Feeding horses on stall rest

A horse’s diet during stall rest contributes in a big way to her recovery process. Gaining a better understanding of her nutritional needs will help you nourish her back to better health.

If your horse is on stall rest, her recovery depends a lot on the nutrition she’s getting. Because horses are herbivores, they are somewhat limited in the foods they can eat. But although we can’t feed them meat protein to directly build muscles and repair tissues, many other foods — perhaps more than we realize — can help them heal. The first step is recognizing that whole grains, such as oats or corn, are not the same whole grains of 50 years ago; and that today’s hay is also not the same as it once was. This will help introduce the idea that horses — especially those on stall rest — need the best nutrients possible for healing.

Why stall rest?

Sometimes horses are in stall rest under medical orders; sometimes it’s a decision made by the caretaker or trainer based on changes in performance.

Good reasons for stall rest include a wound that you don’t want developing proud flesh; post-surgical healing of a fracture or torn muscle/tendon; and observation. Reasons for stall rest that are worthy of reconsideration include lameness, decreased performance and perception of ring sourness.

The downside of stall rest is that the muscles aren’t receiving stimulation. Muscle movement blocks pain locally before the signal enters the spinal cord. So for horses that are “taking a rest” due to lameness or decreased performance, another option would be chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy and/or body work. These modalities will help decrease the pain response and may find or correct the reason for the lameness/performance issue.

Horses who like to perform don’t become ring sour. What is perceived as “ring sourness” is often a sign of pain or something else wrong; horses who enjoy performing may hide their pain but not be able to perform to their normal standard. These horses will benefit from a qualified body worker.

The role of the cecum

First, let’s talk about a horse’s intestinal tract, then we’ll discuss some foods to help healing. The cecum, located in the right flank, is a critical part of the equine intestinal tract. The cecum comes after the small intestine and before the large intestine, and provides horses with the majority of their nutrition via fermentative digestion – it’s like a giant kombucha vat that uses natural bacteria to digest forage (hay and grass) to provide the horse with nutrients.

Just like good kombucha, the right “bugs” at the right pH mean better cecal function. Good “bugs” are equine-specific probiotics; good pH comes from a diet of grass, hay, and whole foods while avoiding concentrates and grains. These latter feeds cause the pH to become too acidic, thereby destroying the good probiotics and upsetting the health of the cecum. An unhealthy cecum leads to an unhealthy intestine, which delays healing and prolongs stall rest. Hence, it is critical for horses on stall rest to consume the right diet.

Reach for high quality ingredients

It is common to read ingredients on bags of horsefeed/concentrate and see words like “byproducts” and “middlings”. It would be reasonable to assume these ingredients are simply the fibrous outer coating of whole grains. Instead, they are of low quality, may contain mold, may be GMOs, and contain pesticides and other poisons. More often than not, commonly-available high-production horse feed is a waste product of the human food supply.

While the equine cecum can convert plant matter into nutrition, horses still need high quality ingredients, especially when healing from surgery or an injury. The equine species is renowned for having a massive intestinal system. This system is intimately associated with 80% of the equine immune system, just like any other mammalian species. A good immune system helps fight off infection, and therefore promotes healing.

Ideally, recovering horses would be allowed to graze on fresh pasture as long as movement could be restricted. Nothing beats fresh grass when it comes to nutrient quality. But for horses on stall rest, the next best option is to feed great hay, then top dress with fresh vegetables and fruits. Also, there are some phenomenal horse products made from non-GMO whole foods, as well as hay balancers. In either case, a little bit of research will tell you if these are quality products with nutritious ingredients.

Selecting foods for healing

Do’s: Fresh, natural, whole food for overall health. Provide building blocks for the body to heal.

Don’ts: Over-processed, high-carbohydrate concentrated feeds. Hot grains that are imbalanced.

Here are some great foods and a short list of some of their healing properties:

Don’t forget the water!

A discussion about food is only complete when it includes considerations regarding water. It is very common to use an industrial green or black hose to fill water buckets or tanks. The water container is often located a long distance away from the water spigot, thus hoses help us do our watering tasks faster and more easily. Water hoses are expensive and break easily, thus it is common to use inexpensive garden hoses to deliver water. But be warned – these inexpensive industrial water hoses contain and carry contaminants from the spigot to the water bucket. Logically, these contaminants are not in the horse’s best interest. Instead, hand-carrying buckets from the spigot will be beneficial for your equines companions, and good exercise for you!

You should also evaluate your water source. City water is loaded with pollutants and chemicals. While purified water initially seems quite pricey, think of how much money is spent on horses undergoing surgery or recovering from injury. The cost of surgery puts into perspective the importance of high quality water if that will ensure the surgery is successful and help the patient heal more quickly.

If your horse is on stall rest, take some time to plan her diet with the help of your veterinarian. A few simple changes may drastically reduce her recovery time, and improve her overall wellness to boot!