Feeding – How to feed a heavy horse

‘It’s a very dangerous job advising anyone how to feed big horses. The rascals are all different!’ Such uncompromising advice from an experienced feeder may seem to defeat the object of this article, but appropriate horse rations cannot be weighed out in the precise manner of cattle, pig and poultry diets. (This does not apply just to heavy horses – ask any racehorse trainer!) The fundamental point to bear in mind is that each horse has a different metabolism, and it is most important that the nature of the work being done is taken into consideration.

Yet feeding horses boils down to common sense, and there is no reason for the novice to be deterred or alarmed. In the simplest analysis, if the animal has not licked its manger clean, give it less next time. If it is still clomping about, obviously hungry after a feed, give it some more. To follow this advice cuts down the risk of digestive upsets, including the very dangerous colic, although, for a number of physiological reasons, the most carefully fed horses can still succumb to this distressing condition.

In the longer term, and with experience, the owner will be able to assess whether feeding is appropriate by looking at the animal’s overall condition: a tendency towards gross or poor condition – too fat or too thin – suggest the need for change.

The horse’s attitude and temperament also provide clues: excitability or bad behaviour may suggest that too much, or the wrong type, of hard (concentrated) feed is being given for the work done, while sluggishness and lack of spirit may indicate under-feeding (or ill health).

David Lambert, a practical owner and exhibitor, who also owns the horse feed firm Oss-i-Chaff, sums up the situation by saying ‘Though scientific knowledge of feeding is always helpful, the best knowledge will always come from experience’.

However, if there is one piece of scientific knowledge that is essential to those who feed horses, this is the basic knowledge of the horse’s digestive system. The key point is that horses differ from cattle and sheep in having only one stomach, and no ability to chew the cud. One practical consequence of this is that horses can digest about 30% of the fibre content of hay, whereas cattle and sheep can digest 60% or 70%. Furthermore, the stomach of a mature heavy horse holds only 3 gallons or so (13.5 litres) by volume, whereas the hind gut system, where most of the digestive process takes place, holds between ten and twelve times as much. This arrangement means that the horse is intended, by nature, to spend most of its time grazing and, if allowed, will do so for some sixteen hours a day, and may lie down for a few hours.

There are two important lessons to be drawn from this. First, the horse is designed to draw most of its nutrition from the regular consumption of grass and grass-like feedstuffs. Grazing, whether at pasture or picking hay in the stable, is a natural, familiar and thus reassuring activity.

Second, when concentrated feed is added to the diet to provide extra energy for the working horse, the small stomach necessitates that this be given on a ‘little and often’ basis, if digestion is to be efficient and digestive disorders are to be avoided.

This ‘little and often’ regime is especially important at shows, where feeding must fit in with preparation and showing time, and where the change of environment may affect the feeding patterns of more nervous or excitable individuals. However, a similar regime, including early and late feeds, also has its advantages at home, one being that it necessitates regular inspection of the horses over a prolonged period each day. The frequency of feeding the show horse in work is usually between four and six times a day. Those advocating the latter routine point out that it ensures that each horse is seen six times a day, and its dung picked up each time. The four-feeds-daily enthusiasts give a late feed just before bedtime or around 10 pm. The horse is then racked up with sweet hay to last well into the night.

Grass

As we have seen, the horse is essentially a grazing animal and young, fresh grass is by far the best and cheapest food. Some pointers about good pasture management can be found here. ‘Doctor Green’ can resolve problems caused through poor wintering – although the horseman should see that these do not arise.

However, it is a fact of nature that good, nutritious pasture is not available all year round, and some of the heavy horse world’s most important shows take place before the new spring growth of grass has had much time to take effect. Therefore, despite its virtues, the horseman cannot rely solely on fresh grass, but must look also to its preserved forms, supplemented as necessary by hard feeds.

Hay

Hay for horses must be good. Mouldy, musty or dusty hay is very dangerous for horses, being likely to cause long-term respiratory problems, and over-ripe hay has little nutritional value. Rather than feeding such hay, it would be far better to feed clean straw and augment with concentrates. Grass for hay should be cut after flowering but before seeding, and should not contain a lot of weeds and thistles, which are signs of poor grassland management. The bale should spring apart when the bands are cut. If it clags together, it is probably mould-infected.

There are two main types of hay, meadow and seed hay. The latter comes from a sown sward, and is preferable if a range of varieties is involved. Meadow or ‘old land’ hay should have a wonderful herby smell, but is a scarce commodity in many areas.

Racehorse trainers, with long experience of the need for the very best, prefer to feed year-old hay, and much may be learnt from these full-time professionals. That ideal may well be impractical for some, but trainers would certainly not feed new season hay in its first year if doing so could possibly be avoided. New hay can be indigestible and a potential cause of colic.

When buying hay by the bale, weigh a few sample bales. They are very deceptive, and you may find you are paying a very high price per ton. It is often satisfactory to buy hay in the field, and then you know how it has been made, and it may never be cheaper. On the other hand, it will lose a lot of weight between haytime and February, and allowance must be made for that.

Hay must be stored dry and, although an open-sided Dutch barn is useful, care must be taken to protect the bales from wet as the stack lowers and lets in the weather. The bottom course should be stacked on pallets, stakes or poles to allow air to circulate underneath and avoid damage from damp and mould. Even so, any hay that does become damaged should not be used for horses.

This brings us to another point about buying hay in bulk, which is to buy enough to cover any spoilage and other contingencies. A good deal may be fed whilst travelling to and staying at shows when, if at home, the horses might otherwise have been turned out. In addition, it is prudent to keep a few bales per animal in reserve during the summer, in case of drought, a really wet time when horses are better housed, or sickness. If a sick horse won’t eat top quality hay, it probably won’t eat anything.

The turn of the year is a good time to take stock of feeding requirements, especially the provision of hay. Never forget that winter is not half over on New Year’s Day, and remember that old farming saw advising having half one’s fodder still on hand at Candlemas (2nd February). At the turn of the year hay requirements should be reassessed and they hay market studied; prices can rise astronomically in a late spring, especially in hill-sheep districts where hay is the main practical standby.

So far as feeding hay is concerned, it is probably best to give it on the floor. A horse’s natural means of feeding is ‘downwards’. with its long head and neck allowing it to reach food on the ground. Although hayracks were once standard in all stables, often filled through a hole in the floor of the loft above, it has to be said that they suited the men rather than the horses. Hay nets are handy and help to save waste, but they allow dust and hay seeds to fall into horse’s eyes. Improbable accidents can also occur when a foal rears and catches its foot in the net, with disastrous consequences. If you must use a net, for example on journeys, rope is preferable to nylon, and nets should be secured to tie rings via a weak link.

Silage

Silage is essentially grass of various sorts that has been ‘cut green’ and placed in sealed containers, where it undergoes a fermentation process. Although it is now made by choice on a large scale, silage first came to the fore as a means of salvaging hay crops that would otherwise have been ruined by wet weather. Big bale silage, wrapped in plastic sheeting, is now a common feature of the countryside. Silage is used extensively as a cattle feed, but cattle silage is not suitable for horses, since by-products of the fermentation process may prove harmful, and the protein content may also be too high.

There are forms of silage available that are produced for horses, made with a higher than normal proportion of dry matter (high dry matter silage). This is the only type that should be considered as a horse feed but, even so, it may be richer in protein than other bulk feeds, and should be introduced gradually, with due caution.

Haylage

This is essentially a ‘halfway house’ between hay and silage, the crop being taken at a later stage than for silage, but a little earlier than for hay. It is then vacuum packed in waterproof bags. Haylage from reputable sources is safe for horses provided that the manufacturer’s instructions are followed. In general terms, once a bag is opened, the contents should be used within a few days and any that shows signs of mould should be discarded. Any bag found to have been torn or punctured during storage should also be disposed of. One advantage of haylage is that, correctly stored, it is dust-free, making it particularly suitable for horses susceptible to respiratory problems.

Haylage is generally made from ryegrass and tends to have higher feed values than hay, so this should be considered when calculating overall quantities of feed. However, some newer products are formulated to be more or less direct substitutes for dust-free hay, and these can be sought out if they suit one’s purpose.

Straw

In the heavy horse’s heyday, long oat straw and chopped hay formed an integral part of the working horse’s ration, as may be seen from a study of textbooks written prior to the Second World War. Both materials were readily available, especially in farm stables. Oat straw was particularly useful in northern climes, where it was cut on the green side, then left in the stook for a fortnight to mature. The crop then had a beautiful rustle and smell. Nowadays the oat acreage in Britain is considerably reduced and, since the straw is usually combined at a more mature stage, it is of less feed value than before.

Although owners would not consider it part of their horse’s diet, it is a fact that some horses will eat their bedding straw, so this must be clean and dry. Oat straws, as mentioned above, is not used primarily as bedding, but barley straw is soft and suitable. Wheat straw is harder than either, and of lower feed value.

A basic test of the quality of straw is the same as applies to hay; the bale should spring open when the bands are cut, and not stick together in flaps.

Chaff

Chaff, or ‘chop’, consists either of hay by itself, or mixed with a proportion of oat or barley straw, and processed through a chaff cutter to chop it into short lengths. When mixed in with hard feed, it adds roughage, encourages thorough mastication (thus preventing the horse from bolting its food) and aids digestion.

Most successful showmen have traditionally based their rations on hay and chop, prepared at home. To the chaff mix is added bran and soaked sugar beet pulp, with the emphasis on ‘soaked’. A twenty-four hour steeping is essential to allow the pulp to swell in the bucket – if fed dry the swelling takes place in the stomach, with disastrous results. The advantages of such preparation – especially if the hay and straw are home-produced – are cheapness and complete control over ingredients.

However, while most equestrian establishments traditionally made their own chaff, this practice is less prevalent nowadays, with much chaff being sourced from commercial suppliers. These companies offer a range of chaffed feeds, some containing garlic or cod liver oil, others with vitamin/mineral supplements. Certain brands, produced from top-quality hay, are formulated, specifically for certain types and breeds (including heavy breeds), and are specially processed and packed to ensure they are dust-free. Although the costs of commercial production are reflected in the price, such products can save owners the worries of finding and accessing suitable hay at times when it is of variable quality.

Hard Food

Cereals, nuts and mixes come under the heading of concentrates or ‘hard’ food, the purpose of which is to provide additional nutrition and energy to the horse in work.

Cereals, in particular oats and barley, are the traditional hard feed. Both grains, whilst highly nutritious, are low in fibre. Maize is another high-energy cereal, also low in fibre. In Britain, it is more likely to appear as a constituent element in a mixed feed than on its own.

Wheat is not recommended as a horse feed. In its whole form it is dangerous, since it swells in the stomach. While it may be boiled and then fed safely in small quantities, there is nowadays no point in such a practice.

So far as oats and barley are concerned, they are best prepared in a way that renders them more readily digestible. Traditionally, they been bruised, rolled or crushed for this purpose but, once this is done, and especially if it is done too severely, they begin to lose their nutritional value. Modern techniques, such as micronising and gelatinising, improve digestibility with less nutritional loss.

Although they are not cereals, beans, another traditional heavy horse feed, have much in common with the cereal feeds, providing high levels of energy and protein, and requiring preparation in the form of splitting, crushing or micronising. Nowadays, beans are more commonly seen as constituents of coarse mixes rather than as individual feedstuffs.

Individual cereals can be fed with great success by those experienced in horse husbandry, but they do require a certain degree of knowledge. In the first place, in their natural form, they may vary considerably in nutritional value. (Incidentally, while cereal varieties have changed greatly in the past half-century, I suspect that many of the nutritional tables published have not been changed, and may well be misleading.)

Second, their ‘heating’ nature can have a considerable effect on the behaviour of certain horses, especially those of an excitable or suspect temperament. Third, overfeeding (especially of barley and maize) can cause allergic skin reactions in some horses and finally, despite their nutritional advantages, cereals do not, of themselves, provide horses with an optimum mix of trace minerals (especially calcium), so some form of supplement is usually required. For these reasons, less experienced owners, and those who lack the time to prepare and mix traditional feeds, may opt for commercially blended hard feeds.

Those going down this route for the first time may struggle to find products obviously targeted at the heavy horse. Generally speaking, most of the commercial manufacturers have diversified from cattle, sheep, pig and poultry feeds into horse feeds and, in aiming at the mass market, have focused mainly on the light breeds, and on the nutritional demands of their various regimes and circumstances. This means that, compared to the number of feeds formulated for other breeds and types, there are few proprietary hard feeds on offer aimed specifically at the heavy breeds.

There are, however, a number of commercially blended feeds that will suit heavy horses and recommendation from an experienced owner, or inquiry to the nutritionists employed by most of the reputable feed manufacturers, may provide the best guidance for the newcomer. That said, one should be mindful that, just because a particular feed has proved eminently suitable for one horse of a certain type, there is no guarantee that it will provide ideal for another (apparently similar) animal. This is part and parcel of the individual nature of feeding, mentioned earlier.

One point to bear in mind when feeding commercial blends is that, whereas individual cereals usually require some form of vitamin/mineral supplementation, proprietary blends are blended to be completely balanced and further additions are not only unnecessary, but may even upset the balance.

Minerals and Vitamins

While it is true that vitamins and certain minerals are essential to the well-being of the horse, most are required only in small quantities, and most will be available much of the time from regular food sources, provided that these are of good quality and appropriate blend, and provided that there are no underlying problems of mineral deficiency in the soil of the horse’s grazing land.

Because there are nowadays a huge number of vitamin and mineral supplements on offer, many owners feel a virtual obligation to feed them without due assessment of real need. This is not advisable, since it has the potential to produce imbalances or, in extreme cases, toxic effects.

In general terms, blended hard feeds from reputable sources can be considered, as previously stated, to contain appropriate quantities of vitamins and minerals, and need no supplementation. Those who feed cereals in the traditional manner should be mindful that, despite their benefits, all contain a poor ratio of calcium to phosphorous. Although essential of itself, phosphorous inhibits the uptake and utilisation of calcium, which as important functions including enhancing lactation and bone growth. In order to improve the levels of calcium, sugar beet (which has a good ratio of calcium to phosphorous) can usually be added to cereal feeds, or the mineral supplement limestone flour can be given.

Horses in hard work, that consequently sweat a lot, will benefit from the addition of salt to their feed, and most horses will benefit from having a mineral/salt lick in their stable – many seemingly enjoying the simple process of licking. In the winter months, many owners add an eggcupful of cod liver oil daily to the feed – provides an alternative source of Vitamin D, which is naturally made under the horse’s skin during times of sunshine.

Other than these basic practices, it is sensible to provide specific supplements only once an actual need has been established. This need may be informed by veterinary advice, or by soil analysis or the analysis by sample of forage (hay) bought in bulk.

Watering

Water constitutes approximately two-thirds of a horse’s bodyweight and, as with humans, an appropriate intake is essential to well-being. A large heavy horse may drink as much as 12 gallons (54 litres) daily, especially in hot weather.

Generally, clean, fresh water should be available to the horse at all times. This provision means ensuring that containers in stables are robust, kept clean, and cannot be easily kicked over; that automatic systems are kept in good order; that field troughs are checked regularly, with ice being broken in winter and debris of any sort removed and that water is changed regularly rather than just ‘topped up’, to ensure that it does not become stale or affected by algae.

A constant supply of water will ensure that the situation does not arise in which a thirsty horse is given a feed and then, immediately afterwards, is offered a drink. A horse taking a long drink in such circumstances may wash the food out of its stomach before the digestive process has started, denying itself nutrition and risking the onset of colic. This is a different circumstance from the harmless one of a horse, with water freely available, taking the odd sip whilst eating.

One other situation in which a horse should not be offered sudden access to a large quantity of water is if the horse has become very hot and tired. In such a case, small quantities of slightly tepid water should be offered initially, since the sudden intake of a large quantity of cold water can produce colic and shock.

The provision of water whilst at shows may require prudent planning, and it is sensible to take a large container of fresh water with you, and an adequate supply of buckets.

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