Equine Nutritional Health: What does it really mean?

Horses playingEquine Nutritional Health: What does it really mean?

Equine Nutritional Health: What does it really mean?

This month we welcome Lizzie Drury, MSc, Registered Nutritionist from Saracen Horse Feeds, to talk about equine nutritional health. Lizzie explores what nutritional health means for the horse, alongside offering practical tips and insights on how horse owners can go about making the most out of resources available to maximise the horse’s wellbeing and performance.

Written by Lizzie Drury MSc Registered Nutritionist, Saracen Horse Feeds

We all like to do the best by our horses and ponies and will usually go that extra mile to make sure that their every need is met in order to keep them happy, contented and most of all healthy! However, there are times when we need to call upon the advice and support of other equine professionals, such as vets, physiotherapists, and nutritionists.

To become a fully fledged and qualified nutritionist takes time and training to be able to carry out a full nutritional analysis and help to advise on any dietary adjustments that may be required. However, there are important steps that you can also take part in yourself, which begin the process of assessing the nutritional status of your horse or pony. The information that you can gather can be the most important aspects of a dietary analysis and are required by a nutritionist in order to eventually make a nutritional recommendation.

An enquiry about the nutritional status of a horse or a horse’s diet might be initiated as a result of unexplained weight loss, weight gain, poor performance or the diagnosis of disease or recovery from illness. Most nutritional evaluations involve the nutritionist also liaising with the vet to ensure that both professionals work together and in agreement. This is particularly important if you are managing disease or recovery from illness, but the initial dietary assessments steps are the same for any situation and some of these can be done by you the horse owner, the first step to being a nutritionist!

Horse in a stable
An enquiry about the nutritional status of a horse or a horse’s diet might be initiated as a result of unexplained weight loss, weight gain, poor performance or the diagnosis of disease or recovery from illness.

Physical Examination

Assessing the individual animal can provide worthwhile information in the nutritional assessment.

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Critical and quantitative assessment of appetite is an essential parameter in any nutritional investigation, so make sure that you know what is normal for your horse. Any changes in appetite or a sudden increase in fussiness can be early indicators of possible digestive issues such as problems in the mouth e.g. teeth or compromised digestive function.

Your horse’s attitude, movement and social interactions should also be observed as any changes in these can provide important information during a nutritional analysis. For example, changes in attitude, such as increased grumpiness or irritability could be indicative of issues such as gastric ulcers or hindgut acidosis, which could be down to inadequate forage intake.

Measurement of current body weight and body condition score is very important. We recommend that this is done on a fortnightly basis so that any measurements can be compared to historical measures and differences over a time frame evaluated.

Body weight can be accurately measured using a weigh bridge, but weight tapes used correctly and on a regular basis still provide important information when it comes to monitoring body weight changes.

horse weigh tape
Weight tapes used correctly and on a regular basis still provide important information.

Body condition scoring is a subjective assessment of the amount of subcutaneous fat stores on the animal and using a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese) can become an accurate method of measuring your horse’s energy balance. Body condition score charts are available through most feed manufacturers or vets. A low body condition score suggests deficient energy or protein intake or chronic disease process, whereas high body condition score indicates excessive energy intake relative to requirement.

IDEAL BODY CONDITION SCORES (1-9)

Hacking and light work                          5-6

Showing                                               5-6

Dressage                                              5

Horse Trials                                          4-5

Endurance                                            4

Show Jumping                                       5

Polo                                                     4-5

If weight taping and body condition scoring are done on a regular basis it is much easier to pick up on any changes in condition before it is too late, enabling you to adjust your horse’s ration if required.

Regular examination of urine colour and dropping consistency also help to provide extremely useful and telling information during a nutritional evaluation.

Very dark coloured or reddish urine can be indicative of serious conditions such as muscle myopathies, (although there would also be other signs such as muscle stiffness and distress during exercise) and these can ultimately be managed with specific dietary changes in association with other management changes.

Droppings can be evaluated for the presence of larger fibre particles or cereal particles. The presence of these items in the manure might suggest inefficient fermentation in the hindgut or some alteration to the overall digestive process, such as dental issues. Infrequent, hard and dry droppings may suggest inadequate water intake and a possible impaction colic not that far away!

Other factors to consider in the physical examination reflective of nutritional status are hair, coat and hoof quality.

Dietary Analysis

In some nutritional investigations, it is necessary to carry out some laboratory analysis to look at the dry matter, crude protein, fibre and mineral content of the dietary ingredients but before this stage, crucial information on actual intake levels are required. It is not uncommon for horse owners to be very vague on their horse’s actual intake of the various dietary components and yet this information needs to form the basis of any nutritional evaluation.

Measurement of actual hay or haylage intakes can be done using a spring balance. Weighing the amount of forage that you feed in the evening and then any that is left over in the morning helps to give an indication of forage intakes, which are important to establish as forage should form the basis of EVERY horse’s ration. There can be some nutritional issues that can be easily overcome if optimum levels of forage are either fed or alternative ways are found to increase that horse’s fibre intake if he is not eating enough even if it is being offered on an ad-lib basis.

horse eating hay
Forages form the foundation of any horse’s ration.

Most horse feed companies offer a forage analysis service for a small cost and a qualified nutritionist can help you to interpret the results. Forages form the foundation of any horse’s ration and around which concentrate feeds and supplements are added to meet the specific requirements of the horse.

A nutritionist knows how much concentrate feed their horse receives and how many supplements are added to the manager. In order to monitor the results of a feeding programme and to develop an accurate feeding programme, you need to use a set of scales and not rely on measures of coffee cups or yogurt pots. True quantitative weighing of dietary ingredients can often be an enlightening discovery in any dietary evaluation.  There are many situations where micro mineral supplements are not fed on the basis of providing adequate nutrient levels to the horse, but more by testimonials, reputation or association to horses that have been successful in the competition arena. There is tremendous potential for micronutrient problems in the horse.

Direct determination of pasture intake is nearly impossible in most situations and is often estimated based on the determined intakes for forage and concentrate feed.

Animal Nutrient Analysis 

This is obviously an area that neither the horse owner nor the nutritionist can carry out themselves and would be carried out by the vet. However, in conjunction with all the information above a qualified nutritionist can help you to interpret the results and recommend a suitable feeding programme if a change is required.

Most mineral and vitamin concentrations can be directly measured in blood or a variety of tissues. However, sensitivity to these values to changes in nutritional status is variable and direct interpretation can be difficult, however, some blood tests that measure liver or muscle enzyme levels can help to determine possible digestive, overtraining or myopathy issues, which do require specific dietary intervention.

Ration Formulation

It is usual at this point that many people feel that in order to do the very best by their horse and to importantly ensure that they are spending their money wisely that the advice of a nutritionist is sought. An equine nutritionist is able to interpret the information that has been collected and work out that horse’s particular nutritional requirement and ensure that these are met with the correct balanced ration. The main step in this process is determining the horse’s digestible energy requirement and then deciding how best to meet this need, also ensuring a balance of protein, vitamins, minerals, salt and electrolytes if required. With the advancement of software and nutritional research, most nutritionists would use computer programmes that assist in ration formulation such as the KER Microsteed™, but it is still wise to remember that you still need to be able to know if the computer is in fact giving you a sensible answer!

Horse and rider galloping across an open field to represent equine nutritional health
Do you know what level of work your horse is doing?

A basic step that everybody can do at home if you are confident that your horse does not have any issues that may require specialist attention and he is performing and recovering well is to ensure that you are following the correct steps in determining the correct ratio of forage to concentrate feed and this will be dependent upon the type and level of work that the horse is doing – A subject that is frequently overestimated!

Equine nutritionists divide work in to 4 classes:

HIGH INTENSITY, SHORT DURATION WORK

Horses accelerate at top speeds for a short period of time. Horses that are racing, playing polo, or perhaps sprinting up a hill or to the finish in an endurance ride would fall into this category.

MODERATE INTENSITY, MEDIUM DURATION WORK

During this type of work the horse is exercising at a level where it is not overly stretched, and it is not exhausted but the work is consistent and regular. Typically, this type of work involves dressage or show jumping training or competition where the horse will be working for several minutes or up to an hour, often more than once a day. Feed intakes for this type of exercise would be lower than for high intensity, short duration exercise.

LOW INTESNSITY, LONG DURATION WORK

This type of exercise would typically last for 2-3 hours or more. Examples of low intensity, long duration work would include endurance riding or heavy riding school use.

LIGHT WORK

This type of exercise would typically last for no more than an hour and would typically either be infrequent or no more than 4 times per week. This work involves hacking, occasional schooling, riding club activities and occasional competition work.

You can see by these 4 main work categories that the majority of leisure horses work nowhere within the first 3 levels, although a large proportion of the equine population are fed as if they are! The majority of leisure and amateur horses require nutritional intakes that are suitable to meet the needs of light work…………………….. If in doubt check!

From here you can divide your horses ration between his concentrate and his forage allowance as illustrated below:

500 Kg horse eating 2.5% of his Bodyweight per day

WORK                          FORAGE                        CONCENTRATE              NUMBER FEEDINGS

Light                             8-10 Kg                         2.0 Kg                                       1-2

Medium                       7-8 Kg                           3.0-4.0 Kg                                 2

Hard / Intense               5-6 Kg                           5-6 Kg                                       3 or more

Never feed below 1% of a horse’s body weight in forage. Restriction of long forage increases the risk of gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis.

For those of you who want to be more involved in ration formulation, it does mean that you need to become familiar with the digestible energy requirements for different classes of horses and the digestible energy values of feeds (found on your feed label MJ/Kg) and forages (Chemical laboratory analysis). A piece of paper, pen and calculator are also handy. It is advisable to seek help at this level, as there are so many variables and other factors that can all decide what your horse’s energy and nutrient requirements are and with the shocking increase in obesity and the health risks associated with it a nutritionist can help guide you through the stages of a more detailed nutritional calculation…………… or they can just do it for you!!

Remember, that the MOST important part of any ration evaluation lies with all the information that you collect as outlined in this feature.

For further information or to speak to a Saracen nutritionist please call the Saracen helpline 01622 718487

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