From Horse and Rider - Jan. 2016
Even in one generation, the way we feed our horses has changed significantly.
Spillers' nutritionist Clare Barfoot looks at how feeding has evolved over the
years and how it has benefited our equine friends
Horses …. eat high-fibre diets, grazing on grasses, shrubs and other plants. However, as they became [domesticated and were used for transport and sporting endeavours] their diet was adapted to provide them with valuable energy. But the diet horses were fed then, is very different to the one horses receive now.
Think of the way you feed your horse and how it may have changed over the past couple of decades. Today, horse owners are spoilt for choice with the feeds that come in a variety of different forms, such as chops and chaffs, mixes, cubes and, more recently, balancers. All have different characteristics to suit individual horses' or ponies' requirements.
Old Fashionecl feedstuffs
At the start of the 1900s, what horses were fed depended to a certain extent, as it does today, on where they lived and what feedstuffs were readily available. Many of the feedstuffs listed in 1908 as being suitable for horses are fed today. Familiar ingredients include lucerne, oats, maize, barley and linseed, although today soya has replaced linseed as one of the major protein sources.
Clare Barfoot RNutr
is a registered equine nutritionist and is the Research and Development Manager for Spillers. She is responsible for product design and development, alongside technical communication to horse owners. She has 19 years' experience in the feed industry.
Hay would also have been fed, and was often chopped up and mixed with oats, and fed in nosebags to carriage horses when they were at rest between duties. More unusual feedstuffs used in the early 1900s included Indian beans, while in Norway a special boiled fish broth was fed to ponies. Even now, some Icelandic ponies are fed the odd herring in the winter, as they are an excellent source of protein and omega-3 oil.
However, although the cereal grains fed to horses would have been similar to those we feed today, they were presented in a different way. In 1908, it was appreciated that crushing, soaking, boiling and parching certain grains, in particular corn and barley, helped to improve their digestibility. It was also suggested that 'bruising' or 'crushing' improved the digestibility of oats, if not their storage.
At this time, manufactured feeds were very few and far between, were very expensive and contained poor-quality ingredients, including ground corn stalks and even sawdust!
Even now, some Icelandic
ponies are fed the odd herring
in the winter
Although feeding cereal grains to horses provided them with enough energy to help maintain their bodyweight while working, they also contributed to their fair share of problems. These included colic, laminitis and tying up, which was known as Monday morning disease as horses often tied up on Mondays after a period of rest over the weekend. Also seen was big head disease, caused by an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus, which occurred when horses were fed a cereal-based diet. One of the reasons digestive problems were so prevalent was that although there was some attempt to process the grains to increase their digestibility, the methods used were relatively ineffective. Other issues commonly seen were a result of malnutrition. At the time, relatively little was known about the nutritional requirements of horses. Their diets were rarely fortified with vitamins and minerals unless they were under the weather, in which case they were likely to have been given a special vitamin tonic.
In 1958, a scientific review concluded that there had been little advancement in the knowledge of horse nutrition over the previous 50 years……research in horse nutrition has increased hugely since this time…..Today horse nutrition research has many threads….how nutrition plays a role in various clinical conditions, such as laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), cushning's disease, tying up, gastric ulcers, colic and orthopaedic disease. Researchers are also containuing in the quest to find the optimum way to support horses and ponies throughout their life stages, from before they are born, through to their senior years.
A better way to feed
Developments in equine nutrition have made a real difference to horse welfare. The effective cooking of cereals has helped to maximize starch digestion in the small intestine before it ends up in the hindgut, where it can contribute to problems such as digestive upsets or even laminitis. Grains, especially barley and maize, benefit from thermal processing, such as steam-cooking, micronising and extruding. Pre-caecal (before the hindgut) starch digestibility can increase from 30% to 90% for cooked maize and also significantly for barley. This is why you shouldn't feed uncooked cereals to horses, apart from oats, as they contain relatively easily digested starch.
I WELL REMEMBER AS A YOUNG GUY, WORKING ON A STUD FARM IN ENGLAND, THE "SPECIAL" MASH I HAD TO COOK….TOOK MANY HOURS - BUT WOW, DID THE HORSES LOVE IT - Keith Hunt
The other difference you will see in today's feeds, even compared to 25 years ago, is the use of energy sources other than cereals. This is because research now shows that feeding high levels of sugar and starch can contribute to or increase the risk of clinical conditions such as colic, laminitis, gastric ulcers, tying up, EMS and PPID. The favoured alternative energy sources are oil and fibre.
A desire to reduce the starch in the diet has changed the type of products horse owners now choose and also how they are formulated. Muesli-type mixes that are typically higher in starch were very popular in the 1970s and 80s, but now most low-energy products and increasingly high-energy products will have some sort of claim around being high in fibre, and low in sugar and starch. This is as a result of research into the optimum way to feed our horses to maximize their performance, while being sympathetic to the way they are evolved to eat.
As well as a shift in emphasis from feeding horses cereal-based feeds, we now know more about their nutritional requirements. Modern feeds are formulated to provide adequate amounts of protein, including essential amino acids, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals to provide a balanced diet. Relatively recent work has also highlighted the benefits of feeding additional antioxidants, so good-quality feeds will provide high levels of vitamin E, and some will contain vitamin C and natural, plant-based antioxidants.
Horses….forage and eat for approximately 16-18 hours of every day
Fibre is actually a carbohydrate, which may seem confusing. We often think of carbohydrates as sugar and starch, and we have been learning in recent times that too much sugar and starch can be detrimental to our horses. But fibre is what we call structural carbohydrate, because it plays a mainly structural role in the cell wall of plants. It is found in highest concentrations in forages such as grass, hay, haylage, straw and alfalfa. However, other sources include byproducts of the human food industry, such as sugar beet, wheatfeed, soya hulls and oatfeed.
All carbohydrates are used by the horse as an energy source, but fibre is unique in the fact that the horse doesn't produce any enzymes to break it down into usable components. This is why the horse has millions of bacteria in his gut that ferment the fibre and release its nutrients that can then be used for energy.
Why is fibre so important?
Fibre is important to your horse for two main reasons. From a physical point of view, 65% of your horse's digestive system (the hindgut) is devoted to processing it. Then, just as importantly, from a psychological point of view, the horse forages and eats for approximately 16-18 hours of every day. In the wild, this diet would have comprised grasses, herbs, plants and shrubs.
A lack of fibre in the diet can contribute to many adverse conditions - fundamentally, fibre is required for good digestive health, which contributes to overall good health. In fact, for leisure horses with good body condition, a diet based on forage, alongside a balancer to top up the vitamins and minerals, is ideal. You can't over-feed fibre unless you have an overweight horse or pony, where some level of restriction is often required.
CARROTS AND APPLES [WHICH MAINLY ARE WATER] HAVE GOOD VITAMINS AND MINERALS; THEY SHOULD BE FED TO YOUR HORSE ON A REGULAR BASIS. MY HORSE GOLDIE GETS 3 CARROTS AND A WHOLE APPLE, 3 TIMES A WEEK. ANY FEAR OF TOO MUCH NATURAL SUGAR IS WASHED AWAY WITH THE SPIRITED EXERCISE I GIVE HER. SHE IS [MARCH 2016] 16 YEARS OLD, BUT LOOKS AND ACTS LIKE SHE IS HALF THAT AGE…..YOU CAN SEE HER ON MY FACEBOOK - Keith Hunt
Top feeding tips
* Clean, fresh water should be available at all times - just a 2% loss of body water can affect performance
* Feed by weight, not volume. This is very important, as a scoop of cubes can weigh a lot more than a scoop of chopped fibre
* Fibre is fundamental to the physical and mental wellbeing of your horse. Feed it ad lib if you can and don't drop it below 15% of your horse's bodyweight per day
* Keep meal sizes smaller than 2kg for horses and less for ponies
* Base how much you feed your horse on his bodyweight. Most of us don't have access to a weigh-bridge so use a weigh-tape to get an estimate, then calculate 2% of this figure to give you the total amount your horse will eat per day
* Make all dietary changes gradually. Your horse's gut is sensitive and won't take too kindly to abrupt changes. Don't forget this includes changing forage sources, too
* Try to stick to a routine, as most horses are creatures of habit
* Up your horse's workload before you up his feed, as this reduces the risk of tying up
* Feed the best-quality products you can afford. Buying poor-quality feed is a false economy because in the long term you may end up with large vet fees or a big supplement bill ■