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Feeding old horses in winter can be a challenge but, with the right guidance, you can keep your veteran horse in great condition. Here, Joanna Palmer BSc (Hons), Nutritionist for Allen & Page offers her expert advice.
Treat your horse as an individual
"Horses and ponies all age at different rates," says Joanna. "Some older horse can start to drop weight and condition, particularly during the winter months and may benefit from a change to a high calorie veteran feed to meet their increased nutritional needs. Others who have been good doers throughout their younger years will continue to need a low calorie diet to maintain a healthy weight and help prevent obesity."
As Joana explains, fibre is the most important part of every horse’s diet. "In the wild, horses graze for 18 to 20 hours a day and to mimic this need to ‘trickle feed‘, our domesticated horses should ideally have fibre in the form of grass, hay or haylage available at all times," she says.
"Fibre is essential for good digestive health and its digestion also provides a good source of calories and body heat as it is fermented in the gut. If a horse is not eating enough fibre, he will lose weight, regardless of how much high calorie 'bucket' feed he may also be fed."
Unfortunately the natural decline in dental condition that occurs with age will greatly affect a horse’s ability to chew efficiently and it is then necessary to provide alternative sources of fibre. "Allen & Page Fast Fibre is a soaked high fibre feed that can be fed as a complete or partial hay replacer, offering similar nutrition to that of hay but in a form that is easy to eat."
Choosing a veteran feed for your horse
A good veteran feed will be one that is high in fibre and low in starch and sugar as this is more natural for the horse. "Feeds which contain a high proportion of cereals should be avoided as these have significantly higher starch contents than those which use fibre and oil as energy sources," says Joanna. "A high starch diet can not only cause fizzy and excitable behaviour, but it is also more difficult to digest and can make the horse more susceptible to developing laminitis or colic. Most specific veteran feeds including Allen & Page Veteran Vitality will have digestible energy (DE) values of around 11MJ/kg, which provides a step up in calories from most standard mixes and cubes. Veteran Light offers all the benefits of a low starch and sugar veteran feed, but with a much lower calorie level of 8MJ/kg – perfect for good doers."
Feeding older horses with poor teeth
"Another important quality of a feed for veterans is that it is easy to eat," explains Joanna. "A veteran horse with poor teeth is more at risk of suffering choke and colic, simply because he is not able to chew properly. A feed that soaks to form a soft, palatable mash is easy to eat and using warm water also releases more flavours from the feed, helping to tempt even the fussiest of feeders." Feeding a soaked feed will also increase a horse’s water consumption, something that is particularly useful during the winter months when many veterans can be reluctant to drink enough water.
Take ailments into consideration
Sadly with advancing age comes the increased likelihood of medical issues, many of which can be exacerbated by the horse’s diet. "For example, any horse with liver problems requires a low protein diet (e.g. Fast Fibre) in order to reduce the strain placed on the already damaged organ. Similarly, horses and ponies prone to or at risk of laminitis, including Cushing’s sufferers should only be fed feeds that have very low starch and sugar levels of under 10% combined (e.g. Fast Fibre and Veteran Light)," says Joanna. "Consequently, it is essential that all veterinary issues are taken into account when recommending feeds to ensure that the diet is suitable for the horse as a whole and not just in relation to his age."
For more information on feeding veteran horses visit and to discover the complete Allen & Page range of feeds www.allenandpage.co.uk or call the award winning nutrition helpline on 01362 822902.
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A balancer is a nutrient dense feed that provides your horse with all the vitamins, minerals and quality protein he needs on a daily basis.
They also contain a low level of calories making them ideal if your horse is a good-doer. They’re usually small pellets, which makes them easy to feed and you don’t need to feed a huge amount. The usual amount fed is 100g per 100kg bodyweight, so an average 500kg horse will need just 500g of balancer a day.
You’ll pay a little more for a bag of balancer compared to a bag of nuts or mix, but it will last you longer and cost you less on a daily basis.
There’s also a growing number of targeted balancers that contain additional ingredients to help with specific issues such as glucosamine for joint support or biotin for healthy hooves.
When to feed a balancer?
If you’re feeding the recommended amount of a mix or cube compound feed your horse will be receiving all the vitamins and minerals he needs to maintain a balanced diet. If you’re not feeding at the specified level detailed on the feed bag you’ll need to balance your horse’s diet and this is where feeding a balancer is ideal.
If your horse maintains his weight on a diet of just forage, or he’s in hard work, but maintains his weight on a low energy feed which are designed to support him when he’s in light work, feeding a balancer should be considered. Also, if you feed straights or feeds that don’t contain additional vitamins and mineral adding a balancer will ensure his diet is balanced.
Research and Development Manager at SPILLERS®, Clare Barfoot RNutr, reveals some of the most frequently asked winter feeding questions and provides the answers, to help you keep your horse in fine fettle this winter.
“During the winter months our phone line and inbox are usually red hot with questions from caring horse owners who need some advice,” says Clare. “Questions range from very standard to occasionally slightly off the wall – once someone asked if she could feed her horse the contents of her compost bin! Obviously the answer was an emphatic ‘no’!”
Here are the top five questions asked so far this winter*:
1. How do I measure horse feed?
Most owners feed by the scoop but with all the different types of feed available one scoop can weigh considerably more or less than another. This is why it is really important to weigh your feed, even if you only do so once. The easiest way is to put one scoop of your chosen feed in a carrier bag and weigh it on your kitchen scales. Then all you need to work out is how many scoops you need to feed per day.
2. How can I keep weight on my horse?
First it’s important to eliminate any clinical reasons for weight loss. Next check that the quality of your forage is good and make sure that it is always fed ad lib – even in the field. It is also worth making sure your horse is well rugged as significant calories can be used just to keep the body warm. In terms of your horse’s bucket feed you should be feeding the recommended quantity, in meals of no more than 2kg so as to not overload the stomach. If your horse is still not maintaining weight increase the calorie density of the meals. Try a conditioning feed or if he has a sharp temperament opt for a fibre and oil based medium energy feed; these types of feed may not say ‘conditioning’ and may be packaged as competition feeds, nonetheless they will be medium energy and will help build condition.
3. How should I feed my laminitic during the winter?
Obesity and diet are two key laminitis risk factors that are under your control. As grass is the largest contributor of water-soluble carbohydrate (sugars and fructans) it is important that it is restricted, even in the winter. Choose feeds that are high in fibre and low in sugar and starch. If your horse is a good doer or needs to lose weight consider feeding a balancer designed to complement a calorie restricted diet. If he requires more condition opt for a high fibre feed suitable for horse and ponies prone to laminitis. It’s useful to have the nutritional value of your hay analysed and to soak it before feeding to reduce the water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) content.
4. What’s the right way to feed a hay replacer?
Firstly choose an appropriate product - this means one that is suitable to replace forage from a nutritional point of view such as chopped fibres or high fibre cubes. Partial replacers include grass nuts, alfalfa nuts and sugar beet. In terms of amount if your horse can’t eat any forage or grass you will need to feed at least 15g/kg bodyweight (dry matter) a day, however unless overweight most horses will require around 20g/kg bodyweight (dry matter). This equates to approx. 10kg of feed per day. Ideally this should be spread across the day in at least four meals.
5. What’s the best way to give my horse vitamins and minerals without weight gain?
It’s important to feed a balanced diet all year round to support your horse’s long-term health and well-being. A diet that is unbalanced or deficient in certain nutrients could start to show with poor hoof or coat quality, a lack of muscle tone or a compromised immune system. If, like many, your horse doesn’t need extra calories in the form of a full ration of compound feed a balancer would be the best solution. These are specifically designed to complement forage or pasture based diets but without unwanted extra calories.
More about SPILLERS®
SPILLERS® produces feeds to suit all types, including a range of superior fibres and balancers, Laminitis Trust approved products and new SPILLERS® Alfalfa-Pro which carries the BETA Equine Gastric Ulceration Syndrome (EGUS) Certification Mark. For friendly advice on winter feeding contact the SPILLERS® Care-Line on + 44 (0)1908 226626 or visit www.spillers-feeds.com
SPILLERS® led the way with the introduction of a horse nutrition Care-Line back in the 1980s. Now supported by four nutritionists, the free service gives inquisitive, worried, or confused horse owners access to friendly, non-judgemental and unbiased nutrition advice. Thousands of calls and emails are handled by the Care-Line annually and this number is increasing year on year. Nutritionist recommendations via the Care-Line are automatically uploaded onto your very own My SPILLERS® Record to help guide your horse’s diet plan with efficiency and accuracy.
(*Content courtesy of SPILLERS®)
As your horse gets older, you may notice he no longer keeps his weight like he used to over winter. Here, we catch up with SPILLERS equine nutritionist, Clare Barfoot, and get her top tips on feeding an older horse over winter.Read More
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From rodent proofing your bins, to storing your feed and organising your utensils, it’s important to keep your feed room in order. So don your sweeping brush and rope in a friend or two, to make sure that your feed room is in tip top condition and free from pesky pests.
Store your sacks sensibly
Most horse feedstuffs will go mouldy or stale if the sack or container is left open to air and dampness, which is why feed manufacturers generally recommend that their products are stored in airtight containers.
To help keep your horse’s feed at its best keep it in an area that’s dry and out of direct sunlight, this will prevent both spoilage from damp and the deterioration of vitamins and oils, i.e. the feed’s nutritional value.
Tough plastic or metal feed bins will also help keep out pests, while stacking unopened bags of feed on pallets will help keep damp and moisture out.
Keep him safe
Another very important reason to store feed securely is to prevent your horse from gorging himself if he makes a great escape into the feed room when you’re not looking. The consequences of him helping himself to his feed can be fatal, particularly if he eats a large amount of dried sugar beet.
Put paid to pests
Feed should be stored in containers to prevent vermin such as rats and mice getting into it. Rats and mice don’t just eat your feed, but can also spread disease and infections to your horse, from their coats and urine so always keep your feed storage area swept clean and tidy to ensure it’s less attractive to mice and rats.
Also consider placing mice and rat traps in your feed room or keeping a stable cat to keep the vermin population down.
Seal any supplements
Take care to tightly reseal any tubs of feed supplements to retain their freshness. Consider tipping them into a metal container so that rats and mice can’t get to them.
Have a tidy up
With your feed safely stored, it’s time to move on to some quick tips to a tidier feed room.
Keep your tools, such as brooms and pitchforks handy and out from under your feet by hanging them on a wall-mounted tool holder.
If you have hay in your feed room, store your bales on wooden pallets to prevent them from getting mouldy from sitting on damp ground. If your feed-storage area is next to a dirt road or has dust issues, keep your hay supply covered.
Thoroughly clean your buckets, scoops and mixing spoons regularly in order to remove any mouldy old feed.
Make sure you check the expiry, sell by, or best before date of your feed before feeding it.
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The spring grass may be a welcome sight after months of winter mud but its high nutritional content can put a strain on your horse’s digestive system – and too much too fast could overload his body and lead to a potentially dangerous bout of gassy colic. Painful, damaging, and even fatal in some cases, the good news is that this type of colic is easily avoided, provided you understand the dangers and take steps to protect your horse’s gut.
Here Petplan vet of the year Gil Riley has all the advice you need to keep your horse’s digestive system on an even keel – and how to cope should the worst ever happen.
Beware sudden changes in diet
Remember those 10 golden rules of feeding we all learned in the Pony Club? Number one was ‘make any changes to your horse’s diet gradually’.
“The main cause of gassy colic is an overly rapid change in diet, most commonly the horse being put into a new paddock full of lush grass,” explains Gil.
“This is because gassy colic centres on the fact that the horse’s digestive system isn’t just about enzymes breaking down food, it’s about billions and billions of microbes in the large intestine, which help break down the plant fibre, or cellulose, found in grass. Cellulose is an extremely difficult structure to break down. Our guts wouldn’t be able to manage it, yet horses have to cope using a similar gastrointestinal set up to ours,” explains Gil.
“Whereas cattle, sheep and goats have a four-chambered stomach that mashes grass down and liquidates it as the animals regurgitate food repeatedly and ruminate, horses have a small stomach, small intestine, large intestine and back passage, and have to improvise to break down grass. Not being able to ruminate and vomit, they instead have developed a large intestine that’s basically a huge fermenting vat, packed with billions of microbes, and this in turn produces lots of gas.
“In a healthy horse, the delicate microbial population in the gut will be in balance, depending on what he’s regularly eating (ie, a diet of mainly hay or haylage) and how this food needs to be broken down. If the diet is suddenly changed, for instance your horse switches from being stabled and eating hay to being out and eating rich grass, the microbes can be caught out of step with the result that the food isn’t broken down properly. This can lead to an excess of gas production, which can quickly accumulate, causing problems.”
The horse has abut 30 metres of intestine and there are many sharp turns and hairpin bends to enable it to sit within the abdomen. If gas builds up in one area it struggles to pass through the loops of intestine, getting trapped and causing intense pain.
“Gassy colic is extremely painful and your horse will show typical colic signs – refusal to eat, obvious pain, kicking or biting at his flanks, etc,” says Gil.
“This pain is due to excess gas in the gut stretching and pressing on the gut wall, causing the pain and pressure receptors in the bowel wall to be activated. The symptoms can be dramatic, and mimic those found in spasmodic or impaction colic, so it’s your vet’s job to quickly ascertain which type it is.”
If emergency strikes
As with all types of colic, gassy colic is a veterinary emergency, so call your vet immediately and keep your horse – and yourself – safe until he or she arrives.
“If your horse is comfortable to walk, it seems reasonable to surmise that the movement of walking will help to massage the gut and also help the passage of the trapped wind,” says Gil. “It also gives the owner something to do and makes them feel useful as they wait for the vet to arrive.
There's now thought to be no truthto the old wives’ tale that a colicky horse shouldn’t roll. This will have no impact on the bowel moving one way or the other, so if your horse is very keen to roll, let him.
For me, the biggest danger is him getting cast in the stable, or injuring people near him, especially if they try to stop him rolling. So take him somewhere with a soft surface, such as a manège orfield, until the vet arrives, and let him roll if he really wants to.”
When help arrives
- The vet will first carry out an immediate clinical examiniation to ascertain whether there's any damage to the bowel
- He'll then check your horses pule as a racing pulse can be indicative of the colic progressing and causing damage to, or twist in, the bowel under the strain
- The next step is to give the horse pain relief - if he responds well, there's a good chance the colic is due to trapped gas, which will be processed in time which would lead to a full recovery.
- If he doesn't respond to pain relief, a twisted or displaced bowel is likely and this is far more dangerous.
- After pain relief is administered, your horse may be sedated for a full rectal examiniation, as the vet feels for damage in the bowel
- This may be followed by a peritoneal tap, where a needle is inserted into the horse's belly after a patch is shaved and scrubbed up. Your vet will draw off fluid, which should be pale yellow and free flowing like water. If it's in any way blood-tinged, murky looking or, in the worst-case senario contains food material, this shows there's inflammation in the gut wall or, in severe cases, a gut rapture, which is fatal.
How to prevent gassy colic
1. Make any changes in your horse's diet gradually. If your horse is going out into a new, lush field, for example, he should be turned out for a maximum of an hour a day at first, then gradually build this up over five or six days as your horse gets used to the new grass. If you’re making changes to his hard feed, the old feed should be gradually reduced as the new feed is slowly introduced over a period of days. The same goes for any changes in his hay or haylage
2. Always feed your horse at roughly the same time every day – if your horse is fed later than usual he may gorge his food due to hunger