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Horses & Ponies

Most horses and virtually all ponies just need good quality forage topped up as required with higher energy feeds.

Slab fracture of cheek tooth. These can usually be removed without losing the whole tooth. It is better to retain the main part of the tooth if possible.

Horse Nutrition Overview

The increasing reliance by horse owners on hard feed fuelled by magazine articles written by those with a vested interest in selling more feed is setting horses up for more colics, allergies and other diseases. Molasses and other inappropriate ingredients are added to everything to increase palatability and to increase intake by up to 40% - great for sales income, but not so great for the welfare of the horses.

Unfortunately, equine nutrition is tending to go down the same route that pet food has already taken. Owners have largely abandoned the traditional practice of feeding straights in favour of compounded feeds and cubes etc that aren't in horses' and ponies' best interests. Manufacturers play on owners' fears that they don't know how to feed their horses properly unless it is compounded for them. I don't suppose it will be long before we see the advent of equine "Science Diets" designed to be fed at great expense to horses diagnosed with specific problems many of which will be attributable to the original feed but won't be recognised as such.

As a nation, the UK has a tendency to obesity both for ourselves and our animals. Many horses and ponies in the show ring are too fat and unfit. Judges should be sending them home as soon as they step in the ring so as not to encourage spectators who own horses and ponies into thinking that is how they should look.

In nature, there is a natural cycle of body condition whereby animals put on condition and fat in times of plenty - usually over late Spring and Summer - and burn it off during times of hardship - usually over late Autumn and Winter. I believe this serves a function not widely recognised in that many toxins both acquired in times of plenty and generated in the body through inefficient metabolic processes are stored in the adipose tissue of the body (ie in the fat). During times of hardship when animals "live off their fat" and lose condition, the body will naturally detoxify the stored toxins as they are released when the adipose tissue is broken down. These toxins will then be neutralised and excreted. This cycle of storing and release of toxins helps spread the load on the liver as well providing for the energetic requirements of the individual.

With domestication and year round competition we have a tendency to keep our animals at a constant body condition that is probably too fat in the majority of cases. This creates a number of problems especially for animals on commercial feed with low-grade ingredients, as they tend to be made worse by processing. The first is that toxins are continually fed all year round. Of course the body can detoxify some immediately and store the rest in adipose tissue. Without the annual cycle of living off their fat, these toxins are never released and dealt with. Eventually adipose tissue must either be preferentially laid down in order to store the continual influx of toxins or else the existing adipose tissue becomes overloaded and the toxicity must spread to fatty tissues in other areas of the body whilst putting extreme pressure on the liver. Animals kept continually over-lean will not have sufficient adipose storage thus creating continual burden on the liver. With a non-toxic diet this isn't necessarily a problem but if the toxin delivery starts to overtake the capacity of the liver to deal with it then the liver will eventually become swamped. Degenerative diseases and an earlier than necessary death is inevitable.

In order to understand what we should be feeding our equine friends and why, we first need to understand the equine digestive system. Firstly the mouth is designed with large grinding molars that start physically breaking down the plant cell walls. Incorrect dentistry can just as easily cause eating problems as good dentistry can solve them. The use of power tools for routine equine dentistry should be avoided at all costs. All too frequently, I come across situations where too much tooth has been taken off and the wrong angle created primarily on the lower dental arcades. Power tools run too hot and burn the enamel and cook the protein matrix of the tooth which denatures it and damages the integrity of the tooth and prevents the enamel growing back. This predisposes to dental caries and exposes the dentine which will begin to crumble. Pure physics tells us that heating 2 different materials at the same time will cause them to expand at different rates. When this happens in a horse's tooth the enamel and dentine behave in exactly this way which creates shear forces between the layers and predisposes them to slab fractures. The different layers will also cool down at different rates too. Your human dentist doesn't drill your teeth without using coolant that the dental nurse takes away using suction so why do some vets and EDTs think it's OK to use power tools in your horse's mouth without coolant? The answer is that it isn't.

The horse's stomach is relatively small - roughly the size of a rugby ball for a 16hh horse. If you are feeding any more hard feed than the stomach can cope with in any one meal you are risking colic and other digestive disorders such as ulcers. Feed which is designed to undergo simple digestion in the stomach passes on undigested down the digestive tract where it ferments and upsets the flora of the intestines.

Horses are designed to eat lots of fibrous plant material pretty well on a continuous grazing basis. Acid is secreted into the stomach continually in contrast to our carnivorous pets where acid is secreted in response to the presence of food. Likewise the horse has no Gallbladder because bile is continually produced and secreted. If you therefore feed a hard feed with insufficient fibre in the diet or with big gaps between feeds and forage there is a greater risk of ulcers and incorrect intestinal pH that will upset the balance of fermenting bacteria.

There is a saying that it isn't a question of whether horses have ulcers or not but how many. This is a damning indictment of our ability to feed horses if this is true because they certainly didn't evolve to have them and ulcers bestow no evolutionary advantages.

Dangers of Commercial Horse Feeds

Whilst there is no doubt that fresh spring and summer grass contains natural sugars produced by the grass this is a far cry from the large amounts of refined and processed molasses and "sugar derivatives" included in commercial equine feeds to increase palatibility. In some cases this can amount to nearly 50% of the feed. So-called "lite" varieties still contain significant amounts of molasses and are completely contra-indicated for horses and ponies at risk of or suffering from laminitis. High molasses/sugar levels have 3 advantages for the manufacturer -

  1. Horses eat up to 40% more food = increased profits = poorer owner
  2. It covers the taste of the low grade ingredients used to maximise profits
  3. It creates hard food addicts. This creates repeat business.

If you don't believe me on this addict point why else do all the horses on the yard kick the door at feed time even if there is forage available?
Answer: They want their fix.

Unfortunately there are other downsides beyond your continuing expense on hard feed. Your horse/pony is likely to get fat as it will continue to eat more than it would otherwise do. This can put strains on the liver, heart and other organs and will predispose to disease of these organs including laminitis, Cushings, bleeders, tying up and even diabetes.

If too much hard feed is fed too early in life (this includes during pregnancy as a foetus), growth can occur too quickly and joints especially will struggle to cope and predispose to problems such as OsteoChondritis Dessicans (OCD) and Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). This is more likely with geldings where early castration delays the closure of the growth plates of the bones so that they grow bigger than they would have been if left entire. Over-working young horses and ponies to early in life is a major contributor to OCD and DJD in my opinion too.

Luckily there is now a new horse supplement to promote strong bone growth and healing for bone injuries - OsteoEquine. Many supplements just concentrate on Calcium, but the strength and quality of the collagen matrix is equally important. See product page for more details.

Unlike ruminants such as sheep, cows and goats which have a 4-chambered stomach called a rumen where plant fermentation takes place, equines have a very large hind-gut - the large colon - where bacteria ferment the plant material in order to release plant nutrients. Even natural simple plant sugars are released slowly as cell walls need to be broken down to release it. This means that energy is usually released on a fairly continual basis. Horses are best suited to diets that provide for this process. In practice this ideally means no simple refined sugars which are provided by molasses and minimal grains and pulses.

When the balance of the gut bacteria etc (the intestinal Biome) is disrupted - called Dysbiosis then metabolic disturbances can occur. I am increasingly convinced that this is the root cause of the increasingly diagnosed Equine Metabolic Syndrome. I have a separate page to deal with this issue, here.

The most successful old-school racing trainers used to feed soaked oats, alfalfa, linseed and good quality hay. Diets could be individually adjusted according to work and the trainers eye and today costs a fraction of the expense of compounded feeds.

Most disturbingly I have recently heard that some pelleted (ie cubes etc) feeds include cement powder to help bind the ingredients. Chicken shit is included as an "acceptable extruded protein" source. Is it any wonder we see more impaction colics, salmonella, grass sickness etc? Other ingredients used to bulk up the feed with little or no nutritional value include "wood flour" (sawdust to you and me) wheat middlings (this is what is left after wheat is processed for human feed) etc. If it isn't clear in the ingredients list what the ingredient really is then it is probably an imaginative name for something that would otherwise put you off buying it. My advice would be to find an alternative such as Simple System Ltd, or get back to good old straights and feeding according to your eye.

It is interesting in old horse feed text books that wheat is not regarded as a suitable feed substance for horses. Mind you it's not really suitable for man or dogs/cats etc either given the effects the gluten has on most of us - intolerances, allergies, IBS, diverticulitis etc!! One member of the public at a talk I gave told me (when I mentioned the unsuitability of wheat) that she had bought a bag of wheat straights for her horse. When she opened it, it contained ergot which can cause ergot poisoning and is the source of the recreational drug LSD. I suspect this was a consignment of wheat that was "not fit for human consumption" but it makes you wonder if other compounded feeds where it would be impossible to spot such contamination are regularly sold and what impact it has on behaviour?

I have also heard it said that a 10% colic rate is "normal". This means that if you have 10 horses, you should expect 1 case of colic per year. Where this figure has come from I don't know but presumably from research where horses were fed an inappropriate commercial feed. I know people who have been involved with horses for over 30 years with full yards of 20+ horses who can count the number of colics they have had on the fingers of one hand. If a 10% colic incidence is normal what are they doing wrong?! It is certainly not normal in my book and is yet another example of commercial misinformation to justify the feeding of inappropriate ingredients.

99% of colic is due to poor management. It may be accidental and we all make mistakes at times, especially with a new horse - feed changed too quickly, inappropriate ingredients, bad dentistry, water too cold, poor grazing on sandy soil so sand gets eaten when grazing close and accumulates in the gut etc. There are supposedly 150 different causes of colic!! With Professor Hindsight we can hopefully identify the cause and avoid a repeat but it is a management issue nonetheless. Anybody who says differently is trying to sell you something!

We are led to believe that it is necessary to feed lots of grains and pulses with molasses for horses doing lots of work. If it is possible for horses to do 100 mile endurance rides on feeds that do not rely on grains and pulses, or for a racehorse trainer on the continent to do the same, it is easily possible for the rest of us expecting a lower level of performance to manage without too.