In theory it should be really easy to feed a horse. They eat grass so all you have to do is throw them out in a paddock and problem solved, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple because for all its size and strength, the horse is actually quite sensitive and even fragile when it comes to its long term health and fitness.
variety of feed: For most horses and ponies that are kept as pets and for recreational use (trail riding, pony clubbing and an occasional show) a GOOD pasture, a mineral block and some extra feeding with Lucerne hay or meadow (grass) hay may well be sufficient most of the time.
WHY: Horses have evolved over 55 million years to graze mainly on grasses, legumes (clover and Lucerne) and succulents, for long periods of time (up to 20 hours a day). Their digestive system has evolved to digest cellulose from vegetation and to obtain their requirements of protein, carbohydrates (starch), calcium and trace minerals from this source of food. However in the wild, horses would continually walk, covering up to 25 kilometres a day, selecting from a wide range of vegetation. A herd of feral horses (such as the Brumbies in Australia) would range over hundreds of kilometres throughout the year. A restricted pasture area will never provide the variety for a well balanced diet year round.
Good Pasture: The next obvious question is what makes a good pasture. As a rule a minimum of 5 acres (two hectares) is required for each horse, however this can vary widely due to the climate, soil type and mineral deficiencies, whether the pasture has been improved (sown with non-native grass species) or is unimproved (mainly native grasses). The pasture should be mainly grass, of various types, with a few trees to provide shade. Any more than a few trees and it becomes woodland rather than pasture. The paddock should have windbreaks or some form of shelter. Horses hate wind more than rain and will always seek out protection. The pasture should be divided up into a number of smaller paddocks and horses should be rotated from one paddock to the next before the paddock becomes bare of grass.
WHY: If grass is too short or sparse they will swallow a lot of dirt, which will lead to sand colic and possibly death. Also, the grasses will find it difficult to regrow if they are eaten down to dirt and then weeds will overtake the paddock. These weeds may be poisonous or just unpalatable to horses.
Maintaining good pasture
Harrowing: As soon as horses are removed from a paddock it should be harrowed and horses should not be returned for at least two months.
WHY: A harrow is usually made of heavy steel bars and chain with long spikes on the underside. It can be dragged by a car or tractor and it breaks up the horse droppings as it runs over them. This allows the manure to be dried out by the sun and return to the soil as fertilizer. By breaking up and drying out (desiccating) the manure, parasitic worms are reduced in the soil and grass. If you have particulaly cold winters, do not harrow or return horses until the weather warms up. Worms will not be dessicated when it is cold and you will only spread them over the entire paddock by harrowing.
weeds: There are many weeds (over 1000 in Australia) that are poisonous to horses and part of good paddock management is to know which weeds are present in your area and be able to identify them. Some are more dangerous than others however all weeds should be removed either by pulling them out by hand or chemical sprays (herbicides). Horses should be removed from any paddock were poisonous weeds occur. If chemical spraying is used horses should be kept out of the paddock until the weeds have completely disappeared into the soil.
WHY: Poisonous plants contain toxins (poisonous chemicals) that if eaten can have a variety of effects on a horse from a skin rash, sensitivity to light, heart attack, brain damage, liver and organ failure or death. Although most poisonous weeds are unpalatable to horses they can become ‘sweeter' as they die, so you should keep horses away from sprayed plants even when they are wilted and dying.
rubbish removal: Many of the poisonous weeds that we find in our pastures have escaped from home gardens. Take care when selecting garden plants and especially when disposing of garden rubbish and prunings. Never have a compost heap or burn pile anywhere near horses. If you are planting paddock trees for shade seek advice about the species that grow in your area and most importantly are safe for horses.
WHY: In the prime breeding areas in Kentucky, USA, they have found that their famous Cherry Trees attract a particular caterpillar that causes abortions in horses. Paterson's Curse, also called Salvation Jane, is probably the best known of these garden plants that were introduced by early settlers in Australia. It now covers almost half the country with enormous financial loss due to the cost of control, lost pasture and stock deaths. Many horses die each summer due to liver damage and failure. Other plants such as daffodils, jonquils, lilies, nightshade, foxgloves, lily of the valley, oleander, green cestrum, hydrangea, dandelion, bracken and rock ferns, to name just a few, are highly toxic to horses. Potatoes and tomatoes are also toxic which is why you should never have your compost area accessible to horses. Trees such as oak, yew, black bean, avocado and white cedar are poisonous. All Prunus species, which includes plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, nectarines and almonds, contain cyanogenic glycosides which, if eaten will lead to either acute or chronic cyanide poisoning. These are only a few of the many poisonous plants so you must find out as much as you can about your area to make your paddocks safe. If you need to plant shade trees ask your local agronomist or government agricultural representative for advice. Remember, be careful where you dispose of garden rubbish and prunings.
tree selection: Tree selection for windbreaks, shade tress and orchards should also consider whether they will attract animals that may carry diseases.
WHY: With the emergence of Hendra virus in Australia, and Nipah virus in South-East Asia, it is particularly important that you do not attract flying foxes onto your property. Tree selection, planting patterns and the position of water and feed bins can minimise the risk.
The Australian Horse Industry Council has produced three fact sheets which can help you to understand the issues and find solutions:
• Bats and Trees (click to view PDF) >>
• Property Design (click to view PDF) >>
• Reducing the Risk of Hendra Virus (click to view PDF) >>
Fencing: Paddock fencing should be safe and well maintained.
WHY: Poor fencing is one of the major causes of injury to grazing horses. The pain and suffering as well as the very expensive vet bill is enough to say it is cheaper to maintain the fences and clean up any rubbish.
permanent water supply: There must be a permanent supply of fresh, clean, cool water. Horses drink between 30 to 70 litres of water per day (sometimes more in summer and when they have had a lot of exercise). Troughs and feeders should be positioned in a well-drained area, preferably under shade but not under fruiting or blossoming trees. They should be safe, without sharp edges, and water troughs should be checked at least once a day to make sure that they are clean and full. They should not only be large enough to hold a days supply (100 litre for one horse, 200 litre for two horses, etc) but they must be stable so that a horse cannot knock them over.
WHY: Without water when they need it, they cannot digest their feed; they can become dehydrated which leads to serious health problems. Horses produce about 10 litres of saliva per day or 1 litre of saliva for every 4 litres of feed. Saliva is mainly water with a lot of mucus to lubricate their food and make it easier to swallow. So horses are constantly loosing water through saliva production, respiration (breathing), urine, faeces, sweating and normal body functions.
not buckets: Recycling 20 litre plastic buckets, which are usually tall and narrow, may be OK as a water container at a show but are unsuitable for a permanent water supply in a paddock, stable or yard.
WHY: A horse will only be able to drink the top 10 litres before its head will stop it from drinking further.
regular checks: Self-filling watering systems are a great time-saving, efficient option, however never rely on them 100 percent. You must still check the water supply every day to ensure that the water is clean and that the float and valve are working properly.
WHY: Anything mechanical, no matter how simple, can stop working. Other animals such as birds can fly in for a drink and find they cannot fly out with wet feathers. A dead animal in the trough will quickly contaminate the water making it extremely dangerous for a horse to drink.
cooling down time: If a horse is sweating heavily after strenuous exercise or working in very hot weather do not feed them or allow them to have a big drink of cold water. Only allow a small drink of 1 to 2 litres in the first 10 minutes. After they have cooled down, with your help, allow them unrestricted water and a feed. Cooling down should take about 20 to 30 minutes after exercise has stopped.
WHY: Cold water on a hot stomach will make the horse extremely uncomfortable and this could progress into colic, which is very dangerous. Feeding a horse that is already dehydrated will mean that not enough saliva is produced to lubricate the feed for swallowing. This may result in choking or increasing dehydration to a very dangerous level.
buy the best quality: If you need to supplement a horse’s diet with hay or concentrated feeds, only buy the best quality from well-known companies. Large well-known feed manufacturers will make sure that they only use quality grains and that they are stored correctly.
WHY: Producing good quality hay is a highly skilled job, requiring years of experience, an understanding of the risks and a desire for excellence. Growing lucerne or meadow hay requires expertise in soils, fertilisers, innoculation of seed, weed management, when to cut, how long to leave on the ground, humidity of the crop, when to bale and correct storage. If hay has too much moisture when it is baled or if it is incorrectly stored it will go mouldy very quickly. Mouldy hay must never be fed to horses, as most fungi are poisonous and lead to liver damage. Apart from the wellbeing of your horse, ruined hay just becomes very expensive mulch for the garden!
storage bins: Store all feed in a dry, cool area. Make sure that all grains, concentrated feeds and supplements are stored in vermin proof bins.
WHY: Wherever you store hay, grains and pelletised feeds you will find rats and mice. They will eat through storage bags and consume your feed leaving their droppings, which will contaminate it. All contaminated feed must be thrown out.
wetting hay: Immerse hay in water, drain it and feed it to your horse while still wet. This will stop the hay dust and particles being inhaled into your horse's airways. Mix ‘hard' feed together and wet it down but if it is not eaten in an hour or so throw it away.
WHY: Horses breathing in dust is the number one cause of upper respiratory infection. This will result in coughing, ill health, loss of appetite and inability to work. So wetting the hay is a lot better than a sick horse and an expensive course of antibiotics. Mixing hard feeds and wetting them down not only prevents dust but it also stops the horse from selectively eating his favourite bits and leaving the rest. Once a feed has been wet it quickly spoils (ferments) so after an hour or so any left over feed should be removed and thrown away.
follow routine: Try to feed horses at the same time and location every day. Leave them to eat their feed in peace. This is not the time to sit on their back or groom them.
WHY: Horses are creatures of habit and they become unnecessarily stressed if their routine is constantly changing. So if you want your horse to be calm and relaxed at feed time try to make it roughly the same time and same place.
feeding strategies: If you are feeding a number of horses in the same paddock you should always feed them in the same order, from the most dominant to the least. Use the same location and time, space their hay piles a good distance from each other and put out one or two extra piles so that the slow eaters or those that are less dominant will not be pushed away from their food before they are finished.
WHY: Horses are herd animals and they quickly establish an order of dominance whenever they are in a group. This is natural, however you need to manage these traits in a confined paddock environment.
horses for courses: Make sure that you feed horses according to their individual needs. The breed (size, heavy, light), its condition (how fat or thin), its use (pleasure or more athletic work) and its management (stable, paddock or both) are all factors when deciding what and how much to feed.
WHY: A Miniature horse has a smaller digestive system than a Thoroughbred so it cannot consume the same amount of food. Draught horses although big do not tolerate grains very well so they have to be fed more roughage and less starchy rations. A pleasure horse only doing light work should not be fed a high starch, energy diet however elite athletes that compete in things like racing, dressage, eventing and endurance will need a completely different diet. Growing horses under 12 months, lactating mares, old horses, serving stallions all have different requirements of protein, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins and minerals.
know your horse: You should know what your horse weighs and its ‘condition score'. This should be checked regularly so that you do not underfeed or overfeed your horse.
WHY: All feeds should be measured by weight not by volume. If you do not know how heavy a horse is and you do not know if he should be putting weight on, taking it off or maintaining his current weight, you will not know how much to feed. For example, a 500kg horse doing light work should eat 2% of its body weight and its feed should be made up of 80-100% roughage (pasture and/or hay) to maintain its weight. If you didn’t know how much he weighed, you would not know that he needs 10kg per day (see the video below on “How to fat score a horse”).
keep it simple: Keep all feeds as simple as possible with the smallest number of ingredients.
WHY: The simpler it is the more economical it is. More importantly if you make it too complicated with too many ingredients you run the very common risk of duplicating certain vitamins and trace minerals which when fed in large amounts can become toxic and seriously effect a horses health.
stabling: If a horse is confined to a stable or yard it should be fed at least 3-4 meals a day.
WHY: Horses have a relatively small stomach compared to other animals. They can only hold and process 7.5-15 litres of feed at a time. They process this food with a highly acidic liquid, however if the stomach is empty these gastric juices will start to eat the stomach lining, resulting in ulcers. The best solution is smaller amounts more often. (See ‘Digestion’.)
Update: News Articles
Feeding the Older Horse
First published here: 21 July 2010
Dr. David Pugh of Fort Dodge Animal Health delivered an interesting paper on feeding and looking after the aging horse (15 years and older). He makes the obvious point that the healthier and more disease-free a horse is when they are younger, the more chance the horse will have of living well into its 20s and even 30s.
He recommends that an aging horse needs to be more closely managed, and that parasite control, dentistry and nutrition must be modified to take into account the aging process.
Dental disease is a common problem with older horses – teeth dying, gum disease, abscesses and infection are all common. He believes that your horse’s teeth should be checked twice a year, by a qualified equine dentist or your veterinarian. If the teeth are in poor condition or teeth are missing, then pelleted mashes and slurries with a fat supplement can be offered.
Before developing a modified diet your veterinarian should ask to undertake a complete physical examination and blood work on your horse. This will eliminate or highlight any existing problems, such as kidney disease, liver disease, endocrine problems or infection. Apart from the need for treatment, all of these issues will have a major impact on what you can and cannot feed your older horse.
If there are no existing health issues and your horse is maintaining its condition then continue with the same diet, however if aging is causing poor digestion and poor nutrient uptake then you will need to improve your horse’s protein and energy intake. Older horses usually need a similar diet to younger, growing horses but for completely different reasons.
Lastly, if your aging horse is being bullied by other horses at feed time, you should provide a private, quiet place for the ‘old boy’ or ‘old girl’ to eat in peace.
Equine Nutrition is a complex area and you don’t want to get it wrong, so ask a trained professional to develop a feeding plan. However, make sure they are informed of your horse’s specific issues – teeth, condition, environment and medical issues.
Minimise Dust and Minimise Breathing Problems
First published here: 18 December 2010
Original story by Kentucky Equine Research ©KER
For horses that are sensitive to inhaling irritants, eating hay and living in a stable can be a real problem. Even the best quality hay will have some fine material. When a horse plunges their head into a pile of hay or pulls a mouthful out of a haynet, he inhales countless small particles of dust, mould spores, and fibrous plant material. Collectively we call it ‘dust’ and we call the amount of fine particle present in the environment RDC (Respiratory Dust Concentration). These fine particles can cause severe airway irritation in horses such as, heaves, broken wind, and recurrent airway obstruction, which can range from a mild cough to severe bronchial spasms.
A study conducted by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland looked at the effects of wetting or soaking hay on the RDC value. The trial involved three hay treatments: dry hay, hay soaked in a bucket of water and then fed immediately, and hay immersed for 16 hours before feeding.
There was a significant difference in the RDC readings in the horse’s breathing zone for the three treatments. Compared to feeding dry hay, feeding immersed hay resulted in a 60% reduction in RDC, and feeding soaked hay resulted in a 71% reduction.
Also changing the stall set up from hay, straw bedding, and a closed window to haylage, wood shavings, and an open window for ventilation, resulted in a significant reduction in background dust in the horse’s environment.
This research enables horse owners to limit their horse’s exposure to RDC by following a few simple guidelines:
Wetting hay before it is offered can significantly reduce the dust concentration in the horse’s breathing zone. Hay should be fed as soon as possible and not allowed to dry out again, as this may increase the RDC.
Prolonged soaking removes too many nutrients and carbohydrates, so this should only be considered if you need to reduce your horse’s sugar intake – such as with a horse that has Laminitis or has Foundered – if this is the case, you may need to supplement his feed with a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement.
The bedding material you use, and the ventilation you provide in your stables can significantly reduce the RDC.
Removing all horses from the stable area while they are being cleaned will eliminate their exposure to dust at times of peak RDC.
To read the full study and its results, you can go to the Kentucky Equine Research website.
Comment: The more time a horse spends out grazing rather than in a stable, the healthier and happier your horse will be. This isn’t always possible, especially if your horse is on’ restricted access’ to spring grass or needs to be confined on your vet’s recommendation.
Feed & Pasture Videos: