Equine Nutrition - I am not an expert, but....
I have been hesitant to start this article because of the sheer volume of information that is available. And I am no expert. I am on this journey with you as well. I have been searching out help for my own horse, who has had chronic loose stool issues, back and forth; bad to good, good to bad, and so on, for the past three years since I’ve owned her.
Despite this, or because of it, I have learned some things. And I feel I CAN speak to what I see in my client’s horses, and have had discussions with many of you, to improve the conditions I am seeing in my equine client’s feet. And body conditions, if I can be so bold.
I’ve also found out that discussing horsey diets can be a touchy subject. Everyone wants to believe they are doing the best thing for their horses, on the one hand. And on the other is the inertia of “we’ve always done things this way”, or the stuck wheel of “but he’s HUNGRY!” or “but he’s doing so well on this feed”, or, “my vet says everything is OK” or any number of other reasons why people are uncomfortable with a change.
But the crux of the matter is our horses are dependent on US to make the right decisions about their health. And hoof health is critical. No hoof no horse, it’s completely true. They have to stand and move on their feet for the whole of their lives. If they can’t, they’re dead! Or at best in pain or very uncomfortable, in ways the untrained eye may not even see.
Here are the issues I have seen the most of:
White Line Disease (WLD)
The name itself is a misnomer. The “white line” is actually the bottom border of the lamellar zone, the end of the laminae, which are the Velcro or fern like growths that keep the bones of the hoof attached to the outer wall of the hoof. They act as the suspension apparatus and provide vital circulation. That’s the subject for another blog post.
The “white line” of WLD is called the “water line”. It is the more tender horn tubules that lay between the layer of outer horn (hoof wall) and the laminae. If you watch the foot being trimmed, especially a dark hoof, this zone will stand out.
Because it is softer, it is more readily available for fungus and bacteria to eat away at. These are also the same fungi and bacteria that cause thrush. The bacteria eat, and make room for dirt. This provides a better atmosphere for the anaerobic bacteria, which eat more, creating more room for dirt. Any excess length or flaring of the outer hoof wall will also provide a leverage force, which can open this area up even further. So it becomes a vicious circle of bacteria creating more room, and more dirt getting packed in, and the wall prying away as it becomes more fragile. I will always point this out to my clients when I see it. Pictured below is a mild case.
However, if left unchecked, this can result in full blown WLD, which expands ever further up the hoof wall, until there is a huge pocket of dirt and bacteria and the outer hoof wall starts chipping and cracking and when you tap on it, it sounds hollow. The only cure when it gets this bad is a resection of the hoof wall all the way up until the bacteria/dirt line ends and there is a stable connection between all layers of hoof wall. There are some pretty nasty youtube videos of this process that you can look up if you are interested. The treatment is to daily brush out the dirt with a wire brush, and apply a thrush product such as Red Horse Artimud, Life Data Hoof Clay, or Thrushbuster or whatever thrush treatment you like that will stick.
Speaking of thrush, this is the next common issue I see. The deep central sulcus thrush infections, if left untreated, can actually rot away the frog enough so that it creates a hole that penetrates right into the hoof capsule. Not only is this painful, but it can result in abscesses, and an unstable heel base, which will flex the heels as they separate. This is also pictured above. The heel bulbs should not have a “butt crack”.
But this is an article on nutrition! What does WLD and thrush have to do with what your horse is eating?
WLD and thrush bacteria and fungus LOVE to eat on feet that have a diet that contains sugars and excess carbohydrates. So no matter how vigorously you are treating thrush, and picking feet, you will be facing an uphill battle if your horse is eating feeds that are high in sugar and carbs, as well as having free access to pasture or to any hay that tests high for sugar.
But what else? Diets high in sugar and carbs regardless of the source make horses prone to obesity, insulin resistance, PPID (Cushing’s Disease), and laminitis, which can lead to founder. Founder may or may not be treatable and can lead to euthanasia. Pain, suffering, and death.
Along with sugars and carbs the other bad guy in this story is iron. Iron is sneaky. Here in New England we have iron in everything. Iron is in the ground, which gets absorbed by grass and hay, and it’s in the water. Especially well water. And then well meaning feed and supplement manufacturers put it in their products because it seems like a good thing to do.
The bad thing about excess iron is that it blocks the absorption of other minerals, primarily copper and zinc. The higher the amount of iron in a horse’s diet, it is necessary to increase the amount of copper and zinc to override the iron.
Symptoms of iron overload are easy to see. If you own a black or dark horse, and you see red tinges on the ends of mane and tail hairs, or even in the coat, there it is. The hairs also get that frizzy split end look. This is not a result of being out in the sun and getting bleached. It’s iron. More importantly though, an overload of iron also causes the hoof walls to be brittle and shelly, tend to crack, and have difficulty holding shoes. Photo credit below to a book called “Feet First” Barefoot performance and hoof rehabilitation, by Nic Barker & Sarah Braithwaite. A book I highly recommend reading if you are interested in keeping your horse barefoot.
So what should we do to give our horses the best diet? Fortunately there is more information online and in books than I am able to cover in this article without most of our eyes glazing over and nodding off, and much more information that I haven’t even learned yet. Despite this, there are some very simple changes that can be made.
A few words about hay:
If at all possible, buy your hay from a consistent source and have it tested. It’s wonderfully helpful to create a custom diet when you know what is in the food that should make up the bulk of their diet. Most horses should eat up to 2% of their body weight in forage (hay or pasture) every day. For my large draft cross mare Lacey, this means she gets up to 24 lbs a day. A hay test is simple and inexpensive and can tell you so much. I get mine from Equi-Analytical, link below.
A simple test with sugar, starch and mineral contents is about $28.00.
I recently experienced something very interesting. I had my hay sample taken just the way they recommend, with a hay probe (homemade by my handy husband), last year. The iron content was through the roof at 631 ppm. My nutrition analyst (more on that below) recommended that I take another test and this time to take a loose sample, hand pulled from one bale, but this time to thoroughly shake the hay out before taking the sample. My second test gave a reading of 133 ppm of iron! This is a HUGE difference! I was told that rain water splashes up dirt from the ground onto the hay as it grows. So the iron isn’t IN the hay primarily, it’s ON it in the form of dirt that can be shaken off.
It’s also good to know the calcium to magnesium ratio in the hay, often horses are deficient in magnesium too. Here is a good article that discusses appropriate ratios of everything.
Different kinds of hay can have different sugar levels. And those levels can also depend on what time of the day the hay is harvested and what the weather has been like. Typically second cut hay has more sugar in it than first cut. If your horse tends to be an easy keeper, stays round, and is in light work, best choice is first cut. If you have an elderly horse that has a hard time chewing, second cut can be a good choice, but if he has IR or PPID (Cushings), you will need to soak your hay for 20-30 minutes to reduce the sugar content. Here is a link to an article about how sugars and starches are measured on a hay test:
What does good hay look like? You would be surprised at the variety for sale at any given time from any given farmers or dealers. It can range from very good to very bad. Very good hay, and I’m talking about first cut, should be light green, soft, can have stems but the stems are soft, intermingled with blades you can easily identify as “this was once grass”. Very bad hay – I like to say, if it was breakfast cereal you were feeding your children, bad hay is the BOX. Dry, yellow or tan, hard and stiff, it has all the nutritional integrity of cardboard. I’ve known horses to actively lose weight while eating lots of bad hay. It should also be sniffed out for mold. Anything grayish and dusty (mold makes a bale “smoke” when you drop it) that smells like your basement (or maybe my basement) should be avoided.
Alfalfa Hay – Alfalfa is a legume plant, not a grass. As such it is denser in nutrients and calories, and higher in protein. It can be an ideal choice for horses in regular work, or growing horses and brood mares. However it can be worse for IR sensitive horses and PPID horses, and not as good for idle horses. The additional protein that is not needed in these horses must be secreted out in their urine, and can also make them “hot”, make them drink more, and stress the kidneys. On the other hand, alfalfa has higher calcium and is good for horses with ulcer issues. I feed timothy/alfalfa hay pellets, just for this reason, so my horse has a little of it each day, not a lot. Here is a more complete article:
How you feed your hay is equally important to what kind you feed. One of the best choices are the “slow feed” nets that have 1” square holes. I know it looks like torture but if you pull out some bits with your fingers you give them an easy way to start grabbing, they get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Slow feeding is helpful because horses are meant to be grazing. But they are also meant to be travelling 20 miles a day as they graze and forage. Horses produce stomach acid continually, not just at meal times. If they get to eat their hay all at once, they are basically gorging on it, and then they have to wait for their next meal. The longer they have to wait between meals the more stomach acid is being produced and sitting in their stomachs….potentially irritating or causing ulcers. Keeping them eating slowly over a longer time period helps this. Additionally, eating a big meal all at once can produce spikes in their blood glucose, which then drop dramatically on an empty stomach. It’s much more helpful for their metabolism to try to keep their blood sugar at an average throughout the day, rather than sharp spikes and drops.
Movement is also excellent for them throughout the day. If you can fill a few hay bags at different stations in their turnout they will switch back and forth between bags and the watering trough and move more.
If you don’t want to use the hay bags, you can spread out each flake of hay as thinly as possible all over their turnout area to mimic grazing.
If you are lucky enough to have a large pasture with lush green grass, there are a few things to keep in mind. Grass goes through seasonal and daily fluxuation in sugar content. Whenever the grass is under stress, drought or frost – the sugars can spike. If your horse stays nice and fat on grass, he could potentially be in for some serious trouble. Horses with IR and PPID and those that are just generally overweight are in danger of becoming IR. They will need to have their grazing times reduced to those times of day when the sugar content drops. Giving them a grazing muzzle is also recommended. They will hate you for a day or two but then they will learn to cope with it.
Also, you can get creative with some portable electric fencing and create a “paddock paradise”, a track system that will keep them moving as they graze, and also allow you to “rotate” the available pasture, so some can rest and grow while the other part is being grazed.
This site has some excellent information for further reading:
As does this one: http://www.right2remainshoeless.com/html/paddock_paradise.html
There is too much information and too many different brands of “complete feeds” out there for me to start reviewing each one. My short recommendation is to always check the ingredients. You can look at the recommended feeding scales and the percentages they give on the bag or website as to the amounts of any given nutrient “per serving”, but this is where it can start falling apart. If you need to give YOUR horse more or less than the recommended serving, then the percentages start to become meaningless. If you have a large horse and you need to feed double what the average 1,000 lb horse gets, now your percentage of, say, sugar and carbs, has now doubled. Alternatively, if you have a pony or lighter horse and you give half a serving, well now you are not sure if they are getting what they need from the vitamin and mineral side of things.
In addition, a company like Smart Pak or other commercial supplement companies are very good at marketing their products. If you want to improve your horse’s coat, hoof quality, joints….of course you want to give them a supplement that promises to take care of that problem for you without having to give it much thought. Just buy it and dump it in. But now you have no way of knowing if you have just tripled up on something that is in the feed, the hoof supplement, and the digestive supplement. You can spend a WHOLE LOT of money fast on a bunch of things you may not even need or might actually be harmful in excess amounts. Like iron.
Speaking about iron, commercial feed companies will sneak iron into the ingredients list as any ingredient that starts with the latin term “ferrous”. They may not mention it on the bag, but it’s in there if you read the ingredients.
The other “bad guys” you will find in your commercial feed list of ingredients are corn, (corn is pound for pound the same as straight sugar), soy ingredients, wheat middlings, wheat flour, and molasses. None of these are helpful, and in fact are inflammatory agents.
To add insult to injury, if you see the word “supplement” behind a vitamin listed in the ingredients, that means it is a synthetic vitamin, not a natural one. Vitamin E in particular is best absorbed by the liver in a natural state, the synthetic one is not absorbed as readily.
I have used, and have recommended to many horse owners to use the online program FeedXL. It’s inexpensive and practically a fun computer game that you can use to enter in every single thing your horse is eating, and it will compute exactly how much of each nutrient they are getting, and if they are getting too much or not enough. It’s a lot of fun! You can even upload your own hay test results, which makes it INCREDIBLY helpful! If you do not have a hay test you can choose from some generic ones based on the kind of hay you feed.
Horses and ponies do need salt. Salt blocks are probably the most popular choice. However they can pose a problem. Any salt block that is red, or pink, contains iron. Yep, here’s our friend iron again. White salt is better. And iodized salt is important. Providing a block is not terrible, however many horses are bored and they are drawn to the salt block like a teenager sucking down a whole bag of potato chips in front of the TV. If your horse eats a whole salt block in a matter of a few days….that’s a problem. I recommend simply feeding inexpensive iodized table salt from the grocery store, up to two ounces a feeding, right in the feed bucket.
Ration Balancers (Vitamin & Mineral Supplements)
So if we are not going to feed a commercial feed product, what do we feed? Thankfully there are many better choices.
Since a horse’s natural diet is forage, we like to keep it this way. So they need forage, and they need whatever nutrients they may not be getting in the forage or in the right amounts.
As a base “feed” I recommend hay pellets. Not just any hay pellets, however, because manufacturer’s sometimes still sneak molasses (sugar) into their hay pellets. Read the ingredients! My go to is the Standlee brand sold at most Tractor Supply stores. Hay pellets can also be soaked to make them more palatable. It is very nice in winter with hot water for all horses, perfect for senior horses who can’t chew well. From this point you can now choose what else gets added to meet their needs.
Here are some links to my favorite ration balancers, pure ingredients and generally copper and zinc in the right ratio.
What Else Goes in the Bucket:
To bring up Vitamin E again, it is a vital nutrient found mostly in fresh grass. If your horse is not getting grass, and through the winter when the grass has less to no E, consider a natural Vitamin E supplement. I was quite surprised when my vet took a blood test and found my horse was deficient.
Selenium: In my area of central Massachusetts, we do not have a lack of selenium. Check your local area to learn what you need. Too little selenium is not good, but too much can be toxic!
What if your horse is a hard keeper? There are many other safe things to put in the bucket that are good sources of calories and/ or fats to help him stay healthy.
Beet pulp – make sure to get the kind with no molasses.
Flax meal: excellent source of critical Omega fats.
(Flax and chia should be ground or horses just poop them out.)
CoolStance Copra – coconut product: https://stanceequineusa.com/products/cool-stance/
It isn’t difficult to give your equine friends the best feeding program possible, to keep them safe from unnecessary dangers of IR, laminitis, founder, arthritis, navicular, colic, and obesity. If I see that your horse has a “gutter butt”, that’s a sure sign of excess weight. IR and PPID horses store fat in the crest of their necks, behind the withers, and around the tail head. Many breeds kinda come with a crest, but that’s not an excuse. The crest should still not be excessive, and should be squishy to the touch. If it’s hard, you have an issue.
In closing, here is a link to everything you want to know about laminitis and PPID, an excellent community of people trying to eradicate these diseases.
I hope you found this information helpful! Please let me know if you have questions and I will do my best!