Experts Weigh In On OTTB Nutrition And The Challenges Of Finding A Balance

Feeding an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) comes with many challenges, especially in the first months after retirement. That’s why the topic was featured prominently during the educational seminars at this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium.

Dr. Bill Vandergrift, nutritionist and founder of EquiVision, and Dr. Jyme Nichols, director of nutrition for Bluebonnet Feeds and Stride Animal Health, fielded common questions about feeding OTTBs during a seminar on Oct. 15.

A few key takeaways:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution for feeding Thoroughbreds after they leave the track, and that was likely true while they were on the track also. Vandergrift said that some track trainers will provide horses a complete feed, which means they’re giving a commercial grain mix that’s already fortified with the necessary vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Others will customize their feeding plan a bit more, choosing a more basic feed and then customizing a mix of supplements to fit each horse.
  • If at all possible, Vandergrift and Nichols agree that the best way to begin feeding an OTTB who is new to you is to find out what they were eating before they came to you. That may mean asking the racetrack trainer or adoption program where the horse came from. Then, you want to tailor a feeding program that’s as close as possible to what the horse is already used to.
  • Nichols said that many times, new owners are tempted to make a bunch of changes as quickly as possible to a horse’s diet with the goal of getting the horse onto a program they see as healthier. Perhaps surprisingly, she suggests pumping the brakes on that plan.

“We have to remember they’re going through a huge change in their environment [when they first come off the track,” she said. “They’ve lost their friends. That’s one thing research says, is just the simple act of taking a horse away from the horses they’re familiar with is a major stress event … plus the stress of moving to a new owner, new barn, new stall. Everything is coming down on this horse from a mental aspect.”

Match the initial feed program to what the horse is already used to for one to three weeks after the horse moves into the new barn, and even then introduce changes slowly, Nichols suggested.

  • When Nichols does begin crafting a new dietary plan for an OTTB, she’s most interested in getting basic vitamin and mineral requirements covered first, which can be accomplished with a complete feed. After that, she said she’s not too inclined to add supplements to a horse’s diet, with the exception of a prebiotic and a probiotic, which can help the horse overcome some stress.
  • Changes, including moving, showing, or medical events, can seriously impact the bacteria in a horse’s gut. Vandergrift said that for many years, he believed that once the stressful event was over, the horse would naturally regenerate the healthy gut microbes they lost during stress. Recently however, he has discovered it’s not so simple – those microbes need the right environment to flourish, and it’s difficult to supplement them effectively. The most important microbes in a horse’s gut are anaerobic, meaning that most of them can’t live in the presence of oxygen, so feed manufacturers can’t effectively produce many live probiotics in the form of a supplement. Prebiotics, however, are designed to jumpstart the growth of healthy gut bacteria and that’s why he leans towards supplementing a horse with prebiotics.
  • Vandergrift also said that to build a good nutrition program for an OTTB, he likes to know why the horse retired. Was the horse injured? Did the horse spend a lot of time on stall rest recuperating from an injury? Or was the horse turned out for a period of time before coming to their new home, eating mostly forage but a less complete grain meal? A horse’s injury or health status can relate to the amount of inflammatory mediators floating around in the body, and Vandergrift said that can change what he wants to feed the horse.
  • There are lots of reasons a horse’s personality may seem “hot” or a horse may seem spooky, but Nichols and Vandergrift said you can’t rule out their diet. A diet includes a lot of extra sugar can result in extra inflammation in the horse’s body, which may make them appear jumpy or difficult – not strictly as a result of extra calories themselves, but because high sugar, high carbohydrate diets tend to lead to systemic inflammation which can have the horse feeling unwell.“A horse who has higher levels of systemic inflammation is one of those horses who’s very difficult to put weight on,” he said. “They’re going to be very hyperreactive. A lot of times that systemic inflammation, at least in part, is going to manifest itself in the digestive tract.”Researchers are learning more and more about the relationship between the horse’s digestive tract and its brain. Vandergrift said that the gut produces more serotonin in a horse than the brain does. Serotonin is a brain chemical which, among other things, controls the fight/flight response. An unbalanced gut that’s not producing enough serotonin can result in a horse who appears to be stuck in “flight” mode, according to Vandergrift.
  • If a horse is having a difficult time putting on weight, or comes to a new owner as a neglect or starvation case, Nichols said the first place to check is the horse’s mouth. Some horses lose weight not because they’re not being fed enough, but because they can’t effectively break down the food they’re getting to access all the nutrients in it.
  • There’s a lot of buzz these days about avoiding soy as an ingredient in horse (and human) feed. Vandergrift said a lot of it is based on misconceptions about the ingredient, particularly concerns that it is genetically-modified and may have anti-digestive enzymes in it.

“I’ve seen articles on the internet that talk about anti-digestive enzymes or anti-nutritive components and how you shouldn’t feed soy or eat soy,” said Vandergrift. “What they fail to mention is that the soybean meal that’s been incorporated into an animal diet has been cooked the same way you cook your food before eating it. That cooking kills all the anti-nutritive factors.“

Soy has been fed to horses since before any of us were born, let’s put it that way. We don’t have any two-headed horses out there and we don’t have any dead horses because they consumed soy. Soy is a safe ingredient to feed.

”People also have concerns that soy may contain estrogenic compounds; Vandergrift said in his experience, there are horses who are unusually sensitive to these ingredients, but it’s very uncommon.

  • People often assess their nutrition program in part by looking a horse’s topline, but both nutritionists agreed that’s not the best way to know if a feed program is working. The topline, especially over a horse’s back, is influenced by a lot of things other than fat, as it’s comprised of muscles and ligaments as well. Back pain, poor conformation, poor foot balance, weakness, age, and even genetics can influence the way a topline develops. Most experts say the best way to assess a horse’s weight is to use the Henneke Body Condition Score system.

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