Ask the Expert: Horses per Acre of Pastures

Question: We’ve finally purchased a horse property! It’s 7 acres with about 5 acres in pasture. We have 2 horses, but are looking to expand our herd. However, we do not want more horses than what our pasture can hold since we do not want to feed hay (or much hay) during the summer. How many horses can our pasture support? 

Response: Congratulations on purchasing a horse property! The answer to your question is, “it depends”. In general, 2 acres per one 1,000-pound horse is recommended if owners expect the pastures to provide most of the horse’s nutrition during the growing season. However, this is highly variable and depends on several factors including geographical location, soil type, rainfall, and management. Although location, soil type, and rainfall are mostly out of an owners control, management can be controlled and includes mowing, fertilizing, controlling weeds, resting (e.g. avoiding over-grazing), and dragging; all recommended best practices for horse pasture management.

Your 5 acres of pasture should be able to feed 2.5 1,000-pound horses during the summer grazing season. If your farm is on sandy soil, there is a drought, or you choose not to do any pasture management (e.g. mowing, fertilizing, weed control, resting, and dragging), then 5 acres might not be enough for your two horses and hay supplementation would be needed. On the other hand, if your farm has heavier soil, there is good rainfall, and you practice good pasture management, then your pasture should be able to support your two horses, and maybe one more, during the summer grazing season. For more information on pasture management, click here

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. Photo credit: Michelle DeBoer, PhD, UW-River Falls.

When to Start Spring Grazing

It is tempting to turn horses out into spring pastures at the first sight of green grass, especially after a long winter. However, spring grazing should be introduced slowly and delayed until grasses reach 6 to 8″ to optimize both the health of the horse and pasture. When horse pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time each day by 15 minutes until 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. After that, unrestricted grazing can occur.

Why is this recommendation so important? Even though hay and pasture are both forms of forages, there are significant differences. Dried hay is approximately 15% moisture compared to fresh pasture that is 85% moisture. The horse is a hind-gut, fermenting herbivore that relies extensively on the microbes present in its gastrointestinal tract to be able to process forages. The microbes are a mix of different organisms that work together to the benefit of the horse. If the feedstuffs the microbes are utilizing change suddenly, there may be too little time for the microbial populations to adjust to the change. Instead, large numbers of them die, while others flourish, setting up a situation where toxins may be absorbed by the horse, resulting in digestive dysfunction and possibly colic. A gradual change from one feedstuff to another provides enough time for the microbial populations to adjust.

Additionally, pasture grasses need sufficient growth before grazing is allowed. Photosynthesis (the process of converting solar energy to chemical energy) occurs mainly within the leaves of plants. If the leaves are grazed too early (prior to 6″ tall) or too often, plants can lose vigor, competitiveness, and root structure due to the lack of photosynthetic ability. This will lead to eventual die back and overgrazed areas being replaced by undesirable plant species or weeds. Grazing should cease when forages have been grazed down to 3 to 4 inches. At this time, move horses to another paddock or a dry lot. Grazing can resume when grasses regrow to 6 to 8″. On average, about 2 acres of well-managed pasture can provide the forage needs for one horse during the grazing season.

It is critical to slowly introduce horses to spring pastures. So, the following is worth repeating, when horse pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time by 15 minutes each day until 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. Following this recommendation will help ensure both horse and pasture health.

Author and photo credit: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Hydration In Horses: Drink Up! Keeping Your Horse Well Hydrated

Hydration In HorsesMany regions of the country have been experiencing high heat and humidity this summer, so naturally, the concern of proper hydration comes to mind.

Reduced water consumption in horses may impair performance and increase the risk of impaction colic.

Additionally, horses may sweat more profusely, resulting in faster dehydration. So what’s a horse owner to do?

The first key element is to make certain that horses have ready access to clean, palatable, cool water at all times or at very frequent intervals. Horses will normally consume about 1 gallon of water per 100 lbs body weight, so an 1100 lb horse will require a minimum of 11 gallons of water per day. This quantity can increase substantially during periods of exercise, high heat/humidity or for lactating mares.

Some tips to keep in mind to keep water consumption up:

  • Horses do not like to consume warm water in warm temperatures. Automatic waterers or large tanks, located in the shade and cleaned regularly, may be good options. If water is supplied in buckets, they need to be cleaned regularly and re-filled regularly.
  • If you are traveling to a show or other competition, it is essential to monitor water consumption, particularly if temperature conditions change.
  • It is routine in many barns to flavor the water with something like wintergreen or peppermint at home so that you can flavor the water in new facilities to match the home water.  Read here for tips on training your horse to drink water away from home.
  • Do NOT use soft drinks or any material containing caffeine as these can trigger positive drug tests.
  • Taking horses to facilities with chlorinated water can sometimes reduce water consumption without proper precautions.

The second key element is to make certain that salt is offered free choice. Things to keep in mind for salt consumption in horses include:

  • Horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day, and this can increase to 6 ounces per day with exercise in hot weather conditions.
  • Loose salt is consumed more readily than salt blocks in many cases.
  • When evaluating the total diet for salt consumption, commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt. It is not typically any higher than this, due to problems with palatability.
  • If a horse has been salt deficient or is bored, they may over-consume salt while in a stall.
  • Additional electrolytes, commercial or personal recipe, may be used per directions before, during and following completion, but care must be taken to ensure that the horses are drinking adequate water. Administering electrolytes to a horse that is not drinking properly, or allowing a horse to over consume salt without adequate water, can lead to electrolyte imbalances. If electrolytes are added to the water, plain water should be offered also.

Horses need to be offered water throughout the day at a competition, and should be re-hydrated following exertion. They cannot cool out and recover properly without being re-hydrated.

Keeping horses properly hydrated and maintaining electrolyte balance is extremely important in order to make a safe transition from cool temperatures to summer time and competition.

Amino Acid Requirements for Horses

In order to fuel, repair, and recover muscle, equine diets must optimally contain Amino Acid Requirements for Horsesa superior amino acid profile, including all 10 of the essential amino acids.

Most horse owners can quickly name the crude protein level in the feed they provide their horses. But, what horse owners really need to know about is the amino acid content.

Protein is made up of amino acids, similar to how a chain is made up of links. There are two basic categories of amino acids: Essential and nonessential.

Essential amino acids must be provided in the diet, as the horse cannot create them on its own in the digestive tract, where the nonessential amino acids can be made.

Another key point is that some amino acids are known as “limiting” amino acids. This means that if a horse runs out of this type of amino acid, it can’t utilize any of the remaining amino acids present in the feed.

If the horse has enough of the first most-limiting amino acid, but then runs out of the second most-limiting amino acid, it can’t use the remaining amount of the third most limiting, and so on.

In horses, the first three most-limiting amino acids, in order, are lysine, methionine and threonine. Generally speaking, if these three amino acids are present in sufficient quantities, the ingredients used also provide the remaining amino acids in sufficient quantities.

It is increasingly common to see these three amino acids listed on the guaranteed analysis of horse feed tags, as it is an indication of the quality of the protein sources and the balanced nature of the feed.

If you are looking for a feed that may help impact topline, be sure to look at the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag. In specific Nutrena feeds – SafeChoice productsProForce products, and Empower Topline Balance– the amino acid levels are called out and guaranteed on the tag.

The amino acids included in Nutrena’s Topline Balance products are included in specific amounts and ratios. Research has shown that this specific combination and type of amino acids help to support a healthy topline when fed correctly.

Guaranteed amino acids on the tag is a good starting point. You then need to let the horse tell you if the feed is working by regularly evaluating and noting changes in topline condition.

To determine what nutrition best fits your horse’s needs, take the Topline Balance assessment for a customized nutrition plan.

Halloween Candy – Horses & Dogs

It’s the time of year when ghosts and goblins are out and about – there are Halloween costume contests and pumpkin spice everything. And the candy! So. Much. Candy.  But what’s safe for our horses and dogs? Can they participate in the fun or will the candy make them sick? Most dog owners know that chocolate is toxic to dogs – but would you know what to do if your pup helps himself to that bowl of peanut butter cups? And our horses LOVE sugary snacks, but what’s really safe for them to have and what’s not?

Let’s begin with dogs and chocolate. First off, if you know your dog has ingested chocolate, call your vet. Depending on the type of chocolate and the size of your dog, you may need to bring them in right away. Cocoa powder is the most toxic type of chocolate and white chocolate is the least. Depending on your situation, your vet might suggest you induce vomiting. If you aren’t sure if they ingested it, you should watch your dog for signs of chocolate toxicity – things like vomiting, diarrhea, confusion and restlessness.  When in doubt, go to your nearest emergency vet clinic.

Besides chocolate, really no candy is truly safe for your dog. Many other types of candy such as gum contain a sweetener called xylitol that can cause liver failure in dogs. It’s best to stick to dog specific treats if you want to give your dog something fun for the holiday.

As for horses, what can they have for a Halloween snack? Of course for any horses with insulin resistance diseases, gastric ulcers or other medical conditions, you should stick with only what your vet suggests for treats and feed. But will the occasional candy corn hurt your ‘normal’ horse? Probably not, but keep in mind candy (mints included) have more sugar in them than just one sugar cube, so keep the Halloween treats to a minimum and keep your horse away from anything chocolate. But the safest thing is just giving your horse a carrot, which he will love just as much!

Happy Halloween everyone!

Assessing Your Horse’s Topline

Assessing Your Horse’s Topline – A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels.

But identifying and assessing this area does take a few steps, so we’ve provided some easy guidance!

Click below to visit ToplineBalance.com and do an online assessment, with customized feeding recommendations specific to your horse’s needs!

Assessing Your Horses Topline

How Horse Muscles are Built and Maintained

What are the Building Blocks of topline muscles?Q: What are the Building Blocks of topline muscles?

A) Vitamins and Minerals
B) Fresh Air and Water
C) Amino Acids
D) Exercise

If you answered C (amino acids) you are correct! One of the most common misperceptions about topline is that it can be improved through exercise alone. Research shows that horse owners are more likely to believe they can influence their horse’s topline through exercise more than any other method. Additionally, lack of or incorrect exercise is often mistakenly attributed to poor topline development and definition.

While exercise will condition and train existing muscles, it can only help build topline if the nutritional building blocks of muscles—amino acids—are available in the diet. In fact, if a horse is worked hard enough, and significant amino acids are not present in the diet to build and develop the muscles being trained, muscle mass can be reduced. Just like human athletes, equine athletic partners need more amino acids than the sedentary horse to allow training to be fully utilized and allow the horse look its best.

Horse owners should combine a feed that contains guaranteed levels of the right amino acids (fed at the right amounts per the feed tag) with a healthy exercise program for best topline results.

To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.

Body Condition Scoring vs. Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) and Topline Evaluation System (TES) are two methods of evaluating the overall health and nutritional status of a horse.

Body condition scoring is a system where a horse is ranked from 1 – 9 on its level of fatness. This score indicates if we need more or less CALORIES in the horse’s diet. Owners may also use a simplified system that looks primarily at the fat cover over the ribs to place the horse in one of three simplified score categories.
Topline evaluation is done by measuring the musculature along the spine, and giving a grade of A, B, C, or D. This score indicates AMINO ACID status and muscle quality.

Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Score

These two measurements must be evaluated independently of one another. To learn how to measure each, refer to the tools below.

Assess Your Horse’s Topline:

To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual of the three areas to evaluate in the chart below. Then assign a grade for each area. Add up the number of areas that are adequate-to-good to determine your horse’s TES grade.

All 3 areas adequate to good = TES score of A
2 of 3 areas = B
1 of 3 areas = C
0 of 3 areas = D

Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.

Step 1. Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s withers. Does it fall inward? If so, some muscle is gone. If it remains flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area, unless the horse is obese. When palpating, note the presence of muscle or fat (muscle will feel firm, while fat is spongy).

Step 2. Place your fingertips on the horse’s backbone with your palm facing downward, toward the ribs. Use the same assessment above to evaluate the muscles.

Step 3. Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.

Assess Your Horse’s Body Condition:

To evaluate a horse’s body condition score, utilize this simplified method that looks at the fat cover over the ribs, which is a primary indicator area of overall condition. Hands on evaluation is key, particularly for horses with long hair coats.

If your horse has easily visible ribs that you can feel, then the BCS is a 4 or lower.
If you can feel your horse’s ribs but cannot see them, then the BCS is a 5 to 6.
If you can’t see OR feel your horse’s ribs, then the BCS is a 7 or greater.
The ideal BCS for most horses is 5-6, but individual horses will vary based on metabolic needs, breed, level of fitness and conformation.

To help identify the nutritional needs for your horse’s topline, visit Topline Balance and take the asssessment tool to get a customized nutrition plan.

Identifying & Evaluating Your Horse’s Topline

A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels.

Awareness about this topic, however, is limited. Those who do understand the need for a healthy topline have likely heard a lot of lore and conflicting information about how to achieve it. Exercise, saddle fit, genetics and age are most frequently blamed for a poor topline. Nutrition plays the most critical role, and is often overlooked as a solution to build and maintain the topline.

So What is Topline?
Topline, simply put, is the muscle groups that run along a horse’s spine. The topline of a horse stretches along the vertebral column (spine) from the end of the neck at the wither area, down the back and loin, and over the top of the hip into the croup region. Three main muscle groups surround each side of this boney column. The longissimus dorsi is attached to the pelvis, the entire thoracic vertebrae and the last four cervical vertebrae. The latissimus dorsi attaches the upper and mid back vertebrae to the lower lumbar vertebrae. The thoracic trapezius attaches the neck and mid back vertebrae to the shoulder blade. Topline can be affected to some extent by conformation, specifically as it pertains to the angle of the hip and shoulder.

Evaluating Topline
The Topline Evaluation Score (TES) allows horse owners to easily grade their horse’s topline. This evaluation system assigns a score to help determine the stages of topline development.

TES breaks the topline into three sections:
1. Withers and mid back
2. Loin
3. Croup area

Begin by visually examining the horse in these three areas. If any areas appear sunken in on the sides of the spine, improvement is needed.

Horse owners should also observe whether musculature along the spine is adequate. An ideal topline can be described as well-muscled, displaying a full and rounded athletic appearance, lacking concave or sunken-in areas, providing ability for sustained self-carriage. This region of the horse is a good visual indicator of the whole body amino acid status. Concave, or topline areas that appear “sunken-in,” are never acceptable. Flat areas may be acceptable based on breed and/or genetics, and some breeds/genetic traits may exhibit a bulging muscle around the spine.

The topline of the horse is predominately muscle. However, once a horse gets to a BCS of 8 and above (considered obese), the subcutaneous fat layer over the topline musculature becomes visible. The goal is to maximize the topline musculature without adding fat.

Hands-On Identification
While a visual examination is a good tool to evaluate topline, the addition of a hands-on evaluation is recommended. Visual examinations alone can be misleading, especially with winter hair coats.

Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.

Step 1.
Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s withers. Does it fall inward? If so, some muscle is gone. If it remains flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area, unless the horse is obese. When palpating, note the presence of muscle or fat (muscle will feel firm, while fat is spongy).
Step 2.
Place your fingertips on the horse’s backbone with your palm facing downward, toward the ribs. Use the same assessment above to evaluate the muscles.
Step 3.
Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.

Assessing Your Horse’s Topline – Evaluation Criteria
To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual descriptions in the chart below. Then assign a grade for each area. Add up the number of areas that are adequate-to-good to determine your horse’s TES grade.

All 3 areas adequate to good = TES score of A
2 of 3 areas = B
1 of 3 areas = C
0 of 3 areas = D

Topline Score: A – Ideal
This Horse Has Ideal Muscle Development:
•The topline muscles are well developed in all three areas, the spinal processes cannot be seen, and the muscles blend smoothly into the ribs
•The wither/back and loin of the horse is full and well rounded
•The croup and hip are full and the stifle muscle is well defined

Topline Score: B
The Sides of the Wither are Concave, as is the Back Between the Vertebrae and the Top of the Ribs:
•The loin muscles are well developed and are the same height as the spinal process
•The croup and the hip muscling is adequate; pelvis to point of hip is rounded

Topline Score: C
The Wither/Back and Loin Areas, Between the Vertebrae and the Ribs, are Concave:
•The ‘spinal process’ in the loin area is higher than the muscles beside it and can easily be seen and palpated
•Muscles over the croup and hindquarters are well developed and rounded

Topline Score: D
The Entire Topline, Including the Wither/Back, Loin, and Croup Areas, are Concave:
•The croup appears pointed at the top since the vertebrae and hip bones are higher than the concave muscles in between them
•In a severely affected horse, the width of its stifle is narrower than the width of the point of hip

Next Steps in Improving Topline
One of the key ways to impact topline is with the right nutrition comprised of quality protein. Since the topline is comprised of muscle, any nutrition that influences muscle will influence the topline.

To determine what nutrition best fits your horse’s needs, take the Topline Balance assessment for a customized nutrition plan.

Information compiled by: Emily Lamprecht, Ph.D., Russell Mueller, M.S. PAS and Abby Keegan, M.S. – Cargill Animal Nutrition