Horses evolved to eat small amounts of grasses, herbs and minerals almost constantly throughout the day.
They covered many miles to reach water and lived in small herds of varied ages and sexes.
Does this sound like the modern horse?
Not really – their involvement with humans has necessitated their restriction and artificial feeding for ease of use as a working animal.
But today the majority of horses are used for pleasure, sport and companionship, and so our methods of feeding them are also evolving.
Many new ideas are replacing traditional methods of health care, with hoof-care and feeding now the focus for improving overall health and longevity.
If we want a long-lived, happy, healthy equine then we need to change our ways to suit their true nature.
Natural Hoof Care practitioners and forage researchers have highlighted that horses cannot be fed like cows – on high sugar grasses that maximise beef and milk production if we want them to remain sound.
To do so compromises their health by causing laminitis as they become more carbohydrate intolerant – commonly called ‘good doers’ and known as being ‘insulin resistant’.
When horses eat high sugar grasses it causes a toxic reaction in the hindgut which then affects the connection between the hoof wall and laminae (sensitive internal structure).
This causes common hoof ailments such as abscesses, seedy toe, white line disease and deformed, shallow, sensitive hooves.
With a little thought and planning, better feeding and management practices can help us avoid most of these issues.
Changes you can make:
Ensure grass hay is fed as the main diet, along with free choice loose salt and/or a salt lick.
By using slowfeed hay nets you can slow down and extend the intake time.
Feed a quality balanced mineral mix (daily if possible) to make up for shortfalls in the diet, and overcome issues such as a bleached coat, greasy heel/mud fever, thrush, seedy toe and rain scald.
Avoid feeding grain unless your horse is receiving enough additional exercise to utilise the energy it provides. Racehorses, endurance and performance horses will need extra feed tailored to their needs.
Broodmares, foals and young growing horses may need some grains and legumes (lucerne) to provide additional protein and calcium.
Aged horses not maintaining weight may need beet pulp or soy hulls that are easier to digest.
All other horses will generally maintain weight safely on free-choice hay with the use of slowfeed haynets to extend the time taken to eat their daily ration.
Soaking hay – Some good-doers will need to have their ‘sugar-rich’ hay soaked for a few hours to lower the sugar content. Rich hay is usually cut from ryegrass & clover pastures designed for fattening cattle.
The only way to find out if your hay is high in sugars is to have it tested.
Restrict grass intake appropriately for each horse – most will need to be kept off grass during the evening when the grass sugars are highest. Some insulin resistant horses may only be able to tolerate a couple of hours in the very early morning, especially in spring/autumn.
Grazing muzzles – some ‘good doers’ will need to wear a grazing muzzle some of the time to remain with the herd. It’s not comfortable for them to wear a muzzle all the time and colic may result if they don’t get enough bulk food (such as hay).
It’s recommended to remove the muzzle and horse/pony from the grass and feed hay overnight.
Provide forage enrichment by growing or allowing access to herbs, shrubs and trees that are safe for horses. If you don’t have those growing on your property, you can bring them in to hang on fences or in nets, lay logs on the ground for them to chew bark and supply dried herbs in some chaff.
Encourage more movement by fencing a 10–20m wide track around your pasture which makes a long, thin paddock and restricts grass intake without reducing movement like small ‘starvation’ paddocks do.
Try to feed as far from the water source as possible to increase movement. Systems such as Equicentral are also a great way to manage feed and water resources and encourage movement.
Keeping your horse in a herd or at least with another active companion will also increase movement as they travel to and from water, feed and enrichment such as hay nets placed well apart from other resources and resting areas.
As you can see there are many ways in which we can improve the way we feed and provide nutrition for our equines which will, in turn, save us money via reduced vet bills, and improve their physical and mental well-being.
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