Nutrition is the second most important element of your
horse's care. If you are providing the right diet, everything else falls into place behind it, from curing thrush and
chronic abscessing and thin, flat soles. Just the same as people, horses are what they eat. However, exercise is THE most
important, as the descrepancies in diet can be neutralized with enough movement. We all know that a lack of certain key nutrients
can lead to poor hoof condition, but too many can as well. It's important to balance your horse's overall diet and feed only
what he needs. Most adult horses get all the calories and most of the nutrients the need in mixed grasses and hay.
Provide a high fiber diet. A diet full
of hay will keep your horse satisfied and avoid boredom. This will help your horse's overall metabolic
needs as well as preventing bad habits picked up when there's nothing to nibble on but the side of the barn. Most
horses, if allowed to adjust to a free choice diet, soon figure out they will always have access to the food and therefore
learn to gauge "when to stop". At first though, they may pig out until they figure out the food is plentiful.
One useful device in free choice feeding is a slow feed hay net. These are designed to only allow a few strands of hay be
eaten at a time, cutting waste and keeping your horses from overeating. Look on my Tips page to find out more.
Plain grass hays (including timothy,bermuda, prarie grass, etc.) should be the biggest and most
freely given part of your horses' diet. Fescue and brome are ranked higher in sugar than most
other grasses availabe in my area and cause a lot of problems, even though they are grass and not legume. Alfalfa is
a good source of nutrients and calories, yet low in NSC (non-structural carbohydrates-or starch), though there is a calcium
imbalance, it's appropriate for most horses in moderation. Obese horses obviously don't need the calories available in aflalfa
or brome and fescue or clovers.
Omit grain. Simply put, the average horse doesn't even need grain in their diets. Horses are designed to browse, not
eat meals. If your horse is fat, but you want him to feel like he's getting something, a handful of black oil
sunflower seeds or a carrot or an apple serve just as well or a alfalfa pellets to help "carry" the supplements
you want to feed.
A handful of oats here and there is fine. Sunflower seeds or any wild
bird seed mix (without additives) given by the handful is fine. Try different kinds of fruit, like apples or even bananas!
Vegetables are fun to experiment with. Remember, a little here and there is good, but you don't want to suddenly change the
diet with 10lbs of carrots or anything! Everything in moderation, except the grass hay!
Feeding at ground level is best. The head down position is what they are
designed for. It allows the nasal passages to drain, so less dust and fewer germs get in the horses' respiratory system
to make him sick or stir up allergies. It stretches his muscles. Traditional hay nets/ racks that are safely placed high, allow
seeds and dust to fall into eyes and noses, so either feed on the ground (but not on top of manure) or use the new slow feed
nets that don't allow hooves to get caught. If you feed grain or beet pulp, use a rubber tub on the ground.
Mixed pasture grass offers
variety and loads of fiber. Most pastures are actually too rich in NSC for horses as the grass is so lush and easily
accessed as well as lacking much variety. In the wild a horse would travel more to obtain less. You may need to limit your
horses' time on lush pasture or have him wear a grazing muzzle. However, grass is still a much better food for your horse
than grain concentrates. Believe it or not, I actually see more healthy hooves come from poor, weedy pastures than I do from
manicured and fertilized properties or stalled horses. The difference is the amount of wandering the horse has to do to get
any green grass. This includes my own pasture, which is poor by many a horseman's standards, yet my horses don't have the
same thrush and laminitis issues.
For turnout, I do recommend night time turnout. The NSC levels go down
after dark and are at te lowest in the early morning. Then as the sun comes up, the NSC's do, too. The NSC levels are generally
highest in the mid afternoon. This is good news, though, because your horse can be turned out at dusk, hopefuly with a muzzle
if he's portley, then he's up and easy to catch during the day when you are most apt to want him to ride. Being kept "up"
doesn't mean stalled, necessarily. A small dry lot will do just fine to limit the grass intake.
What I learned in class....
I took a couple of
natural hoof care classes (from Penzance Equine Solutions) to keep up to date on hoof care and learned a lot about
nutrition in the process. I will be taking more focused classes on nutrition later, but for now, I'll share some of the basics
with you. I also studied the information from SaferGrass.Org about the plants we feed our horses.
Most important thing you can do to
save a lot of money, is have your grass and hay analyzed for nutrients AND NSCs (sugar content). You will know exactly
what supplements to add, and what not to.
Another thing I learned, is that variety truely is the spice of life. Did you know you can offer fruits,vegetables and herbs?
Most of our table veggies are okay and even healthy for horses to eat! Sweet potatoes are especially good! Offering
variety also covers more nutrients in the diet. Horses don't need or want an exact mix of the same thing each day. Their bodies
have different needs at different times based on stress, exercise, illness and weather. Their diet can be fairly consistent,
after all, drastic changes are know to cause havoc in extremes. It is intresting to note, though that horses that get more
variety on a consistent basis and fed approximately the same time each day suffer fewer colic episodes.
Straw isn't just bedding?
In light of the hay shortage in 2011's crop, owners are scrambling more than ever to keep equines
fed properly. I recommend utilizing slow feed hay nets or feeders to help minimize waste. Hay Huts shelter the hay and keep
horses from fouling it with their waste if you use round bales free choice. Even better is a Hay Hut and Texas Hay net combo.
For square bales, put the day's ration in a slow feed
net, jerk a knot in the string and toss in the pen. If your horses are shod, hang them where a horse can't get his shoes caught.
Slow feed nets make the horses take longer to eat-to they don't gorge then stand empty the rest of the day. They can't pull
out large amounts and waste it. So the same amount of hay lasts much longer throughout the day, meaning you may feed less
to keep your horse content. Bonus is that the slower feeding alleviates boredom (and cribbing, weaving, etc) and colic, ulcers
and even laminitis by keeping blood sugar spikes from fasting/feasting cycles levelized.
Aside from saving what hay you DO already have, you can augment your hay supply with clean
wheat straw. No mold is allowed, or many seed heads. But good, dry wheat straw can be left out to keep a horse busy when the
hay runs out. It's low if NSC's, full of coarse fiber and most horses won't gorge on it (None, that I've seen, so far). Personall,
I give my horses' hay ration in slow feed nets to meet their nutrition requirements, then offer straw to give them something
to keep chewing on beside my barn. It works wonderfully. Not even my 2 IR horses are having any problems with it. I wouldn't
use it instead of hay, just to stretch out the hay I have.