The decision to put a horse on box rest usually comes with little advance notice and there are a number things to consider when feeding a horse who’s confined to his stable. With this in mind, it’s not a bad idea to think about the changes you’d have to make, before it becomes a necessity.
Reduce his energy intake
On box rest your horse will obviously be much less active and will, therefore, use far less energy. To account for this, decreasing his intake of simple carbohydrates in the form of sugar and cereals is important. This will reduce his overall daily calorie intake, encourage your horse to be quieter in his stable and avoid undesired weight gain.
Keep his gut moving
Another challenge presented by box rest is the lack of movement. Moving around naturally encourages bowel movements, whereas standing still for prolonged periods of time can increase the risk of problems such as colic due to gas build-up or digestive impactions. To combat this, feeding plenty of fibre can help to offset this risk by promoting the normal healthy passage of food through the digestive system. Many vets also recommend probiotics
to help support the normal bacteria of the gut and digestion.
Forage for box-rested horses
Grass is both easier to digest and has a much higher water content than hay or haylage, so taking a horse off grass suddenly and replacing this with hay or haylage means you increase the amount of indigestible fibre in their diet. This can be a problem for horses who are less efficient at digesting (poor-doers) as they may struggle to get as much nutrition from hay compared to grass. Feeding haylage, which is usually harvested earlier than hay and thought to be more digestible, can help, as can adding in chopped fibre feeds which are based on grass, or supplying your horse with freshly picked grass each day can help to ease the transition from grazing to box rest.
To make up for the lost water intake, wetting the hay and providing plenty of fresh water is very important to help prevent further problems such as impaction colic. There are different ways to approach wetting hay. To simply add moisture you can use a hose to wet the hay for a few minutes, which is ideal for poor-doers. Alternatively, soaking hay for several hours can reduce the carbohydrate content (as you would with an horse or pony prone to laminitis), which means you can trickle feed a large quantity (better for good-doers).
When to feed
Having considered what to feed your horse, it’s also important to consider when to feed him. Horses have evolved as trickle feeders, so maintaining a slow and gradual intake of food over the day is important to keep their digestive health in top nick. Prolonged periods without food can lead to problems such as gastric ulcers or colic.
Ideally, horses should never go more than a couple of hours without food, so you’ll need to consider how you can spread his foraging time over the day.
Try splitting his daily ration of hay or haylage over six to eight feeds
Using double netted haynets or trickle feeding his hay in nets can help slow his eating and make the forage last longer.
It’s no surprise that box rest can lead to boredom and, while you don’t want your horse to be buzzing around his box - which could lead to re-injury or slowing of the healing process – you do want him to be entertained. Treat balls, with low calorie treats, or other forms of stable enrichment such as toys and licks, can help.
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