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Feeding your horse that is coming back into work

A lot of people ask me how their feeding should change when they’re bringing their horse back into light work. This really depends a lot on the condition of the horse at the time you’re planning to bring it back into work. Obviously a horse needs enough calories and protein to maintain/gain condition and muscle, but a lot of us end up overdoing it and end up with a horse that’s ‘too hot to handle’, too over conditioned and therefore lacks energy to work properly, or worse.

I want to look at the numbers to see what a horse actually needs and how it can be provided. In this article I’m just going to talk about calories and protein, vitamins and minerals is an article for another issue.

I’m going to use the example of a 500 kilo normal-keeper. For a 400 kilo horse multiply all numbers by 0.8, for 300 by 0.6 and so on. The smaller the horse the better-keeping it tends to be so keep in mind a 300 kilo pony is only going to need LESS than 0.6, not more.

A 500 kilo, average-keeping horse, in no work, needs at most around 70MJ of energy (calories) and around 630 grams of protein to maintain condition and muscle. A horse needs around 2% of its body weight per day in roughage to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal system, so that equates to ten kilos per day of either grass or hay. Ten kilos of reasonable quality hay contains around 84MJ of energy and 1,000 grams of protein. So a 500 kilo, normal-keeping horse, in no work, is getting calories and protein in excess to its requirements if it’s getting ten kilos of decent quality hay each day.

This same horse in light work needs 84MJ of energy and 700 grams of protein. So while the calorie requirements have increased significantly, the protein requirements have only increased by 70 grams and if the hay is of reasonable quality the horse is still getting excess protein to its requirements and enough calories. In fact, even a horse in heavy work (racing or three day eventing) needs 104MJ of energy and 911 grams of protein. While I’m not saying a horse that’s racing should just be fed hay, we tend to significantly overestimate a horse’s protein and energy requirements and underestimate what they can get from hay alone.

Perhaps you’re concerned that your hay is low in protein. Very low protein hay will contain about 5% protein, or 500 grams per ten kilos, and about 62MJ of energy. So if you need to provide 700 grams of protein your hay may not be enough. Adding a small biscuit (1.5 kilos) of lucerne hay will add about 13MJ of energy and 255 grams of protein. So if you’re concerned that your hay is very low in protein just a biscuit of lucerne hay to its diet will likely make up your horse’s energy and protein requirements before you even start thinking about adding things to the bucket!

So if you’re bringing your normal-keeper back in from a spell and putting him/her into light work in readiness for the upcoming show season then, depending on what your current feed regime is, the only additional thing your horse may need may be a little lucerne hay, and especially to feed lucerne hay prior to any work.

The reason for feeding horses prior to work is that horses are continuous grazers; they’re designed to always have feed in their stomachs. Having feed in the stomach is important as it stops gastric acids from the lower part of the stomach splashing around and irritating the upper section of the stomach. This acid splash that occurs in horses exercised on an empty stomach is thought to contribute to the development of ulcers.

Therefore, if a horse is stabled without constant access to forage, or if it has been more than an hour or two since the horse last grazed, you should feed your horse before exercise. Lucerne will protect a horse from gastric ulcers in two ways; Firstly the chewing stimulates saliva production and saliva acts as a buffer in the stomach. Also the chewed lucerne creates a ‘fibre mat’ in the stomach and prevents gastric acids from splashing around.

Of course your horse also needs a good mineral supplement to make up for what hay and pasture is lacking, plus a little salt for electrolytes. This means a supplement with high levels of copper and zinc and one that doesn’t contain any iron. I would like to see a 500 kilo horse getting between 200-300mg of copper and between 700-900mg of zinc per recommended dose of its mineral supplement. Adding more of a supplement that doesn't contain high levels of copper and zinc isn’t a good idea as this may mean it’s getting too much selenium or iodine.

Once your horse comes back into more work and is preparing for the show season you may like to add more to its diet. It may need some extra energy, calories and possibly some high omega 3 oil for coat and skin health. I can talk about that in the next newsletter.


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