If your horse’s work level changes during the year, then his feeding program should change as well, to ensure he stays in peak condition no matter what his activity level. Adjusting caloric intake through adjusting the total amount fed, or through changing which feed product is being given, are both viable options to help maintain ideal body condition and topline score.
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 products, ProForce 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.
We are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage. The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half. They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.
With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple. And oh how they vary! One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years. Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper. Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work. One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.
We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting. Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work. Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:
- Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
- Separate the bully of the herd.
- If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
- Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
- Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
- Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses. More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them. This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
- While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
- When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc. to separate the herd. This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
- If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.
Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge. But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need. What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?
A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay first 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.
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?
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.
Aside from price, how do you know if a feed that is advertised as premium nutrition, really is? Here are some tips to help you decode the premium puzzle.
First, a word about forage….Forage, being hay and/or pasture, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet. Therefore, the amount of effort and investment you make in your feeding program should be heavily weighted toward offering your horse the best quality forage you have access to. Your feed selection should complement your forage. Feed or supplemental fortification should fill gaps in forage nutrition, but the most important aspect is the quality of forage, as that makes up the majority of your horse’s source of energy. Always consider your horse’s forage first and foremost.
What is on a tag? Onto the feed concentrate; the most important aspect of your feed choice is the nutrients the feed will provide for your horse. When you buy premium nutrition, you expect to get premium results…but, what you pay for may or may not be what you get. So how can you tell?
First, check the tag for guaranteed analysis of nutrients. A premium feed will be formulated to deliver your horse the optimal nutrition for their age and activity level. Each horse varies to some degree in their metabolism and requirements, but in most cases, optimal nutrition will be formulated to provide the most digestible nutrients in levels that ensure your horse makes the most of every meal.
With regard to nutrient levels, is more actually better? Not always. Sometimes more is just more. Take into consideration minerals. Mineral fortification of a diet is only as good as the amount that is absorbed, so having more copper, zinc or manganese listed on the tag doesn’t mean that your horse is making use of it all. Look for key words that indicate digestibility; for minerals, ‘organic’ means the mineral is tied to an amino acid and is readily absorbed. For proteins, look for guaranteed levels of ‘lysine’, ‘methionine’ and ‘threonine’. These are the protein components that matter most to your horse. Sometimes more is just…well more.
In the scoop…Another way to compare feeds is to determine y how much you have to feed to give your horse the optimal level of nutrients guaranteed on the tag. Most feed companies formulate their rations to provide an amount of digestible energy (DE) which determines the rate (or amount) which they recommend you feed. All other nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals, are concentrated based on that feeding rate.
For example, you have two different feeds you are considering for your horse who is at a ‘maintenance’ level energy requirement (meaning to keep his body condition score at or about a 6). Feed A recommends you give him 2.5 pounds per day, while feed B recommends you feed a minimum of 4 pounds per day. Keep in mind that if you feed less than the recommended 4 pounds of feed B, not only will your horse not get the DE for his activity level, he will also not get the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (if they are guaranteed). Keep in mind percentages on the tag are only as good as the rate at which they are fed.
Functional Ingredients…..There are ingredients that provide the diet with big nutrients such as fat, fiber and protein. There are ingredients that provide micro nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins. And then there is a whole other class of ingredients are called ‘functional’ ingredients. These items are intended to enhance the efficiency or digestibility of the feed, meaning your horse gets more out of every bite. Consider prebiotics and probiotics for example. Through research, both of these functional ingredients have shown to enhance the digestibility of many nutrients and improve overall gut health. The addition of prebiotics and probiotics to a diet is intendedto aid your horse in getting that optimal nutrition for a premium result!
Valid Research… One last thing to take into consideration; a feed brand or company that has a research program is far more likely to understand the digestibility of ingredients and the nutrient requirements of the horse, versus a company that does not conduct research. Many aspects of optimal nutrition, such as understanding digestibility, aren’t found on a tag, but are proprietary to the researching company. Before you consider a feed that is advertised ‘just as good as, only cheaper’, consider what makes the real deal. In most cases, a company that copy-cats a popular product doesn’t get you to the same level of quality, premium nutrition as the original.
So, is it really a premium feed? Check the tag to find out. Armed with this information, you can answer this question for yourself!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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