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Frequently asked questions

Laminitis by overfeeding

Coming out of a wet, cold winter ahead of the winter championships and with the spring competition season looming, many equine‘ models’ are being fed to give that extra show ring condition. When laminitis occurs in show animals, the system is only partly to blame. The owner of the horse must be partly responsible. Old fashioned judging that criticises already rotund animals for being too slim must be phased out, but phased back in must be good feed management at the yard, especially if someone else is responsible for feeding your horse, even on days off.

  • Use non ­ starch calories: oil (up to 400g per day either neat or within a high­oil feed), digestible fibres, a balancer or milk pellets. Not only are they low risk, but they may also improve manners
  • Start Early ­ a slight excess of energy supplied over three months is better than a quick fix.
  • Combine extra calories with schooling ­ a topline is a combination of nutrients and muscles strengthened by working in the right shape.
Replacing a Mare’s Milk

When the mother is lost dictates whether the foal needs colostrum, the ‘first milk’ produced in the first 24 hours after foaling.Colostrum contains the essential antibodies for the foal to develop a health immune system, and a foal can only absorb these immunoglobulins itself within its first 24 hours. Foals, which missed their mother’s colostrum, need a replacement source ­commercial versions are obtainable through the vet. Young foals can suckle up to 25% of their weight in milk per day and would suckle up to 100 times a day in the first few days. Clearly a nurse mare is preferable, but foals can be taught to suckle from a bucket, providing the suckling reflex is intact ­ the ability to learn this is lost within the first few days.

It is obvious; therefore that foals being bucket­ reared must be fed frequently at first, certainly with no more than two ­ hourly breaks between feeds. This can be expanded to four ­ hourly over the first two weeks, and then to three times a day after about a month. Feeding large amounts and increasing meal sizes too quickly increases the likelihood of diarrhoea or colic.

If you are using a nurse mare, she is also in a relatively delicate state, being in a state of high­energy demand that requires a substantial amount of feed. With the added stress of a new environment, these conditions can make her susceptible to colic or laminitis.

  • The equivalent of formula milk brands for foals are powdered sacks of milk replacers.
  • Mare’s milk replacers are preferable, but if not available, cow or goat milk can be used. These are too rich singularly and should
  • be diluted 50:50 with skimmed milk to achieve a similar nutritional content to mare’s milk.
  • Calf milk replacers have been used successfully in foals and should contain at least 20% protein and 15% fat. Follow the manufacturers instructions for mixing as too concentrated mixtures can cause constipation.
  • Foals are very susceptible to infection, so cleanliness in all matters relating to feeding and care is essential.
  • Unlike humans you don’t have to wait 4 months before introducing solids. A foal will nibble at a mare’s stud feed within the first weeks, and solids in the form of milk pellets can be offered early on. Foals can and will eat about 1⁄2 lb of such product in addition to milk in their first two weeks of life, rising to 2lbs by 8 weeks. You can wean a foal at around this time.
Magnesium Benefits to Horses.

It has been claimed recently that magnesium fulfils an important role in the management of laminitis and extreme nervousness in horses. it is true that magnesium is a major mineral, which, along with calcium, phosphorus and sodium, is well known as electrolytes. As such, these minerals are involved in the transmissions of electrical impulses in nerves and muscles. Magnesium is also a part of the bone and has a role in energy and protein metabolism.

Magnesium has bee around for generation, operating under its common name of Epsom salts or Magnesium sulphates. Epsom salts was and is used as a laxative. Significantly, the relatively recent link between magnesium and some forms of diabetes has led to interest in its role in overweight and laminitic equines.

The link is that magnesium plays a supporting role in the release and recognition of insulin, the hormone that ‘scoops’ glucose from the blood into the tissues. So the theory is that a lack of magnesium means a lack of insulin ­ or a failure to recognise it­ and therefore the person is at a high risk of developing diabetes. A parallel; mechanism in horses has also been suggested concerning obesity and laminitis, but it is tenuous at best to think that magnesium can protect against laminitis per se ­ there is no evidence as yet that proves it.

The benefits of magnesium supplementation and hypersensitation are also anecdotal, although anxiety is a symptom of chronic low magnesium status in humans.

It is debatable whether horses are at all likely to be low in magnesium in their diets. Also even if magnesium did fix an underlying shortage, such a cover­up measure would not be enough to overcome the effects of high levels of starch, sugar, fructan and the likes, which are the most common causes of laminitis.

Going short of Magnesium?

  • Magnesium deficiency is very rare, and when on the occasions that it has been seen, it appears
  • In the muscles as tremors and weakness, not as laminitis.
  • An adult horse leading a quiet life requires about 13g per day of magnesium. A more ‘stressed’ horse, such by exercise, nervousness etc may need more. Ponies, depending on their weigh will need about half of this.
  • Grass contains about 2g of magnesium per kilo of dry matter, although rapidly growing spring grass is notoriously low in magnesium.
  • Magnesium contents of hay and haylages vary greatly, but typically contain 1­ 1.5g per kilo.
  • Straights are low, typically 1g per kg feed.
  • Compound horse feeds typically contain 2g per kilo

It is not harmful to over­ supply magnesium.

Healthy Bacteria.

It is well documented that the horse has principally evolved to digest fibre, and that it has adapted to do this by playing host to trillions of microorganisms within the gut. Most live in the hindgut, although they are also found in the small intestine. The concept of friendly and unfriendly (pathogenic) bacterial comes from the concept that, as in any population not everyone is on the same side. Good bacterial act to provide the optimum gut environment and to digest feed. Pathogens cause diseases. The ill effects of that arch pathogen, salmonella, are well documented.

In reality, good and bad bacteria co­exist in the digestive tract all the time and problems only occur when conditions allow pathogens to proliferate. The digestive system is the first and most active line of defence against diseases, usually causes by such pathogens taking hold. In a healthy animal, it is thought this is due to competitive exclusion, whereby the number of good bugs outnumbers the bad, preventing them from getting hold.

A healthy diet high in fibre will have a healthy digestive system and microbial balance, however, given the numbers of micro-
organisms, it follows that anything that could upset digestion could alter this balance. Stress caused by travelling, the demands of competition and frequent change may contribute. Equally internal stress due to overflow of undigested carbohydrate into the hind gut can dramatically disrupt the balance, which is particularly relevant for animals at risk from laminitis or those prone to tying­ up.

  • Fibre: maximise fibre in the diet, particularly for competition horses and those at risk of diet related conditions such as laminitis or tying­ up. There are other ways to add fibre if grass or hay needed to be limited
  • Live yeast: used in feeds and supplements and thought to primarily in the hindgut. Of all the micro­organisms on the market,
  • only one, a yeast, has the necessary body of scientific evidence to prove it works in the horse and gain approval for use in feedstuffs by European legislators
  • Probiotics: mixed preparations of bacteria designed to boost ‘good bug’ populations and out crown disease causing bacteria.
  • They work principally in the small intestine.
  • Prebiotics: not micro­organisms, these work to increase the numbers of friendly bacteria: MOS ( mannan­oligosaccharides) may bind to and remove ‘bad’ bacteria. FOS ( fructo­oligosaccharides) provide food for good bacteria in the small and large intestines.
Could your horses diet affect performance?

Many conditions that can affect the performance of your horse may not be visible to the eye, and veterinary investigation will be required initially, although the problem maybe solved by other interventions such as a good physiotherapist or a good farriery.
You can’t ignore a review of the nutritional supply from the diet when investigating performance, once the obvious suspects ­ such as tendons, ligaments, heart and infection have all been ruled out.

Nutritional indictors of health whether or not the horse is drinking normally (easy to see with buckets, less so with automatic drinkers), whether he is eating up, his droppings are normal, his coat is looking good, he is holding condition and behaving normally.Vets and nutritionists can work together in detecting inner failings of the diet. It is possible to conduct blood tests to determine muscle enzymes, fractional electrolyte tests to determine hydration status and scoping to detect lung inflammation, amongst other things.

Many nutritional­ related causes of poor performance, though, might not be revealed through such tests, but only after dietary evaluation. The horse that loses its movement may be a subclinical laminitis sufferer. The horse, which regularly runs out of steam, might benefit from a review of energy sources together with a revised fattening program, or from an assessment of respiratory challenge. Undetectable dusts and pollens may cause lung irritation without evident inflammation. An on going gastric ulcer problem may affect temper and willingness to work.

Diet checklist:

  • Water: has anything happened to the water supply, in terms of quality or quantity?
  • Forage: has it changed in any way recently ­ a new source or just variable bales? Is it trodden into the bed? Is the horse eating enough? A minimum of 1% of body weight is essential for health and performance.
  • Hard feed: is it the right choice for your horse? Are you feeding it too much or too little? Is good quality and free from mould?
  • Does it match up to the declaration on the bag?
  • Supplements: are you using the appropriate supplements? Are you overdosing? Excess vitamin A for example can affect hoof quality and reduce appetite and excess selenium is toxic.
How to improve the moisture content in your horse’s diet.

Water is often the forgotten nutrient, but not only is it the most vital for life; it also makes up the largest component of our, and our horses’ bodies. Typically an adult horse is made up of 65 ­ 70% water, and a youngster 5­10% more. Water supplies little nourishment itself ­ its role is as a carrier for all the other nutrients.

This water is found within and around the body tissues, in blood and in the digestive tract, in the faeces and urine. It is gained, not only through drinking but also water contained in the feeds, and is lost through urine, faeces, the lungs and through the skin as sweating.

Maintaining a good water supply is essential ­ just 2% dehydration or less can affect performance, and horses that are poor drinkers are often poor performers.

How much water a horse needs each day depends on its diet, the workload, and the ambient temperature. (Horses multiply their water intake by more than four to cope with high heat and humidity).

Feed types affect consumption from buckets or troughs markedly: hay ­ based diets stimulate greater water intake and greater saliva production than those based on grass or hayleage. The water is then bound with the forage and acts as an internal fluid reservoir.

Conversely, the lower the total forage content of the diet, the lower that water intake form the bucket, and the smaller the amount of water is tied up within the digestive tract. This kind of diet is common in competition horses and racehorses. Where high ­energy feeds are required and low energy forage takes up too mush room in limited appetites. If your horse’s performance drops, then it pays to check the intake and quality of the water as part of your investigations. Buckets remain the best way to monitor the quantities drunk. Main water supplies are preferable to private supplies, as in theory; at least, they are more likely to be free of inadvertent fertiliser or sewage seepage.
If you are worried about your water supply, its mineral quality and microbiological quality can be easily checked by your local environment health team, the water authority or by a nutritionist.

Feed Water content

Carrots 90%

Grass 80%

Haylage 35%

oats 15%

Hay 15%

Cubes and mixes 14%

The role of nutrition in maintaining strong, healthy hooves.

Scientific studies in different countries have shown incidence of poor hoof quality in 30­40% of horses studied. Nutrition is an important factor in hoof quality ­ in unison with several other others including farriery, genetics, conformation, management and environmental conditions.

Hoof growth is relatively slow at around 0.2mm a day, meaning that the horn takes 9 ­ 12 months to grow from the coronary band to the weight ­bearing surface. Adverse changes therefore take a while to correct.

You only have to take a look at a hoof to see that it is highly complex in structure. Layers of linked cells create hoof wall thickness and strength. The strength of the hoof depends of the ability of such layers to hold together.

Nutrition for the hoofs must concentrate on the hoof cells and the liquid glue that holds the walls together. Given their complexity, no single nutrient can fulfil all roles. First and foremost the requirements for a balanced diet­ one containing all the appropriate nutrients, from the energy and the protein down to the smallest micronutrient.

The smallest well acknowledged support nutrient for hooves is the B­ vitamin biotin, shown to be the specifically required for the production of hoof horn. A dose of 15 mg a day is recommended for a typical horse of 500kg showing crumbly hoof horn, but not a cure all. If, after six to nine months of feeding biotin there is no improvement in your horse feet you should look at other options.

High grain, low forage diets may not support hoof growth. Not only may B­ vitamin production be slow, but low calcium availability may also result in weakness­ calcium is reported as having a direct effect on the attachment of the layers of hoof horn. It is less easy to understand why grass fed horses may have nutritional hoof problems, as grass is generally very rich. However, low trace element levels may not be supporting hoof growth. Porn horn has been associated with low zinc concentrations, but the primary effect of the grass ­ based diets on hoof quality may actually be more environmentally related. Changing conditions such as wet and dry weather and even uneven ground certainly have an impact.

  • Look after your horses feet and use the farrier regularly
  • If your horse has poor feet, take into account the nutrient supply from forage, hard fee, and look for gaps, most likely in vitamin, mineral and trace element supply.
  • Give a broad­ spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement if low levels of hard feed are fed or the diet is based primarily on forage of unknown quality.
  • Consider biotin supplementation if poor hoof quality persists after a balanced diet has been fed.
  • Regular exercise maintains a healthy circulation that in turn provides nutrients to the hooves.
Obesity in horses and the link to laminitis.

The link between diet, obesity and laminitis has yet to be shown in horses but there is a strong likelihood based on work in other

species. Many horses and ponies prone to weight gain are efficient at utilising the energy supplied in their diet. This ‘programming’

has its roots in the wild horse, which was used to storing excess nutrition during the feast of summer for use during the famine of

winter. This is particularly true for those horses with native blood. We also have research to prove that horses are pre­programmed

to increase their appetites in summer. Until recently, fat was considered just as energy storage, but it is now thought that it is

metabolically ‘active’ triggering a hormonal chain reaction that could make a horse more insulin resistant. This in itself is thought

to lead to obesity and laminitis.

Insulin is the hormone that removes glucose (which arrives in the blood from the digestion of starches and sugars) into the liver and

muscles. So, after a large, high starched meal such as a big portion of boiled barley, a peak in the blood glucose occurs that trails off

again as insulin removes it into the tissues. Insulin resistance is when the cells don’t recognise this circulating insulin. The system

reaches this unhealthy state when it is overburdened. The solution lies in avoiding overfeeding in the first place and cutting back on

the starches and sugars, replacing them with fibre sources. These nutrients are not bad in themselves, but excesses of them in an

overfed horse are now accepted as being potentially damaging.

Preventing problems:

  • Put your overweight (and not yet laminitic) horse or pony on a diet and exercise regime. A weigh loss of 10% has been shown in humans to improve the situation markedly, but do not induce a rapid weight loss, as this can cause a rise in blood and liver fat levels.
  • Give primarily fibre sources but ensure that the vitamin and mineral supply is good too.
  • Keep total feed intake to 1.5­ 1.75 of bodyweight in equine slimmers.
  • Feed low­ starch and low sugar feeds: excess of these is stored as fat, so there will be less fat if less is fed, as well as a lowered requirement for insulin to clear the glucose from the blood.
  • Old haylage are the preferred forage. Grass may be too rich and extended grazing periods will cause an increase in weight from this high sugar source.
Feeding Electrolytes.

Present in small amounts, dissolved in the blood and fluids between the cells, electrolytes are responsible for the correct function of nerves and, muscles. Electrolyte loss is closely linked to exercise. The muscles generate heat during work and a fit horse efficiently removes this out of his skin, to be lost as sweat. When a horse sweats, water is shed through the skin and evaporates, so the heat is lost to the atmosphere. However, the evaporated water contains dissolved electrolytes that are therefore also lost from the system.

The main electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. Most horses receive the majority of their daily electrolytes from forage. Horses on low forage diets, such as those receiving a lot of hard feed or those on restricted diets, will have a lower electrolyte supply than those horses consuming good fibre levels.

Calcium and phosphorus are also commonly added to compound feeds and mixes. However as salt is invariably low in forages and it is not added in high levels into compounds (because the high levels would attract water and make the feed unpalatable), extra should always be added separately to the feed bucket.

  • Diets with a total forage content less than 30% mean low inherent electrolyte supplies. Equally, a new forage source could be markedly different to the previous source.
  • Use Electrolytes whenever a horse works hard, summer or winter.
  • Understanding the electrolyte supply contained in the feed bucket and forage net is a good start. Nutritionists and feed companies can help.
  • In problem horses, a fractional electrolyte clearance test (carried out by your vet), alongside feed analysis, will confirm whether a diet is short in electrolytes.
  • Always add salt to the diet, either directly into the feed ( typically 2oz per day) or by offering access to a salt lick. For horses in hard work, a mixture of salt and lite salt (potassium chloride) ensures the supply of three important electrolytes is maintained.
  • Feed or administer electrolytes only when there is plenty of fresh water available, usually the day before heavy exertion and certainly afterwards. Syringing electrolytes into the horse immediately before intense exercise is likely to be counter productive because, unless he has access to water, he could end up more dehydrated in the short term.
Storage and hygiene for feed.

A typical warm, wet British summer provides ideal growing conditions­ and not just for grass and weeds. Insects thrive as well. In the summer, as horses go out more; the amount of hard feed used can drop considerably. This means that it can last for longer in the storage bin and it is fair game for anything small or fury that fancies a nibble.

Residues of winter­feed: the crumbs and spillage’s accumulated over the past nine months or so is also manna for insects. Wherever there’s grain, the tiny grain flour mite (Acarus Siro) is capable of setting up home, not only in farm stores grain, but also in animal feeds, breakfast cereals and flour. Mites aren’t poisonous, but they do spoil the food and make it unpalatable. When conditions (food, moisture, warmth) are right a 2,000­fold population growth can occur within a month. Any time from spring to late autumn is breeding time for mites, especially if the feed room is dusty and dirty, spillages aren’t cleared up quickly or the feed is at the end of its shelf life.

If your feed room has that stale honey­ like aroma, the chances are that you have a mite problem. If you open a bag and it contains fine dust or if when you buy it from your feed merchant and there’s a light brown dust on the surface or around the stitching, then you, and probably your supplier, have a mite infection.

Should this happen, a thorough clean in every nook, cranny and window ledge will be necessary, preferably with a vacuum cleaner. A brush just sends the mites up into the air, so they land and re­infest.

  • Keep the feed room clean. Leaks or spills should be immediately cleared up and a thorough clean out, inside and behind should be part of your yard routine.
  • Use old feed up before adding new ­both forage and hard feeds.
  • Check the shelf life of brought­ in products, and alter ordering patterns so feed is used well within them, especially during summer. Cereals such as oats, and barley are harvested in August, so the grain you buy in June is almost a year old.
  • If your horse is at DIY livery with communal storage, the risk of mites is only kept low if everyone maintains a clean feed store.
  • Keep feed in a dry, well ­ ventilated area, out of direct sunlight, to prevent both spoilage from the mites and the deterioration of vitamins and oils.
  • Chose a good feed supplier with a clean maintained store and good stock rotation.
Slowing the pace.

You can’t just turn a horse out after a summer of hard work. Sloth is unhealthy, as well as a bit of a waste. Horses are capable of holding their fitness much better than humans, so once you’ve achieved a level of fitness in a horse, it would be prudent not to let it go, not just physically but mentally.

At the end of a busy summer, a fit horse has effective heart, lungs and muscles as a result of exercising and conditioning. Bones are stronger and the horse is suppler. The less of this you let go over the next few months, the easier it is to regain once work resumes at half term or Christmas. Leading racehorse trainers are aware of this and their stable stars are often kept in some form of work over the closed season. For horses accustomed to the variety of exercise and competition, a more sedentary life may cause some fractiousness especially if they continue to be stabled. Find ways of filling their day, with forage, stable toys and the like. Roughed-off horses can obviously be kept out, providing they are well rugged, have shelter and they are appropriately fed (and you can repair
the poaching caused by the hooves on wet ground).

With feed, it’s not always a case of cutting out the hard stuff. Of course, as the workload decreases, so does the need for those extra calories to support exercise. But also changing the quality and quantity of grass and the introduction of some hay or haylage (which contains 20 ­30% less energy than grass).

These in conjunction with a drop in temperature could mean that the horse still loses condition. At the very least, a drastic reduction in feed will mean that a vitamin and mineral supplement is required.

  • Don’t just stop work and turn out ­ reduce exercise intensity over a two to three week period.
  • Try to keep your horse in some kind of work. Two or three outings per week, where he uses himself (even if all you are doing is keeping him up to the bit) will maintain basic fitness.
  • Make changes to the diet over the same two to three week period, monitoring condition and behaviour. Horse maintaining condition in light work will require a low ­ energy feed; those which drop condition will need a conditioning diet.

If for humans the maxim is five portions of fruit or vegetable a day, then the equivalent for a typical horse (who weighs about seven times more) must be approaching 40! Fortunately horses eat grass, which is a substitute for the majority of these portions, but stable horse do appreciate succulent extras.

Carrots and apples are the most commonly fed, but bananas are also popular worldwide as are soft fruit such as berries, grapes, pears, plums and apricots, as well as vegetables like Swedes and turnips. Vast quantities of succulents were shipped to the equestrian park at Athens, and British Olympic dressage horse Active Walero is known to have a particular penchant for unblemished bananas.

Fruit and vegetables are essentially a wet and nutritious sweet, full of water and sugar. Freshly served, they are about 90% water, with any nutrition coming from the 10% dry matter, while predominately sugar, also contains vitamins and natural plant antioxidants, albeit in relatively tiny amounts.

These days their value lies mostly in their succulence, but in earlier times, carrots were in particular were a stable part of heavy horse diets. Rates of 12 ­13 kg per day were not uncommon and can still be fed today by some heavy horse keepers. So are they worth inclusion in your horses diet? Almost certainly the answer is yes, if only to make sure the horse enjoys his food by adding some tasty variety.

This is especially true if the horse is a fussy eater or has gone off his food for some reason, such as the stress of competition. Unless you are feeding kilos of them, though, don’t rely on significant nutrient additions to the diet.

  • Remember to cut carrots down their length to avoid the risk of choking.
  • Make sure there is no soil contamination on fruit or vegetables: soil harbours potentially harmful microbes, including species of the bacteria Clostridia and Listeria, which can cause disease.
  • A few pieces of fruit or vegetables a day really won’t make much nutritional difference. A carrot weighs 75 ­ 100g but you would need to feed 100 carrots or apples (8kg) per day to get the equivalent of a scoop (1kg) of oats.
  • Bananas are energy rich and contain high levels of potassium. (But again do not provide much benefit if you only feed one or two per day)
  • Potatoes were popular after WW11, when other feeds were in short supply for working horses, or for putting weight on horses once cooked. Up to 10lbs per day were fed. Potatoes are really like wet barley ­ full of water and starch, and there are much easier ways of increasing horses’ weight. However, potatoes that have been left out in the field exposed to light and have become green should never be fed.
Tying up

About one in five horses suffers an attack of tying up, azoturia, setfast, or one of the other names given to the group of conditions now officially known as ERS (equine Rhabdomyolysis syndrome).

It is more prevalent in hard working competition and race horses but is not limited to these types and an attack can happen to any exercising equine. Scientific understanding of ERS is now a world away from the popular belief that lactic acid build up in the muscles is the cause. This has been disproved but the myth is still perpetuated. What is true is that the susceptible horses have underlying, most likely genetic, predisposition to ERS, which leads to an attack when some management factor tips them over the edge.

Stress is a trigger: it can arise from travelling long distances to a competition, not only from the journey itself, but also excitement. Dietary stress is also another factor. Many incidents are caused by a change in routine that (sometimes without your knowledge) means that the tiny amount of fibre in the diet is reduced. This can happen with an increase in workload, a change in forage or by a horse being too excited to eat before, during or after a competition.

Typical signs are that the horse, usually shortly after the onset of exercise, begins to take short, stiff strides, and after a short time is reluctant to move. He can sweat profusely. Lorry or trailer should take the horse, immediately if the attack is bad, and the vet called. The vet will treat the symptoms and take a blood for confirmatory diagnosis. Only after the immediate muscle pain has subsided should the horse be led or turned out. Both encourage blood flow to the muscles and therefore aid repair. Mild cases can restart work after 2­3 days, but with more severe damage, work is off the agenda for a number of weeks.

  • Warm up and cool down the horse effectively before and after exercise, and avoid over ­ exertion
  • Keep stress levels low; try to keep to a regular routine and avoid situations that could aggravate your horse.
  • Try to maintain a constant diet and make changes gradually; do not allow a horse to eat lush grass at events, if your grazing is poor ­ such a change could trigger
  • Keep dietary fibre levels high and starch and sugar as low as possible, and cut feed on days off
  • Uses electrolytes, especially when travel and workload are high. Salt (about 2oz / day) and tactical electrolytes after work keeps dietary supply in line with loss through sweat.
  • Give high ­ risk horses antioxidants that combine the effects of muscle damage: vitamin E (1,600mg / day) and selenium (2mg/day) are effective at muscle level.

When exercising at the limit, nutrition is one of the fundamentals of performance, from the overall forage to concentration ratio down to the details of electrolyte balance. The speeds at which elite endurance horses travel when racing mean that their muscles work aerobically most of the time during a ride. It’s only when they take steep hills or in the sprint to the line that they go into anaerobic. Muscles are at their most efficient when working aerobically, and to do this a horse can ‘burn’ either fat (lipid) or glycogen.

The dietary source of fatty acids is from the digestion of fibre or the oil supplied in the diet. Fibre is probably the most important nutrient after water for the equine endurance athletes the digestion of fibre takes place slowly, so the energy it releases is produced more evenly, and long after the end of a meal. This means you get more ‘ miles per gallon’. Additionally, fibre passes through the gut, acting as a fluid and electrolyte reservoir.

Notwithstanding poor training, the onset of fatigue can be affected by nutrition. Fatigue is measured not only by time, but also at the vet’s checks during a race. If the horse’s heartbeat exceeds 64bpm after 2minutes you are out. Depletion of muscle glycogen stores, combined with insufficient dietary fibre, is one of the main sources of fatigue, but so is dehydration. Fluids and electrolytes are lost in sweat and, if not replenished, affect performance markedly.

  • While the laws of physics dictate that the power to weight ratio ( max power / min weight) will means the faster the speed, there serves an endurance horse calls upon mean that it can’t be unduly thin.
  • Energy should come predominately from fibre and oil: fibre from forage and alfalfa, but also compounds containing Soya hulls and sugar beet pulp. Typically hard feeds with 6 ­10% are used, but huge excesses will make the horse fat and can affect fibre digestion. (Don’t cut out starch altogether. The horse needs some in the diet to maintain muscle glycogen levels, necessary for the ‘ power’ work of going up hills or galloping)
  • Water and electrolytes are crucial throughout a ride.
  • If you go slowly on endurance rides you just need forage and low energy feeds ­ horses have evolved to cover long distances like this. It’s only when going at speed that the extra feed counts.

Endurance racing stretches the equine metabolism to the maximum and fluid and electrolyte losses can be high as a result, especially in hot, or humid conditions. In extreme cases, horses may exhibit signs of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, known as SDF or ‘thumps’. The characteristic signs of SDF is the contraction of one, or both flanks coincident with the heartbeat, and indicates that the horse has reached an unstable metabolic rate.

This is only likely in horses in very high levels of work, and some are more prone than others. The important electrolytes in horses are sodium, potassium chloride, calcium and phosphorus. Low blood calcium (hypocalcaemia) is associated with SDF. Calcium is essential for muscle contraction, and SDF occurs when the level in which the blood drops below that requires for normal function.

A lack of ionised calcium causes the nerve to twitch uncontrollably ­ thus the beating of the heart stimulates twitching of the nerves supplying the abdominal muscle: The visible contraction of SDF. It would be easy to conclude that to supplement large amounts of calcium would be an effective preventative, but it seems that the opposite is true. Calcium is of such importance to the horse, that it tightly controls the metabolism. If excess calcium is fed, blood levels are high and the horse ‘turns down’ the amount it absorbs from the digestive system. Then when there is a short­term requirement during intense or prolonged exercise, there is no quick way of reversing this. Keeping levels in the diet above requirements, but not in the extreme may allow the system to remain ‘ hungry’ for calcium.

  • Maintain forage levels, preferably above 30% forage to 70% compound in the total diet. This is often overlooked in favour for other electrolyte therapies but hay and haylage appear to bind water as they pass through the digestive tract, acting as an internal electrolyte bank.
  • Take note of the environmental conditions. Heat increases water and electrolyte losses through sweat. Adjust electrolyte use to work level and climate ­ requirements can increase by two or three times in hot or humid conditions.
  • Don’t remove water ahead of competitions ­ it does increase the weight carried, but a good hydration status provides a circulating pool of electrolytes.
  • Don’t oversupply calcium in costly supplements ­ it can be counterproductive.

Key points to good grass management: keep the grass at a target height of 3 ­4 in, turn out other animals to graze your pasture on a regular basis, collect droppings regularly and avoid allowing the land to becomes poached. Short grass produces extra leaves or ‘tillers’ that create a dense mat, providing nutritious grazing and preventing excess hoof damage. Keeping grass to the target height is challenging, however, not least because grass grows at different rates through out the year. There are two peaks of rapid growth, the first around May and a lesser one around September. During the spring peak, well-managed grass is capable of feeding 3 to 4 16hh horses per acre, or 5 ­6 13hhponies. In September, one acre will support a maximum of 1horse or 2 ponies. If fewer horses graze, they cannot eat fast enough no matter how greedy they are.

Ungrazed grass then grows tall and is unpalatable. Collecting droppings is a chore, but horses don’t eat where they dung and urinate, resulting in distinct ‘toilet areas’. Large grazing areas can be lost in this way and it is unsightly. Turning horses out when land is very wet can be very damaging. Hooves, especially when shod, cut through grass and into the soil beneath it easily. Besides mud, this causes damage to soil structure, affecting grass growth and drainage. Weeds are often the first to grow once bare soil starts to appear and the heavy poaching therefore spells the end of good grazing.

In short, doing nothing with your grassland isn’t an option. Poorly managed pastures can easily change to a nasty, weedy, horse sickening parcel of land within three to four years.

  • Mend any poached areas: by treading divots and rolling
  • Collect manure: on average, horses produce eight piles of droppings every 24hrs ­ going out daily makes the task manageable
  • Keep your grass 3­4in high: remove excess by topping, or grazing with a Hoover team of cattle or sheep.
  • Remove weeds: the most common are thistles, docks, buttercups, nettles and Ragwort (remember Ragwort is poisonous).
  • Spraying or pulling them removes them quickly, but provides only a short­-term solution unless you alter other aspects of your management.
Tempting fussy eaters.

It can be frustrating when your horse doesn’t finish his feed. Some horses are just plain fussy, but others seem to go off their feed for no reason. If a horse starts turning his nose up, consider what might have changed ­ perhaps an increase in work level, or a new batch of feed. Also, consider having his teeth checked. Horses in hard work that have been turned out during the day have the benefit of the continued grass growth this autumn. Even if horses are turned out for a few hours, the quality of the late autumn grass can certainly replace a bowl or two of hard feed; an extra bowl of food in such a case may mean over­facing their appetite.

Tempting stressed horses is another matter. The root cause could be physical or mental. Among the physical causes of poor appetite could be, discomfort, usually in horses eating small amounts of forage. In this case, either gastric ulcers or overflow of starch (from a high cereal meal) into the hind gut causes discomfort. Something as simple as a new batch of forage can precipitate this. Anxious horses are more difficult to settle into a regime of eating. You need to work out exactly what is concerning them and rectify it.

Things that work are feeding at the front of the stable, frequent small meals, turning them out, or visual access to other horses. For sudden loss of appetite, especially those that are good eaters you cannot rule out illness or disease. If there is any doubt, check the vital signs and consult with your vet.

  • Make the meal tempting: offer less per meal but more meals in one day; mix in apples, carrots or a glug of molasses to make
  • the meal more succulent; or add a scoop of soaked molasses sugar beet pulp to the feed.
  • Turn out to chill out: increase the time horses are turned out, especially if they can pick at grass.
  • Variety: horses increase their time spent eating if they are eating a variety of forages. Offer variety in different locations around the stables as this helps recreate the natural browsing instinct.
  • Find something they do like: changing downwards to a low energy, high fibre or horse and pony type cube has been shown to work.
  • Gorse: this old wives tale does appear to work. A frond of gorse in the manger, however unpalatable it sounds, seems to encourage the appetite.
  • Vitamin B12 injections are often used as a pick­me­up, and to perk up an appetite. Using a B­ vitamin supplement may therefore help fussy eaters.
Reducing the risk of colic:

Non­feed causes of colic include parasite activity, which contributes to lowered gut motility and an increased risk of impaction. Likewise, poor teeth care, although it is fair to say that a dental check is very much part of most horses’ annual routines. In older horses, colic due to strangulation lipoma is not uncommon ­ these fatty tumours in effect wrap themselves around the gut. Stress ­prone horses can also be susceptible, for instance on long journeys or after a particularly intense exercise bout.

Feed related colic is often difficult to disassociate from changes in management. Researchers estimate that 40% of colic cases were related to management change. The most likely management cause is a sudden change in diet. This can be due to increase in the hard feed, either in preparation for hard exercise, or if the horse has suddenly lost weigh. Alternatively, when the quality of the forage changes. Feeding excess cereal or excessive intake of rich grass will affect the hindgut balance and increase the risk of colic.

Conversely, in horses turned out on sparse or wet pasture, sand colic can be a consequence, especially on land that has been over grazed or poached, where there might be significant intake of soil as the horse forages. Horses that eat their bedding are at increased risk of colic, as are poor drinkers, or those who will not drink as a result of a change in the water. This might occur when travelling or through poor stable hygiene.

  • Water: a clean supply should always be available.
  • Keep your worming program up to date and pick up droppings from the field at least every two days.
  • Change to another kind of bedding if the horse eats too much straw.
  • Maintain fibre intake, if not through forage then via hard feed
  • Watch out for sudden starts or stops in grass growth
  • Make dietary changes over 2 ­3 weeks: it’s healthier for the horse to step up the work rate before stepping up the feed.
  • Feed as frequently as possible and in a routine
  • Move away from starched­bases to fibre­and oil­based compounds to supplement the forage.
  • Use haylage bales within four days of opening, or less when the weather is warm.