The Golden Rules Of Feeding
If like me, you were a pony mad child in the 80’s you would certainly have known that there were certain rules for feeding your pony off by heart. Whether you were in the Pony Club, or just devoured Horse and Pony magazine this information was everywhere. Fast forward thirty odd years and horse’s don’t seem to be fed in this way anymore, many owners aren’t aware of these rules- so are they still useful? Is this information still correct and relevant for 2020?
Nicola Kinnard-Comedie BHSAI MSc
Founder of NKC Equestrian Training
So, what were the golden rules of feeding?
1. Feed little and often
There are many reasons that this is still a very good feeding guideline:
The horse is a trickle feeder, it is designed to graze and roam eating for 16-18 hours a day. We keep horses in a very different environment but their digestive system remains the same. The horse needs to chew to produce saliva, and its this regular saliva production that protects the stomach from acid splash back. Saliva has a buffering effect which raises the pH of this acidic part of the digestive system.
The horse has a relatively small stomach (around the size of a beach ball), and it has a capacity of 6-8 liters. It is very easy to overload the stomach, and this can have negative consequences for latter parts of the digestive system. If your horse does require concentrate feed (which the vast majority of leisure horses don’t) then it is imperative that this is split into several small meals. One scoop of cubes can weigh up to 2kg, do you weigh out food? How much do you feed at a time?
Splitting feed into several meals is also helpful for preventing boredom and potentially vices for a horse that is stabled more.
"The horse needs to chew to produce saliva, and its this regular saliva production that protects the stomach from acid splash back."
2. Feed according to workload, age, body weight, the rider, and time of year.
This is still very true, but probably the least adhered nowadays which is certainly contributing to the rise of equine obesity.
The modern leisure horse does a lot less work than a it’s counterpart did twenty or thirty years ago. More and more people have transport so hacking to shows or lessons (as I did) is relatively unheard of. Riders probably go on shorter hacks due to busier roads, less bridleway access and often less time.
A horse’s workload was typically classified as ‘light’ (schooling and hacking most days), ‘medium work’ (competing in dressage, showjumping or lower level eventing regularly) or ‘hard work’ (higher level eventing, regular hunting or endurance). If you look on many bags of horse feed they will labelled as appropriate for low or medium (or high) energy requirements but I think the many owners overestimate the work level of their horse.
It is well documented that horses are not only living longer, but that they are ageing better. A horse in it’s twenties can still be enjoying an active life with correct management. The age of your horse will also determine the amount of energy that it requires to remain healthy, with older and growing young stock having greater nutritional requirements.
The horse’s feed ration should be calculated as a percentage of its body weight, and horses should be fed between 1.5-2.5% of their weight, most leisure horses needing around 2%. This is still correct, however there are several areas where owners don’t quite get this right.
Do you know how much your horse actually weighs?
Is your horse overweight?
Are you feeding for the current weight or the weight your horse needs to be?
It is recommended to feed for the target weight your horse needs to be (not it’s current weight) if it’s overweight.
If you are feeding an overweight horse I would suggest looking at ways to reduce the calorific intake of the hay (i.e soaking), methods to increase chew time and slow the horse down, before reducing to under 2% of body weight in total. Feeding 1.5% BW is best undertaken on advice of your vet, as you need to ensure that you are still meeting your horse’s welfare needs.
It might sound a bit strange to choose feed for a horse based on the rider but actually this is a very good point.
As a rider or owner it is a minefield popping into your local tack shop or feed store for a bag of food for your horse. There is so much choice, bright colored bags and lots of clever promises across the products. There might also be others at your yard suggesting that you feed your horse this or that, and how it’s worked wonders for their dressage horse, eventer or trek superstar.
It is essential to select a food that provides appropriate energy levels and suitable energy sources for the work that your horse is doing, otherwise your horse will gain weight.
Selecting the wrong energy sources for your horse can also result in a rather lively four legged partner, and rider’s level of skill, confidence and ability should be considered as well as what the horse really needs.
Time of year
Horses in the wild experience seasonal weight loss and gain in accordance with the availability of food and climatic conditions. This actually keeps them healthy, reports of laminitis are very rare among ‘managed’ Native ponies living on moors or forests. Nowadays owners go to great length to avoid ANY weight loss during the winter, and often this is a mistake. If you own a ‘good doer’ it can be tough keeping them slim during the Spring and Summer months, but letting them lose some weight in the colder months will be very beneficial for your horse. The horse will start the following Spring the correct weight, not with an 100kg excess, and if you encourage this to happen each year it will certainly keep your horse healthier.
3. Feed good quality food
This feeding rule certainly still applies, to both hay and concentrate feed stuffs. Dusty hay can be detrimental to your horse’s respiratory system, so if you are concerned about the dust content of the hay then do consider steaming it. I have personally found this an efficient method to improve the quality of hay, by reducing dust, bacteria and mold.
4. Feed plenty of roughage
Hay or haylage (if your horse does actually need the latter) should make up the vast majority of your horse’s feed ration. However there are a few points to consider…
How much hay does your horse actually need? Base this on 1.5-2.5% of your horse’s body weight, or target body weight, and remove any hard feed / balancer that you are giving from the total weight allowance.
How much hay do you actually give your horse? Quite often owners will say 3 slices, a big net, or ad-lib. But actually how much is this? You may well be wildly over feeding your horse.
5. Don’t make any sudden changes to your horse’s diet
I think that this feeding rule is probably quite well known by owners but not actually stuck to. The reason that this rule is still relevant is that the microflora in the hindgut are specific to the food that your horse is used to eating. A sudden change of diet means no time for these ‘good bacteria’ to adjust and your horse won’t be able to digest its food effectively.
"Consider steaming it [your hay]. I have personally found this an efficient method to improve the quality of hay, by reducing dust, bacteria and mold."
Do any of these examples sound familiar?
You go to buy feed (you’ve literally run out) and they don’t have your usual product. So you just select something else and hope for the best.
It’s Autumn time and your horse has been living out all summer long. Suddenly the clocks are about to change and your horse is stabled for 12 hours a day with no acclimation period. This is a big change from grass and lots of movement while turned out to hay (and possibly feed).
You run out of hay and think you’ll try haylage, and just open the new bale with no changeover time for your horse.
The sensible way to change your horse’s diet is over a 10-14 day period, this will avoid harming the microflora.
6. Use clean buckets/ bowls
This is still very true, and also ensuring that feed bins are regularly cleaned out is also important.
7. Don’t feed for an hour before exercise
It is still advisable not to give your horse a concentrate meal just before riding, but there are benefits to allowing your horse to eat some hay or fiber before light work as this will provide a ‘fiber- mat’ to line the sensitive part of the horse’s stomach.
8. Feed at regular times
Horses are still very much creatures of routine and feeding at the same times helps reduce stress, and ensure gut mobility.
9. Feed succulents every day
This would be a rule that the modern leisure horse probably doesn’t need. Succulents such as apple and carrots can be high in sugar, and with more and more obese and laminitic horses and ponies reducing sugar intake is of paramount importance. While the odd carrot isn’t going to hurt your horse I think often owners feed too many treats.
"Horses are still very much creatures of routine"
10. Water before feeding
This final golden rule of feeding also doesn’t apply to the modern horse, as horses do have access to clean fresh water at all times, and have no need to drinking too much after a feed. This rather old fashioned rule goes back to when horses were given access to water at certain times of day.
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