Taking Weight Off of Easy Keeping Horses

We hear often from people that “My pony is so fat!” It is often followed with, “He doesn’t need to be fed anything – he so much as sees a bag of feed and he gains weight.”

Obesity in horses can lead to laminitis, overheating and numerous other health issues. Ideally, chubby horses should have their nutrition monitored closely. Three good practices to manage these types of easy keepers are:

  1. Limit their forage first and provide a controlled-calorie horse feed to complete the missing nutrients from the forage. This still allows the horse or pony to feel as though it gets fed, too.
  2. If monitored well, grazing muzzles work for overweight horses on pastures, allowing them only small bites of grass but maintaining free access to run with the other horses.
  3. Not surprisingly, most effective is daily exercise. Increasing the amount of calories burned each day reduces the amount that are stored away as fat.

Taking weight off of an easy keeper is no small task, but is well worth it in the long run. Keeping our equine friends fit will help ensure they stay with us for years to come.

Stretching Your Horse Hay Budget

We all know that next to water, forage is the most important part of a horse’s diet. Without it they just can’t survive.

With the high prices of forage there are a few ways you can get a little more out of the forage you feed.

  1. Start by selecting the best quality hay your budget will allow – higher quality means more nutrition in every bite. 
  2. If practical, weigh out the appropriate amount of hay your horse should eat at each feeding so that the excess isn’t wasted. On average, a horse should eat between 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage per day.
  3. You may also choose a feed that contains yeast cultures (prebiotics) and direct fed microbials (probiotics) like Lactobacillus Acidophilus. These elements will help your horse’s hind gut better digest and utilize the forage it takes in.
  4. If your horse is on pasture, a good practice may be to divide your pasture into sections and rotate sections on a frequent basis to allow for maximization of forage produced.
  5. If hay or pasture is in truly short supply, try utilizing a hay extender product.  While it is always beneficial to keep at least some long-stemmed roughage in the diet, using a hay extender can make the few bales of hay you have last quite a bit longer.

Judging Hay Quality for Horses

Because hay is such a common part of a horses diet, judging quality on visual inspection is important, as lab analysis is not always easily available.  Here are three simple things to look for to help you select the best hay for your horses and your money.

  1. The initial check that most people are familiar with is color and smell.  Horse hay should be bright green and smell slightly sweet.  Brown hay indicates either a problem in the baling process, such as being rained on, or age.  Acrid or musty smells generally indicate the presence of mold.
  2. Another sign of good horse hay is the leaf:stem ratio.  The more leaves, the better, since the leaves are where most of the nutrition in the hay is stored.  Hay that has too many hard, woody stems is difficult to digest.  Even if it cheaper, most horses will pick through and leave the bulk of the stems behind, costing more in the long run.  High quality hay is fine-stemmed, pliable, and full of leaves.
  3. Type of hay is another factor.  Grass hays, such as timothy or orchard grass, generally provide sound basic nutrition.  The higher the concentration of legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, the higher the energy content.  High quality alfalfa is generally better than high quality grass hay, but good quality grass hay can be better than average quality alfalfa hay.

The best thing, in the end, is to have hay tested.  This is not always feasible for every load, but if your hay source is consistent from load to load, this may be a good option to get a general feel for what nutrients your hay contains.

Feeding Bran Mashes to Horses

Feeding bran mashes to horses is a common tradition dating back a long time, and is often thought to be a help in preventing colic through a laxative effect. Bran is believed to be a laxative in people, but to get that effect in horses, you would actually have to feed it in quantities bigger than your horse could eat.  Some horses do produce softer stools the day after eating bran, but this probably reflects bran’s tendency to irritate the lining of equine intestines.  If fed daily over a long period of time, bran may actually contribute to the formation of enteroliths. 

The bigger danger in feeding bran to horses is the calcium:phosphorus ratio of bran.  Calcium and phosphorus work together to build sound bones and assist muscle function.  To do so, they must be absorbed in appropriate proportions (preferably 1.2 or more parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus).  If, over a long period of time, phosphorus exceeds calcium in the diet, the horse’s body will pull extra calcium from the horses bones to meet it’s needs, and eventually weaken the skeleton.

Wheat bran and rice bran contain approximately 10 times more phosphorus than calcium.  Therefore, an occasional bran mash won’t harm the horse, and he will likely relish the treat.  However, daily bran regimens in large quantity should be avoided, unless calcium is supplemented in sufficient quantities elsewhere in the diet.

Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.

Changing Horse Feeds – A Lot Like Horse Training

Most horse owners have a pretty steady routine when it comes to working with their horses, and that includes keeping a consistent feeding schedule and program in place, which is a good thing for the horse.  However, a variety of situations, from moving to a new place, to a change in the horse’s health, can require a change in habits and possibly in diet.

Chris Cox, renowned clinician and dedicated SafeChoice® feeder, offers this advice on preparing your horse for change:  “I never ask a horse to do something I haven’t prepared it to do.  By the time I’m asking a horse to step on to a trailer, that horse has all the preparation it needs to do it – and by prepare I don’t mean desensitize.  I don’t desensitize my horses as much as a lot people do.  It’s easy to overdo it and end up dulling your horse.  It’s okay for your horse to react to something, but if it is properly trained it won’t overreact.”

Chris’s training tip follows easily right in to the realm of changing your horse’s feeding program. Abrupt change, while a horse can manage and get through, isn’t the most desirable scenario.  Gradual introduction of whatever is new to the feeding program, whether it is a change in the amount fed or a change to an entirely different type of feed, should be done incrementally over a period of about 7 days.  This time frame allows the horse’s digestive system to adjust to the new levels of nutrients being digested, and also allows time for the sometimes-picky-eaters to realize that the new feedstuff is, in fact, OK to eat.

Preparing your horse, whether it is in feeding practices, daily schedule, or training, will set you and your horse up to make changes successfully.

Reading Horse Feed Directions – How Much to Feed?

When horse feeds are formulated, they are developed to provide nutrition to all sizes of horses – nutrient needs go up as the size of the horse goes up.  So, feeding directions are often provided in the following format:

  • Activity Level                   Lbs of feed per 100 lbs of bodyweight
  • Maintenance                     0.3-0.5
  • Light Exercise                   0.4-0.6

So, how do you figure out how much to feed your horse? Start with knowing the weight of your horse.  Then, divide that weight by 100, and then multiply the result by both of the amounts of feed given in the directions above.  The resulting two numbers will tell you the range of how much to feed your horse to give them the nutrition they need for both their size and their activity level.

Example Feeding Directions:

1200 lb horse, in light exercise.

  1. (1200 ÷ 100) = 12
  2. (12 × 0.4) = 4.8
  3. (12 × 0.6) = 7.2

In this example, this horse would need to eat between 4.8 and 7.2 lbs per day of this feed to receive the nutrition he needs.  Some horses that are easier keepers can fall to the lower end of the range, while harder keepers may need to push the upper limit.

If you do this math for your horse, and find that you are feeding outside of the designated range, you should search for a feed that is more suitable to your horses needs.  Hard keepers, for example, may require a feed that is higher in calories per pound, while easier keepers might require a feed with fewer calories and more concentrated levels of vitamins and mineralsSuch a feed might cost more per bag, however the ability to pack more punch in a smaller feeding might actually result in a cost saving!

Making Cents Out of Horse Feed Costs

I was recently called to a boarding and lesson barn to help the owner evaluate her feed program.  With the rising costs of bedding, labor, insurance, electricity and hay, she wanted to look at options at saving money. 

The farm housed about 40 Thoroughbreds.   Twelve of the horses were active in a lesson program, and the other horses activity levels ranged from pleasure maintanece to moderate work/show.   The Body Condition Scores of the horses ranged from 4 to 6, and the owner explained that some of the horses were harder keepers than others, with daily grain intake ranging from 1 to 18 pounds of grain per day per horse.

We examined the hay and found it to be a good quality timothy grass mix.  The horses were getting about 1.5% of their body weight per day in hay. For grain, she was using an economy feed that was priced at $8.99 per bag.  She felt that with the large number of horses on the farm and rising cost she could not afford the premium feeds that were almost $14 per bag.

When we examined the feed tag from the manufacturer, the suggested feed rate was 1 pound per hundred pounds of body weight (that’s 10 lbs of feed for a 1000 lb horse!), and the fortification of the product was minimal.  The owner then explained that she and the boarders did purchase supplements to provide added biotin, yeast culture, copper, zinc and selenium.  Some of the hard keepers were also given a fat supplement.

To determine how much she was spending on feed, we did the following math:

  • Current Feeding Program = 10 lbs feed + supplements
    • ~ $8.99 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.18 per pound
    • ~ $0.18 per pound X average 10 lb per day feeding = $1.80 per day per horse
    • ~ Plus the various costs of nutritional supplements to make up for the lack in feed
  •  
  • Proposed Feeding Program = 5 lbs feed + no supplements
    • ~ $14.00 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.28 per pound
    • ~ $0.28 per pound X average 5 lb per day feeding = $1.40 per day per horse
    • ~ No need for nutritional supplements!

When we calculated the cost per horse per day based on feed consumption and supplements, some of the horses exceeded $3 per day!  When we compared that to the feed rates on the premium line feeds, not to mention complete fortification levels and the time savings in not having to sort out servings of supplements every day, the premium feed was a better value in the long run.

Storing Horse Feed for Freshness

Welcome to July!  We are in the full swing of summer with heat and humidity in many regions of North America.  The higher temperature and moisture levels common this time of year can make feed freshness a challenge, requiring extra attention to how feed is stored.  Read on for a few tips on storing horse feed for freshness, and see how well your barn is set up to store feed. 

Many of us purchase feed by the bag and transfer the contents into a container which is kept in a feed room or designated area of the barn or shed.  The container that feed is kept in as well as the location of the container play an important role in how well the feed stays fresh. 

If possible, use of a waterproof, seal-able container to store your feed.  The container should be able to keep pests such as mice and insects from enjoying an “All You Can Eat Buffet” on your dime.  A waterproof container will insure the feed stays dry if there is unexpected water leakage into the area.

The location that the feed bin or container is kept is also important.  If you have a designated feed room or area in your facility, check to see that it is not exposed to unnecessary moisture such as a leak in the roof or sweating pipes overhead.  Elevating the bin off the floor will help keep feed dry should there be rain-in or minor flooding.  Also, check to see if your feed bin is sitting in the hottest part of your barn or shed.  For metal sided buildings, this could be the South or West wall which receive the strongest of the sun’s rays and tend to hold heat longer.  Relocating the bin to a cooler or dryer area will go a long way in keeping your feed fresh. 

Whenever possible, try to practice inventory management of feed in the form of FIFO; an acronym which stands for First In First Out.  FIFO is a method to manage the freshness of perishable goods such as produce, baked goods or dairy products.  The premise can also be applied to feed, where feed already in the bin is fed prior to the feed that was just purchased.  Also, between feed rotations, periodically wash and thoroughly dry the container to help get rid of build-up at the bottom.  Using this method can ensure that the feed you are scooping has not aged beyond its ideal shelf life.  

Taking some time to check these few steps will go a long way in keeping your horse feed fresh. Stay tuned for a future post regarding factors that impact the shelf life of your feed! Until then, happy riding!

Feeding the “Easy Keeper” Horse

Most every horse owner has had, or knows of a friend’s horse, which could “live on air”. Sadly, air has no nutritional value. So, what do we do with these horses that look at a bag of feed and start to pack on the pounds? Care must be taken to ensure that they receive nutrients needed to stay healthy, while keeping calorie count under control.

As always, start by taking a Body Condition Score and determining the current weight of the horse, and tracking those two elements over time, so you can know for sure if you are making progress or not. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of trying to remember what the horse was like a couple months ago, so a tracking program will help give a fact basis to your feeding program.

Ensure that the easy keeper is receiving sufficient forage – maintaining gut health through plenty of long-stemmed fiber intake is key. Then, evaluate what else to feed – often times, access to high quality hay or pasture that contains ALL of the nutrition a horse needs is limited, and the need exists to get more protein, vitamins and minerals in to the horse. There are a number of low-inclusion horse feed products on the market that provide needed nutrition without extra calories.

Finally, evaluate the exercise program. Just like humans, exercise goes hand-in-hand with diet in a weight loss or weight control program. Even a daily walking program can help some of those easier keepers maintain a trimmer profile.