Charlotte Stanley shares her guidelines for equine nutrition, including feeding laminitic and elderly horses.
Equine nutrition can be a mine-field at the best of times – what do I feed, how much and how frequently are questions we are frequently asked as vets.
Whilst it is difficult to suggest a ‘one size fits all’ feeding protocol there are a handful of rules that you should bear in mind when selecting a diet for your equine friend.
Guidelines For Equine Nutrition
Here are my basic guidelines for equine nutrition.
- Always provide fresh clean water.
The average horse drinks between 20-50L a day. It is essential to ensure for horse has a constant supply of clean water. Make sure that their bucket, trough or drinker is well maintained and kept clean.
- Feed plenty of good quality fibre.
A horse’s appetite is approximately 2% of its bodyweight. For example, a typical 500kg horse will eat 10kg of food a day. Whether it is hay, haylage, grass or chaff, the majority of the horse’s diet should be made up of quality fibre. Good fibre levels help to maintain gut health and prevent digestive conditions such as gastric ulcers. Always discard dusty, mouldy or old forage- this may have detrimental effects on your horse’s health.
- Feed concentrates little and often.
Mixes or cereals can be added to a diet for addition energy or protein levels, however digesting these food types is more strenuous on the digestive system. To ensure a healthy gut function and in order to utilise the food substance most efficiently we recommend that smaller feeds (no more than 2kg at a time) are given more frequently (in some cases up to four times daily).
- Calculate food ratios based on weight, temperament and work load.
It goes without saying that a Welsh mountain pony used as a field companion will need a lot less than an event horse regularly competing at BE100. Likewise your horse will need feeding less during a period of box rest than if it were in full work. Rations should also be calculated based on the horses fit weight i.e. the weight we would expect if they were in perfect body condition.
- Changes should be made gradually.
Changes made to both forage or concentrate should be made over the period of a week. This is to ensure that the natural gut flora present in the caecum is not destroyed in the change.
Feeding The Laminitic/Overweight Pony
The aim of a laminitic diet is to reduce their calorie, sugar and starch intake.
The first step is to reduce the daily ration to 1.5% of their ideal bodyweight. The best form of forage is hay soaked for over 4 hours. This can then be split into small portions to trickle feed to the horse over the day. Ways to make the food last longer include: double netting hay, suspending the haynet from the centre of the stable, large smooth pebbles in feed bowls that your horse will have to navigate to get to the food.
For overweight horses with access to turnout- grazing muzzles can be very beneficial. Any hard feed required, to give supplements or medication, needs to be low in sugar.
Finally, avoid giving treats- even carrots and apples.
The table above shows the percentage constitution of sugars found in popular chaff products. You can see the amount of sugar in these feeds is very variable. Always look for the lowest possible sugar concentrations for overweight or laminitic horses or ponies.
Feeding The Elderly Pony
As horses and ponies get older their nutritional requirements will change both in its composition and the way in which it is presented.
Dental problems in the aged horse are rife and so a diet that is easily eaten is essential. Where dental problems have been identified, it may be necessary to swap long fibre for something that requires less chewing. This could be in the form of chopped grass, short length chaff or even fibre mashes which are now readily available.
Higher protein content is also required in the form of essential amino acids. Supplying adequate protein levels helps to maintain the horse or pony’s topline into the retirement years and slow the rate of muscle wastage.