis, that starts the growth of the plant for the rest of the season.  This food is in the form of plant sugar (fructans) and is essential for the plant to grow into a productive pasture contributor for the remainder of the season. 

When overnight temperatures are cool (generally 40 degrees F) the stored energy created during the day is used to grow additional leaves and roots. Extra food not utilized overnight is stored in the plant tissues.  If overnight temperatures drop below 40 degrees F, the plant will not invest in growth and the sugars will remain in the leaves. This is when the new grass is of concern for horses.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when overnight temperatures remain above 40 degrees F, it is the ideal time to start acclimating your horse to the fresh spring grass, because the level of fructans in the grass are likely to be the lowest.

The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual, starting with a period of 15-20 minutes of grazing.  Gradually increase until you have reached your ideal turnout length of time; this may take the better part of a month.  During this time, it is important to monitor the output of your horse; loose, unformed stools indicate digestive upset likely correlated to the increased fructans. For horses with metabolic issues prone to digestive upsets, transitions should made later in the growing cycle onto mature grasses.  In addition to restricting time on pasture, a grazing muzzle can be used to further control intake.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a pasture full of healthy, green growing grass not only looks wonderful, it is  an investment in your horse’s nutrition. Allowing the early grass to grow and flourish, then gradually transitioning to grazing is an investment in your overall nutrition program. Armed with this information, don’t you feel better telling him to wait?

Feeding Schedules for Horses

A few months ago, I received a call from a farm that was experiencing numerous cases of colic. They were concerned that their grain was the cause of the problem and asked me to visit their farm.

When I arrived at 8:30 am, the horses were just being fed. As I walked into the barn I noticed all of the stall fronts and side boards showed signs of chewing. I also noticed that many of the horses had little or no water in their buckets. Each horse received a large scoop of sweet feed and a flake of hay.

I reviewed the horses’ weight and body condition scores with the owner and trainer. Based on that assessment, I suggested they move to feeding hay at a rate of 1.5% of the horses’ body weight, and grain at the rate of 0.5 %. I also suggested going to a pelleted feed, as the horses were passing a lot of undigested grain in their manure. I encouraged the farm to select a pellet high in fiber and fat, and that contained yeast cultures to aid in the digestion process.

I then asked the farm owner to describe the daily routine at the farm. He explained once the horses are fed, they begin a daily work and turnout routine. At about noon, they are given another flake of hay or have round bales in their turnout area. By 3:30, all of the horses are brought in for their evening feeding. The evening feed consisted of a scoop of grain and two flakes of hay. The barn is closed for the day by 4:00 p.m. The horses were receiving all of their daily rations in 3 feedings, but they were within an 8 hour period.

By spanning the daily rations over a 14 hour period, ensuring full water buckets throughout the day, and following the product selection suggestions I had made, the farm has now been colic free for over 6 months!

Leading a Horse to Water…

Water is the most essential and important nutrient for you and your horse and should be available to your horse at all times. Good hydration is vital to optimal health and performance. With all of the bad things that can happen if a horse doesn’t drink properly, it’s no wonder horse owners, myself included, get anxious about making sure their horse is consuming adequate amounts of H2O, particularly when we are away from home.

So what is a horse owner to do in these cases? The old adage which says ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’ may be true. However, with a little preparation before heading out to hit the trails or this year’s show circuit, most horses can be trained to drink. Providing free choice access to salt, bringing along water from home, using electrolytes, and doing things like soaking feed can all help, and training your horse to drink is one more tool you can add to your box of tricks. Supplies are cheap and easy to obtain. I like to use the smaller 8qt buckets – they are easier to hold, especially if watering in a trailer.

  • To begin, I wanted my gelding to associate the small “water” bucket with a yummy treat. So I started giving him his favorite treat – chopped up carrots, a little unsweetened applesauce, and a small handful beet pulp – in the bucket without water. He quickly learned that that bucket meant something yummy.
  • Once that positive association was made, I started adding just a little water over the treat, just enough to cover the carrot chunks (1 – 2 inches) and get the applesauce in solution so the water was “flavored”. The idea is to get his nose wet to get the treat, and he would be rewarded for slurping everything up through lots of verbal praise and the food treat. There are many things you can flavor water with, its just a matter of finding what your horse finds irresistible:
    • Gatorade, applesauce, commercial water flavors, carrot shreds, small handful of grain concentrate, small dollop of molasses, peppermints, etc.
  • Once he accepted the water addition to his treat, I started giving his “water treat” in different locations around the farm (in the cross-ties, by the horse trailer, in the horse trailer, outside of the arena, in the pasture, etc.) AND as soon as we were done working, just as his caveson or bridle came off after being properly cooled out. After a few days of doing this, he started expecting his “water treat” after work.
  • Now that we had established this behavior, it was time to add more water, filling to ¼ of the bucket and letting him get used to that, then filling to ½ bucket, letting him get used to that, and so on, until he was drinking most of a small bucket when I put it in front of him.
  • After a little time I started backing off of the flavor so the mixture got more diluted, but making sure he still got a treat reward for finishing off the bucket each time. That way if he ever got really stubborn about drinking or if I were masking water that was noticeably different from water at home, I could add more flavor back to entice him to drink.
    • Also, since adding things to water can be a labor intensive (buckets need to be cleaned more frequently), the less you have to add, the more practical it is.
    • Another trick, especially when you get to the full bucket stage, is to let the horse watch you add the treat (carrot/apple chunks) to the water, so they stay engaged and interested. If they back off drinking, then go back to the previous step or the step before that and re-establish the behavior, then move on again.

The idea of adding flavor initially is to develop the consumption behavior through positive association, and then wean them off of it gradually while the behavior is retained. If you regularly offer your horse flavored water, be sure they have access to clean, fresh, un-flavored water as well. Also, take care not to go overboard with sugary flavors in your water to avoid digestive upset. It would be counter-productive for your horse to associate a “tummy-ache” with drinking.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep yourself well hydrated along with your horse. Cheers!

Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets

Many horse owners are concerned about carbohydratelevels in their horses diet, particularly if the horse is prone to colic or laminitis.  Often, the owner will look to simply feed a product with a lower starch or NSC percentage.  But that’s often not the best, or only, solution, particularly if elevated levels of performance are expected of the horse, because the percent of starch in the feed isn’t what matters to a horse’s digestive system – what truly matters is the total amount of starch that enters the digestive system per meal

When a horse consumes too much NSC in one meal, the starches and sugars may not be completely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Undigested starch getting to the hindgut may cause rapid fermentation by the microbes (gut bugs) that live in the cecum and large intestine, which  results in gas production & lactic acid buildup.  The gas buildup can result in colic, while the lactic acid accumulation drops the pH of the gut, starting a chain of events that may compromise the blood supply to the hoof, resulting in laminitis.

Here’s the catch: all horses need some NSC in the diet to live and work for you – it is a simple biological need.  Hard working horses need higher, but still controlled, intakes of starches and sugars to provide readily available energy for work and to replace the glycogen (stored energy) that may have been used up during intense exercise.  NSC intake is important for horses to recover from hard work. 

If higher total intakes of starch and sugar are required to maintain energy levels, but the potential for digestive upset or laminitic episodes is a primary concern, the horse may benefit from more frequent but smaller meals during periods when extra calories are needed to recover from hard work.  The higher daily intake, using more frequent feedings, will provide additional starch and sugar, as well as other nutrients your horse needs, while helping reduce the risk of digestive disturbances related to higher starch intake in a single meal.

Conditioning Your Horse: 5 Types of Fitness

Spring is officially here and you’ve probably got a season full of shows, races, trail rides, and more planned for you and your horse. But before you put your horse back to work, take a minute to think about the importance of conditioning. Conditioning is a huge part of your horse’s health and well being. Taking time to prepare for an event by gradually increasing speed and distance over several weeks is essential to keeping your horse healthy and safe.

Conditioning directly relates to five types of fitness in the horse:

  1. Cardiovascular fitness refers to how well the blood can circulate through the muscles. As the horse gains more cardiovascular fitness, his heart does not have to beat as hard to transport oxygen.
    1. Normal Resting Heart Rate:
      1. 36 BPM or less (the more fit the horse, the lower the Resting Heart Rate)
      2. Moderate Work: 75-105 BPM
      3. Heavy Work: 200 BPM or higher
      4. The heart rate of a working horse should recover to 60 BPM or lower after 10-15 minutes of rest; if the horse is in poor condition it may take 30-45 minutes for recovery
  2. Respiratory fitness is how oxygen is introduced into the blood. The more fit the horse, the less acidic the blood will be (from CO2 and lactic acid), making respiration easier since the horse doesn’t have to breathe as hard to get rid of excess CO2 and take in more oxygen.
  3. Thermoregulation is simply the horses need to cool itself, which happens through breathing heavily and sweating. Fat horses and horses that are extremely muscular are not able to cool themselves as well as leaner, less muscled animals. Too much heat production can lead to serious problems, such as lethargy and becoming uncoordinated.
  4. Muscular fatigue is also a serious indication of poor condition. Muscles that are worked hard create lactic acid and metabolic wastes. If too much lactic acid builds up in a certain area, soreness will result. Conditioning will help your horses’ muscles burn fuel more efficiently and with less waste; another important way to reduce muscle soreness is to be sure to allow adequate cool down time (at least 30 minutes walking after a hard workout).
  5. Skeletal fatigue can occur in your horse’s bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. Horses with skeletal fatigue are more likely to suffer sprains and strains. As you ride, your horse’s bones are constantly compensating for your weight as well as the type of work being done. For this reason improper preparation in a certain event may lead to skeletal fatigue. For example, a western pleasure horse taken on an endurance ride without the right preparation may lead to problems with the bones, ligaments, joints and /or tendons.

A conditioning program should be based on what you want to achieve with your horse. A dressage horse will have a different conditioning program than a barrel racing horse, so keep your long term goal in mind. The most common method of conditioning includes alternating between slow speed and fast speed conditioning, continually increasing the amount of work done as the horse becomes more fit until optimum condition is reached.

Poisonous to Horses: Plants

As a horse owner, I have come to realize that horses have an uncanny ability to get themselves into trouble.  Whether it be messing with the fence, making play-things of their stall or breaking into the feed room to grab an extra snack, if we don’t want them to get into it, horses seem to find a way to get into it!  If lucky, the vet doesn’t need to be called, but there is usually some upgrading of hardware, the perpetual fixing of the fence or continuously beefing up security around the feed room.  But what about the things that we as humans haven’t built?  What naturally occurring perils of danger will my horse find and get himself in to? 

Pasture grazing is ideal for horses
Cooper as a yearling, grazes in the pasture

As Winter fades and Spring makes a welcome entrance, thoughts turn from feeding hay to blissfully sunny pasture turnout.  Now is a great time to educate yourself about plants that can harm your horse.

March is poison prevention month and as horse owners, knowing what plants are poisonous to your horse can go a long way in preventing trouble.  To help get you started, here is a good resource of information about poisonous plants that grow in the Midwest, from the University of Minnesota Equine Extension Office.

http://www1.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/pasture/poisonous-plants/

If you find plants of poisonous varieties where your horse can access them, please work with your local extension office on methods of controlling exposure.  Also remember to check your garden and landscaping as many plants listed are popular decorations.

It is also important to note that plant variety growth varies by geographic region so be sure to check with your local extension office for information specific to the area in which you live.

So while you may not be able to keep them from breaking the fence, breaking into the feed room (despite the keypad lock on the door) or dismantling the components of their stall, you can be aware of and have a plan to manage the poisonous plants that dare grow near your horse.

Feeding Fat to Horses

Lately there has been tremendous interest in the horse world about fat. In regards to human nutrition, “fat” is often considered a bad word, and low-fat diets are popular. But we should remember that in people, some fats are necessary and healthy. This is equally true for horses: fats play a very important role in horse feeds and nutrition.

There are many reasons to feed horses added fat. The best reason for using added fat is for an energy (calorie) source. The primary purpose for grain feeding is to provide energy for maintenance, performance, growth and reproduction.  Because fat contains more than twice the calorie content of starch, and horses digest and utilize fat well, higher fat horse feeds offer an excellent opportunity to increase calorie intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed.

Other reasons for adding fat to a feed ration include improved endurance, heat tolerance, hair coat and attitude:

  • Horses on fat supplemented diets experience increased endurance because of a glycogen sparing effect. Glycogen is the fuel for muscular activity that is stored in the muscle cells. Horses that are on high fat diets conserve glycogen, which can help them finish a performance event stronger. This is particularly important in racing, eventing, cutting and other activities that require high performance over time.
  • Horses trained in hot, humid environments show improvement to heat tolerance because fat supplemented rations generate less heat as a by-product of digestion. This becomes important in parts of the country where heat is prevalent.
  • A shiny hair coat, a side benefit of added fat in the diet, is important to horse owners who are showing or selling horses. Higher fat levels, especially those that contain a balance of omega three and omega six fatty acids, are good choices for those in the show ring or sale ring business.
  • Horse owners often report that horses that are fed lower-starch diets with added fat have a calmer attitude than those that are fed a conventional high starch and forage diet.

It is important to keep in mind that indiscriminate fat supplementation can create deficiencies of other nutrients. This is known as empty calories; where energy levels are adequate, but protein, lysine and mineral levels are not. Developmental bone problems can result which may precipitate injuries in young horses.

There also is a period of adjustment of about three to four weeks for horses to receive benefits from added fat. Any change in diet should be done gradually over seven to10 days to avoid the possibility of digestive upsets.

A balanced diet, tailored to the use and age of the horse, is the most important consideration. A trained nutritional consultant can make recommendations that will best fit your horse and the activity involved.

Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin.
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs. 

Protein in Horse Feed & Hay

Newly born, Ella takes in her worldHorses of all ages require adequate amounts of protein for maintenance, growth, reproduction and work, with growth and reproduction being the most critical time periods.  Proteins are important building blocks for body cells.  Feed intake, growth, physical activity, physical endurance, condition, production of milk and fetal development can all be impaired if protein intake is inadequate.

Most every horse owner can name the protein level of the feed they are currently using.  “A 12% sweet feed” is a common answer when asked that question – but how important is that protein percentage?  While the total protein in the horses’ diet is important, horses actually require essential amino acids, even though crude protein is what is required by law to be listed in a guaranteed analysis.  Many feed manufacturers are moving towards listing the amino acids on the tag, which can help horse owners to see the quality of the protein sources being used.

Beyond the grain portion of the diet, a major factor to watch for regarding protein in an equine diet is the hay source.  After all, hay makes up the majority of the diet, and thus a lot of the protein in the diet comes from the hay. Horse owners need to figure in what their hay sources are providing, and balance it together with their grain source, to determine what their horses are consuming.

Listed below are protein percentages required by the major categories of horses – please note that these are for the TOTAL DIET, not just the grain portion.

  • Foals: 16-18%
  • Weanlings: 14-16%
  • Yearlings: 12-14%
  • Mature horses: 10-12%
  • Lactating mares: 12-14%

In order to figure out the total protein in your horses’ diet, follow this simple calculation:

( (Lbs Hay x Protein in Hay) + (Lbs Grain x Protein in Grain) ) / Total Lbs Fed = Protein in Total Diet

To have an accurate estimate of protein in your hay, it is best to have it tested.  Check with your local extension office or feed store for labs in your area that will do the testing.  Hay protein can vary dramatically from one cutting to the next, and from one field to the next.  Rainfall, stage of growth when harvested, and a variety of other factors can also influence the quality of the hay.  Alfalfa hays are typically considered to be higher protein that timothy or other grass hays, however if alfalfa is harvested late, perhaps due to weather concerns that make it tough to get in the field, it can have lower proteins than some grass hays that are harvested at the proper time.  Thus, it is always a good idea to know the facts behind your hay source rather than “guesstimating”.

A final point that must be made about protein:  Increased protein levels are not generally responsible for a “hot” horse.  Protein is a very inefficient source of energy, and its main use in a mature horse is the re-building of muscle and other body cells after exercise.  Instead, it is the starch and sugars in a horses diet, as well as the calorie intake to calories used (exercise level) ratio, that are primarily responsible for a “hot” horse.  But that’s a topic for another blog post!

Warm Mashes for Senior Horses

Gayle's 32 Year Old Arabian, "Radar's Count"

I received an email from one of my clients asking for a recipe for a “Safe Warm Mash” for her senior horse.   She thought a bran mash would be a good choice, but was unsure as to ingredients or cooking instructions.  The particular horse is 23 years old and a body score of a solid 6. He is showing some early signs of Cushing’s disease. His current diet is grass hay and Nutrena’s SafeChoice Senior horse feed, as well as daily pasture turnout.

I have never understood why so many educated consumers, that take the time to transition a horse gradually from one feed to another over 5-7 day period would want to take this chance.  A one meal change in a horse’s diet may not cause colic or founder, but it can cause enough of a change in the microbial balance to cause diarrhea or gas, especially in a senior horse.   The fact that the calcium and phosphorus ratios in bran are also so out of balance for horses makes me uncomfortable, as we strive for a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, not 1:12 as is in bran.   This is important for proper metabolic function and to maintain bone integrity.

The good news is that there is a safe alternative to making a bran mash!  I contacted my client and told her that she already had the ingredients to make a mash for her horse – his senior horse feed – and the most important nutrient in a horse’s diet – water.  Senior feeds are high in fiber, as well as properly fortified with calcium and phosphorus.  By simply soaking a serving of her horse’s senior feed with warm water for 5-8 minutes until it reaches a consistency her horse will enjoy, she will have a nice warm mash for her senior horse.

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