Updated: Feb 23, 2019
Welcome to the first blog post in a series of horse health articles to help horse riders and owners gain a better understanding of caring for their horse. You may have noticed how your equine friend eats ALL the time! This is called 'trickle feeding' and horses digestive systems are designed to have food (in particular fibre - that stuff is found in grass/hay/haylage, otherwise known as forage) which keeps their very LONG digestive system working in tip top condition. DID YOU KNOW? The horse's digestive system from top (mouth) to bottom (literally), is about 100ft or 30m long (in an average adult horse) Wow! That would almost stretch down the long-side of your arena!
Equine nutrition and feed is a big area of research and the are experts who formulate feeds design them especially for different types of horse and the type of work they are doing. When you buy a bag of pony nuts or balancer these are formulated to include the right about of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, so horses get a healthy balanced meal.
The horse's digestive system is not set up for big meals and their diet should be based around fibre, thats the stuff that helps keep us regular (and why you'll be picking up your horse's poo - a lot!). The food is passed through the system using rhythmical muscle contractions called peristalsis. This mechanism keeps food moving, when there is a blockage or when the system doesn't have enough food passing through the gut can get twisted, and result in colic, which can range from mild tummy ache to life-threatening condition.
Here are the 10 rules of feeding, which is essential knowledge for horse owners...
1. Feed little and often
Horse’s stomachs are relatively small in relation to their size. In fact, they are roughly the size of a rugby ball and only hold approximately 8-14 litres capacity. By the time food reaches the stomach, the volume of the food will have DOUBLED due to digestive juices working to break it down. We feed little and often as the stomach should be two-thirds full to work at it's best. Instead of the stomach stretching to acommodate a big meal, the extra food passes through and most of those nutrients are wasted. It is always best to feed regular small meals if you want your horse to digest the food properly. Remember, horses are trickle feeders and should not be left without food for long periods of time as they need to be constantly eating. DID YOU KNOW? Horses will graze for 16-20 hours a day!
2. Keep feed bowls and containers clean
Ensure bowls and containers are clean to avoid being contaminated with vermin.
3. Feed according to… Age
Old and young horses in particular need specialised feeding. For instance, old horses may lose condition easily and may not be able to make good use of their food as they once did; maybe due to teeth problems and chewing may become difficult, whereas young horses that are growing need more vitamins and minerals.
4. Amount of work
As a horse’s exercise increases, the diet too must be adjusted to supply more energy and allow for muscle gain, often in concentrate feed. If a horse suffers from an injury/illness, concentrate feed should be reduced whilst it’s fibre is increased. Those competing in affiliated dressage or showjumping will have more energy needs than a child's native pony hacking out twice a week.
Horses and ponies of the same weight and height do not necessarily need the same diet. For instance, a thoroughbred horse may need a more palatable diet to maintain condition as these types of horses tend to be poor – doers, unlike a native horse that may be prone to laminitis and will need more low energy forage. We call horse's that 'live off fresh air' good – doers, still forage should be supplemented to provide vitamins and minerals.
Some horses may become excitable on food such as oats. Whilst, lazy horses may benefit from such energy giving feed to encourage them to be more active. Always seek advice from a professional to help feed the right amounts and balance of concentrates to forage.
4. Feed plenty of fibre
Fibre is so important for a healthy horse. Forage such as hay or grass should form the majority of the horse's diet. Forage helps keep the digestive system working efficiently and encourages chewing. DID YOU KNOW? The horse chews up food and makes into a ball in his mouth before swallowing, this is called a bolus.
5. Make any changes to the diet gradually
Any changes to the food must be gradual which will allow the digestive system to adjust effectively to the new food. Special bacteria in the gut helps break down food and sudden changes may mean there is not be enough of the right bacteria to break down the new food which will not get digested and could result in the horse suffering from colic.
6. Feed at the same times each day The horse likes a routine and so once this is established will help him settle down in his environment. Plan to feed him at similar times each day to keep a regular routine.
7. Use only good quality feed, because horses are fussy feeders. Dusty feed not only affects a horse’s condition but can be harmful as it could well be contaminated by vermin.
8. Feed something succulent every day…
…such as carrots, and these can supplement for a stabled horse’s lack of grass. If a horse is confined to its stable you could graze it in hand for ten minutes or so if possible.
TOP TIP! To avoid choke always cut your carrots lengthways and never feed in small chunks.
9. Always leave approximately one hour after feeding before work and one hour after work before feeding.
Time must be allowed for digestion. The actual time will depend on the amount of work a horse has just carried out and the size of its feed. A full stomach will take up too much room and can affect breathing.
10. Always increase the workload before increasing the feed.
It is better to ride a lazy horse than to have a horse that is uncontrollable. Too much energy giving feed may affect the temperament of the horse and for this reason make them difficult to handle and ride.
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