Read The Label On That Gut Supplement, Plus Other Tips From An Equine Nutritionist

Feeding performance horses, who are often in regular, intense work programs and traveling to competitions, is a unique challenge from feeding backyard riding horses. The nature of a performance horse’s life – travel, work, exposure to new environments, temporary housing, and new hay or water – combine to make these busy horses more susceptible to certain digestive health problems, and it can be hard to balance their energy needs without increasing their chances for those digestive issues.

Dr. Kelly Vineyard, senior nutritionist for Purina, gave a presentation at the virtual annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners with a few considerations for the best way to achieve this balance.

  • Most of us know that maximizing turnout time has been shown to reduce a horse’s risk of colic, gastric ulcers, and other issues. What you may not know is that horses who know they’re going to have limited turnout time tend to eat more quickly than those with longer stretches of time on pasture. A 500-kilogram horse on pasture for four hours or less will eat a little over one kilogram of dry matter per hour, whereas one turned out for longer will eat more like a half kilogram of dry matter per hour. Other research has shown that consistent, small amounts of forage over an extended time seem to be more agreeable to horses than large amounts followed by periods of fasting.
  • Of course, it’s difficult to get more turnout time for performance horses due to pasture availability and other management needs. Vineyard suggests that small hole hay nets are a good way to mimic this more relaxed forage consumption. The usual recommendation is that a horse eat 1 percent of its body weight in dry matter forage, but Vineyard prefers them to get closer to 1.5 to 2 percent.
  • It is not a good idea to feed lots of poor quality forage in an attempt to keep a horse eating; lower quality hay is a potential trigger to sensitive horses prone to colic or ulcers and it’s also more difficult for the gut to break down. Alfalfa is known to be a natural buffer due to its high calcium and magnesium content, so alfalfa or alfalfa/grass mix is the best option for horses in need of extra GI health considerations.
  • Even good pasture isn’t often enough to meet the energy requirements of a horse in hard work, but Vineyard cautions against grains that are high in starch. Starch is thought to increase the risk of certain hind gut problems. Instead, Vineyard suggests that feeds boosted with fat and fiber as energy sources are friendlier choices for digestive health.
  • Lots of owners are tempted to add probiotics, prebiotics, or yeast-based supplements to their horse’s diet in an attempt to guard against digestive issues. Vineyard encourages owners to scrutinize these supplement products, which aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Question whether there is research and published data on the product, whether the ingredients are readily stated, and whether those ingredients are present in proportions that are similar to other products (because having too little of a good ingredient will make the product ineffective). Also be ready to reevaluate whether a product is doing its job after 30 or 60 days of administration.“There is still no substitute for proper feed selection and implementation of proper feeding practices,” said Vineyard.
  • Many people know that changes between grains need to be managed slowly, but Vineyard said especially sensitive horses also need gradual transitions between different batches of hay or even major changes in pasture. When possible, make these switches slowly over a few days or even a couple of weeks.

Inflammatory bowel issues can be a common problem in horses, resulting in chronic diarrhea and weight loss despite a high quality diet. Vineyard suggests your veterinarian will have a protocol to deal with this, but it will probably involve giving the colon a break. Long-stemmed forage is much harder for the intestine to break down and can often be replaced with chopped or pelleted hay. Complete, pelleted feeds like senior feeds can be a good option for horses recovering from a period of inflammation or intestinal damage. Psyllium supplementation may also be useful for these cases.

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