Nutrition For Horses Without Pasture
Not all horses have the luxury of spending time on green pasture, head down, grazing to their heart’s content. Horses in race training are usually stabled in restrictive living arrangements with their primary forage source as hay. Yet, the healthiest strategy for equine gastrointestinal health is the ability to eat small amounts at intermittent intervals throughout the day. There is an abundance of information on how best to control against gastric ulcers and behavioral problems: Turn the horse out to graze on pasture. So, how does one accomplish this if acreage and pasture are not options?
Where to Start
When most horses are fed large amounts in two meals a day, they tend to bolt the food in a short time, at most an hour or two. Then they are forced to fast through the rest of the day or night until the next meal arrives. This is not at all how the equine digestive system evolved to maximum efficiency. To keep the equine digestive tract at its healthiest, a horse should receive 1 ½ - 2 percent of his body weight in roughage (fiber) each day when possible. [Some easy keepers may become obese on this much hay, while others, particularly those in active training and competition, have higher food requirements due to breed type, disposition, and exercise demands.]
Typical roughage sources are available as pasture, hay, or complete feed pellets. Alternative fiber sources are obtainable (soybean hulls, beet pulp, rice hulls, corn cobs, chaff, and straw), but these don’t necessarily alter the need to provide horses with the ability to be “trickle feeders.”
Instead of being fed 2-3 relatively large meals in a 24-hour period, it is better for a horse to have the opportunity to nibble periodically throughout the day and night. Ideally, a horse offered free choice hay would control his intake, eating only as much as he needs to maintain the perfect body condition. But some individuals won’t stop eating – excesses of an optimal calorie allotments result in obesity.
Feed intake by voracious eaters can be slowed by using a “slow feeder” or “nibble net.” These feeding systems are comprised of either a container that is hung on the wall or a box or frame feeding system on the ground that forces a horse to work at getting hay out from between closely-knit netting or wire mesh.
For horses in a large dry lot turnout, an alternative is to use a mesh sleeve that fits around a large bale of hay. For some horses, double “bagging” the hay bale in a net feeder further reduces the mesh size and makes it more challenging to extract hay. Many commercial slow feeders are built with 1 ½ -2-inch mesh, but some crafty horses may need it sized down to 1 ¼ or even 1 mesh. If you use a slow feeder bag or net, make sure the top closes tightly so the horse can’t pull large amounts out from the top but rather is forced to eat only from the mesh openings. For horses that become facile in eating from the mesh, you can hang the feeding bag from the stall rafters on a breakable rope, so it isn’t braced against a firm surface. It is then more difficult for the horse to get a purchase on it, further slowing intake.
It takes a bit more effort for a horse to pull out hay pieces from a slow feeder system than if flakes of hay are thrown loose on the ground or in the stall. Working around the meshed holes lengthens the time it takes for a horse to acquire his food; this is more similar to normal consumption intake a horse uses when grazing pasture. This enables you to control his groceries and calories, so he is fed the appropriate amount each day. And, it shortens the fasting periods between refills, keeping his stomach and intestines in a healthier state. It also helps your pocketbook by lessening the amount of wastage caused by a horse stepping or defecating in his hay.
Supplements Needed for
Vitamin E is a key nutritional ingredient that may be deficient for horses that have no access to green grass. Inadequate intake of vitamin E can cause muscle, neurologic, or immune system problems, and at the very least may affect performance. In a Canadian study, horses that had pasture access in summer months had vitamin E plasma concentrations that were 63% higher than non-pastured horses that consumed only hay or pelleted feed. This is a particular concern for young, growing horses as well as adult and athletic horses.
In addition, horses that are supplemented with high-fat diets to improve calorie intake may be deficient in vitamin E if it is not supplemented as an anti-oxidant along with the fat. The vitamin E supplement of choice to use is d-alpha-tocopherol, a natural vitamin E that is readily absorbed.
Vitamin A or carotene may also be present in inadequate amounts if horses are fed old hay or hay that has lost its green color. Most commercial feeds contain ample vitamin A, so feeding small amounts of pelleted feed is likely to provide a sufficient supply of this nutrient when there is concern of vitamin A deficiency in the forage.
Horses with limited access to pasture or forage may consume the dirt or bedding around them to appease their desire for fiber, leading to “sand colic” or impaction colic. There is great benefit in using psyllium treatment for 6-7 consecutive days each month to help clear the intestines of ingested sand and dirt. Intake of sand and dirt can be curtailed in the first place with appropriate feeding systems that limit access to dirt, and by using the slow feeder method.
Salt is an important dietary ingredient for any horse. Provide a plain salt block that a horse can access voluntarily. This is safer than adding salt to the feed as any excess salt is simply urinated away, making more work for the kidneys.
Depending on the geographical location where your horse’s hay is grown, there may be a deficiency of selenium in the soils, leading to a deficiency in the hay. Check with your veterinarian before supplementing with selenium as over-supplementation can cause serious signs from toxicity.
With some common sense and creative imagination, you can find ways for horses in your care to acquire their food intake more in keeping with natural “trickle feeding” tendencies. The ability to eat small, intermittent meals throughout the day also works wonders on a horse’s mental health and behavior. These suggestions are starting points, which can be fine-tuned for each individual horse’s needs and eating habits.