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Overlooking your horse’s nutrition?

Shanna Smith Published on 01 June 2011

An old family photo album holds a picture of a little girl with a huge smile, holding an even bigger bag of carrots, as she stares at her new lifelong adventure.

I remember the day I got my own horse, Coco – a bay mare around 15 hands was all mine; at the age of 4, Coco was an absolute gem. Of course, I didn’t know then what I know now – horses are a lot of work!

I believe there’s a point in life when most folks have wanted a horse. Then reality hits and many find they can’t afford it or don’t want to put forth the effort to care for these beloved animals.

Having an equine friend doesn’t mean only having a corral and a few bales of hay. These four-legged creatures can take serious maintenance. Simply put, a horse is more than just an expensive pasture ornament.

Sure, you can take the easy route (I admit, I’ve done it) and board your horse at a facility that does all the labor for you.

But where is the fun in that? Managing your equine’s nutrition is extremely important to ensure a long, prosperous life.

Your horse has a job – whether it’s career, friend, transportation or hobby – it’s our job to provide him with the proper supplies (nutrients) to be able to get the job done well.

So, whether you own a ranch horse, kid’s pony, brood mare or are arena-bound, read on for basic nutrition management that can be easily overlooked.

Most horses should be consuming more than just a decent hay source. Horses can do without supplements, but how well do you perform without your supplements or vitamins?

Supplementing can be as simple as getting a better-quality hay, adding a nutritious pellet or as complicated as adding vitamins, minerals, pellets, specialty grains, antihistamines and more!

At different stages in our lives, we are aiding our own body’s performance – your equine is no different. Nutrition starts and ends in our hands – in the mare, fetus, foal or seasoned equine.

Jack Grogan, CN, chief science officer for Uckele Health and Nutrition, states from the article “Providing Nutritional Support for the Equine Skeletal System”:

“Meeting the nutritional demands of the fetal skeletal system while mares are pregnant can support stronger bone development for foals.

Increasing specific trace mineral complexes during the accelerated growth period of weanlings is especially helpful in building a firm foundation and continuing nutritional support as bone development and density increases for yearlings.”

Table 1: Minimum nutrient concentrations needed in diets of broodmares

A mare in foal requires added nutrient supplementation at different stages of gestation. A mare’s nutrition program should begin before she is bred (see Table 1).

Beginning in good body condition will make supplementing and keeping the mare and foal healthy much easier than trying to improve body condition while the mare is pregnant.

Consider an example from the article “Nutritional Considerations for Broodmares” composed by David W. Freeman, an extension equine specialist found at www.extension.org:

“A 1,200-pound mare that can maintain a ‘fleshy’ (light crease down the back and will have fat covering the outlines of the ribs) body condition can meet her energy needs on an all-forage diet,

IF the forage is of high quality. If access to pasture is unavailable and/or hay is limited, needs require a high-quality grass hay at 1 percent bodyweight in combination with as much as 6 to 7 pounds of a typically formulated grain mix daily.”

It is crucial in the conception to lactating stages for mares to have adequate nutrients, such as crude protein, calcium, phosphorus and vitamins, which can be found in adequate amounts in most commercial grain mixes.

Table 2: Two sample grain mixtures that can be used on the farm for several classes of horses

Younger horses generally need assistance with skeletal growth and joint support, but it should not stop as the horse grows older.

There are many mixed supplements available with various vitamins and minerals to aid in growth. The skeletal system is comprised of many types of connective tissues such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage and bone that need a little extra help in younger equine.

The length of bones and their angles determine a horse’s conformation (structure), thus making a clear path of the stride length and potential as a competitor, brood mare or trail horse.

(Note that too much exercise and activity at a young age can cause serious growth problems in young horses; keep training to a moderate activity level. If injured, your young horse may not heal properly and can be stunted in growth).

Horses that are in training or working hard on a regular basis, may feel more stress on their bones and cartilage, meaning they physically need more nutritional support to perform well.

Mature horses, not necessarily “old” horses, frequently have pain due to past injuries or age. This stage of equine can benefit from the addition of supplements like glucosamine and/or MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) to their daily diet to experience a better quality and length of life.

Simply, aged equine need extra support. Depending on how old your horse is, you can deal with issues such as loss of teeth, poor digestion, lack of mobility and more.

Wheat and/or rice bran can help digestion, put on weight and help the coat – one supplement can help a variety of factors! An overall supplement can be helpful when feeding all horses, regardless of age.

A sufficient hay source and simple grain mix can keep the minimum nutrition requirements met in many horses. There are hundreds of supplements and nutrients available; try to get the best to fit your horse.

Question: What is an extremely important nutrient that is easily overlooked? Answer: H2O! Make sure your equine pal has unlimited access to water throughout the year.

Water consumption is always important, even in the winter. My best advice for peace of mind in those cold, freezing months is to have a water heater. It beats breaking and scooping ice out of troughs!

Finally, don’t miss the routine tasks, such as deworming, vaccinating, hoof care and grooming. When grooming, check for parasites – ticks, lice, mites, etc.

A good grooming session can stimulate follicles and can help with producing natural oils for a better coat. Hoof care is also important, just as your own foot care is.

Just as we need to change our boots or get insoles, your horse may need aluminum wedges, a different shoe style or a pad.

As the old adage states, “No hoof, no horse!” It is important, shod or barefoot, to keep hooves cleaned out (in snowy months, check for ice balls which make it extremely hard to get around).

Check for punctures, cracks, thrush and abscesses. Do not leave these tasks to the farrier!

The take-home message is that supplementing may be needed for an assortment of reasons: arthritis, digestion, hyperactivity, allergies and climate, to name a few.

Talking with your local nutritionist, veterinarian or extension educator can help you decide what your equine’s needs are, how to meet those needs and where to acquire them.

There are also a variety of dewormers, vaccines and other animal health products available for equine. So do your research and figure out what works best for your horse and your budget.  end_mark

shanna smith

Shanna Smith
Adams County
Extension Educator
University of Idaho Extension

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