AT winter’s end, the overall condition of many horses tends to deteriorate. One or more contributing factors may include diminishing forage nutritional quality, increased caloric needs, lack of a quality calorie source, relative inactivity, nutrient under or over-supplementation or reduced water intake.
The switch from pasture grass to hay is often the prime factor leading to loss of body condition. The nutritional quality of hay is less than pasture grass, and the quality further diminishes the longer the hay is stored. For example, carotene (vitamin A) content decreases over 50% within a few days following harvest, while other vitamins deteriorate at a rate as high as 7% to 10% per month.
In addition, the cold weather increases a horse’s metabolic demands to stay warm. Horses burn their fat reserves to satisfy the increased calorie demand resulting in loss of body condition over the winter.
Feeding a good grade of hay or roughage in sufficient quantity is the best source of calories. A horse will normally consume 2 to 2½% of their body weight on a “dry matter basis” of hay or pasture per day. Hay typically dries to about 15% moisture while in covered storage, therefore a 450kg horse would consume up to 13kg of hay during the course of a day. Free choice hay or roughage is ideal, so that the horse constantly nibbles. If the horse needs calories in addition to a quality free choice hay to maintain body condition, whole oats are an excellent source of supplemental calories. The starch in oats is highly digestible and is quickly broken down into sugars in the small intestines and absorbed.
Another good source of calories is beet pulp. Beet pulp is digested by hindgut microbes into beneficial vitamins, amino acids and volatile fatty acids (VFAs). VFAs are efficiently utilised as a calorie source. Beet pulp or copra increases caloric density of the diet without the formation of glucose, and is therefore ideal for starch sensitive insulin resistant horses. An added benefit is that the digestible fibre of beet pulp and copra also provides heat from the hindgut fermentation process. Vegetable oil added to the diet also provides calories produced by hindgut microbes in the form of volatile fatty acids.
Increasing the amount of a compound feed to help a hard keeper gain weight is often counter-productive. When feeding compounded feeds, nutrient intake is regulated by the amount of feed intake because the fortified nutrients and calories are tied together and cannot be separated. Increasing the feeding level of a compound feed in an attempt to increase calorie intake is in effect “force feeding” the fortified nutrients and often results in over supplementation. Nervousness, metabolic problems and loss of body condition are associated with poor quality diets and over-supplementation. The daily nutrient requirement should be separated from the calorie requirement necessary to maintain proper weight by providing the daily needed nutrients separately from the non-fortified calorie source.
The best feeding programme is to provide free choice pasture or quality hay and supplemental nutrients in the proper levels and ratios. Feed whole oats, if necessary, for calories to maintain body condition. Whole oats are an ideal calorie source if the horse needs calories in addition to the calories provided by the forage to maintain body condition. Feeding whole oats encourages the horse to chew and therefore stimulates salivation. The buffering action of saliva improves digestion and helps prevent ulcers and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
Supplementation of the winter forage with a balanced nutrient source containing vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids is highly recommended. Nutrients in the correct levels and ratios will make the forage more feed efficient. For example, lysine is the limiting amino acid in forages and, when supplemented to the diet, the other amino acids are more efficiently utilised, thereby making the diet more efficient. A properly balanced and concentrated nutrient supplement will help the horse more efficiently metabolise the winter forages and feed. Barn Bag® Adult Maintenance or Farrier’s Formula® from Life Data® are ideal.
The winter months can make or break spring training and activities. Since the longer hair coat during winter months can hide weight loss or weight gain, prevent excessive weight loss or gain with body condition scoring on a weekly or twice per month basis.
Life Data Labs, Inc. – makers of Farrier’s Formula® and Barn Bag® Adult Maintenance; www.lifedatalabs.co.uk