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The bulk of your horse’s diet and the majority of his energy should come from forage. This is key for a happy hindgut and a healthy horse. At the same time, controlling forage intake is essential in maintaining a healthy bodyweight and a forage-based diet often does not provide all the vitamins and minerals that your horse requires, says vet and Dodson & Horrell technical advisor Dr Laura Wilson.
In the wild, horses spend most of their time grazing on low-energy forage sources compared with that to which our domesticated friends now have access. As a result, keeping our horses fed sufficiently and within the correct energy balance to maintain a healthy weight can be challenging. However, a regular flow of fibre through your horse’s system is the key to overall digestive health.
How much forage is right?
Ad-lib forage is ideal for your horse if they are able to maintain a healthy weight. Your horse should receive at least 1.5-2% of his bodyweight each day in forage dry matter. This can be reduced to 1% of bodyweight when working towards weight loss, but should not be reduced further.
It is especially important when we are restricting forage intake to feed little and often throughout the day, so that the digestive system is regularly receiving fibre. Haynets with small holes can slow your horse’s eating down and make their hay last a bit longer.
Never drop your horse’s forage intake below 1% of bodyweight dry matter per day and remember to include any grazing in this calculation. Depending on his current diet, forage type and weight loss requirements, 1.5% bodyweight can be a good starting point, reduced further as/if required.
Remember, all forage is not equal
All forage is NOT created equal and you should feed lower energy forage types to encourage weight loss. While the overall energy content is usually higher in haylage compared to hay, haylage has a higher water content and lower dry matter intake, which can balance out its higher energy levels.
Soaking hay will further reduce its sugar and calorie content. Forage analysis and follow up consultation can be helpful in ensuring your horse’s needs are being met and that their overall diet is well balanced.
Bear in mind too that grass varies greatly in the energy it provides, particularly in the summer compared to winter months.
During the summer, grass is a high energy forage type and restriction is often necessary to trigger weight loss or prevent your horse from becoming overweight. Reduced time spent turned out, smaller paddock size or strip grazing, and grazing muzzle use can all be helpful in reducing grass intake.
Meeting your horse’s daily dietary requirements
Forage alone won’t provide a full and balanced diet. A low-calorie balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement can be fed alone or alongside a low energy chaff and is often enough to meet daily requirements.
Other options include fully balanced low-energy chaffs or low-calorie treats containing daily vitamins and minerals. They must be fed at the recommended amounts in order to meet your horse’s needs.
Don’t forget to factor in exercise. You should consider your horse’s workload carefully, as many ridden horses’ energy requirements can be met without high-energy concentrate feeds.
A programme of gradually increasing exercise in conjunction with dietary management is helpful for weight loss.
Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, which is supported by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more
Meet the writer: Dr Laura Wilson BVM&S MRCVS is a qualified vet and technical advisor at Dodson & Horrell. She graduated from Edinburgh University in 2013 and began her veterinary career in Newmarket, before spending time in New Zealand working with racehorses and Thoroughbreds.