How to please your picky horse

In order to maintain good body condition in the picky horse, well organized and sometimes “artistic” feeding management becomes crucial.

Horses that compete in various disciplines are finely tuned athletes. Horses training at the exercise levels required for many types of competition expend great amounts of energy and sometimes have trouble consuming enough feed to meet energy (calorie) demands. Often they also become very selective or “picky” about what they will and will not consume. Older horses and recuperating horses also tend to back out of the feed tub. In order to maintain good body condition in the picky horse, well organized and sometimes “artistic” feeding management becomes crucial.

Stick to the basics

Because the horse is an herbivore designed to graze forages on a continuous basis, feeding large amounts of grain, which is not a natural foodstuff for horses, can lead to starch overload in the hindgut. This presents a problem for the picky horse that needs calories to maintain good body condition. Nonetheless, grains are very palatable and high in digestible energy and, if managed correctly, should be incorporated in reasonable amounts into the horse’s diet.

However, other ingredients like oils and soluble fibers, most notably beet pulp, soybean hulls and rice bran, do not contain high levels of starch and can be blended into the ration to help increase its digestible energy content without increasing the risk of starch overload. Fats and fibers do not cause an increase in blood glucose, a biochemical reaction which in some horses can lead to the development of insulin resistance. Soluble fiber and oils are palatable to horses and can actually make the ration taste better.

In general, a horse given super high energy feeds tends to become more nervous than a horse maintained on forages alone. One possible solution is to use concentrates that are in pellet or extruded forms, where the ingredients have been ground, mixed together and then heated and formed into small nuggets. Heating actually alters the starch molecule, making it more digestible and easier for the horse to absorb, so blood glucose levels don’t change as much after a meal. Pelleted and extruded rations also prevent the horse from sorting vitamins and minerals out of the mixture, something many finicky eaters are quite adept at.

Simulate nature

Forages form the basis of all horse diets, so horses should always have ample amounts of the best quality forage available at all times. A good forage choice for performance horses is a grass and legume mixed hay. Hay quality is determined by the stage of maturity when it’s cut, growing conditions, fertilization of the field in which it is grown, and how it is prepared and stored after being cut. Which cutting the hay comes from is usually irrelevant as any cutting can turn out good or bad depending on these factors. Horses that need to gain weight and are selective about forages should be fed some alfalfa hay. Alfalfa contains more calories and is much more digestible than most grass hay.

Concentrate feeding should be broken up into as many small feedings as possible. Research has shown that the capacity to overload the hindgut with grain occurs when the horse is fed more than 0.4% of his body weight at any feeding. For the 1,000-pound animal, this translates to no more than four to five pounds of concentrate mix per feeding. Additionally, horses prefer fresh, small meals as opposed to a large meal that has been sitting in the tub for a while.

Use a variety of ingredients One of the most popular feeding ingredients is oats, which are very palatable to horses and fairly safe to feed, due to the fiber content of the hull and the relatively easy digestibility of oat starch. Unfortunately, oats contain the lowest quantity of calories of all grains fed to horses. If a horse is having trouble keeping weight on, a straight oat and hay diet will do little to improve the situation.

Commercial concentrate mixes are usually composed of a variety of grains, fats and the increasingly popular soluble fibers, which contain a higher digestible energy content than long stemmed forages. Also, most performance level feeds are highly fortified with amino acids, vitamins, chelated minerals, direct fed microbials, yeast and other nutrients that oats out of the bag are lacking. It is also important not to “cut” oats into a commercially prepared mix, as doing this unbalances the feed’s nutrient content and ratios.

Beet pulp is a soluble fiber derived from the processing of sugar beets. Over the past decade, it has become a very popular feed ingredient for the performance horse. Because it is a fiber, it is fermented like hay into volatile fatty acids by microbes in the hindgut, but when digested, it yields energy levels similar to that of oats. Horses seem to love the taste of beet pulp. Try to find molasses-free beet pulp.

• Rice bran is a by-product of rice milling and another soluble fiber that’s gaining in popularity. Rice bran is digested in the hindgut in the same manner as hay, but yields higher energy content. Furthermore, rice bran contains an anabolic plant sterol called gamma oryzanol, which is thought to increase lean muscle mass.

• Oils added to the ration are a great way to increase caloric density without the horse having to digest and metabolize additional starch. Oils contain over twice the calories of grains, contain no starch, and are easily absorbed from the small intestine. When high fat products are given to the horse, he doesn’t need to consume as much feed to achieve the same caloric density of a feed containing high amounts of starch.

Besides increasing calories in the diet, high fat diets have been shown to improve performance in high intensity, short duration activities such as racing, barrel racing, reining and show jumping, when horses have been adapted to the fat. These individuals will utilize fat over glycogen as an energy substrate for a longer period during exercise, allowing for a reserve of glucose when needed towards the end of the strenuous activity. Due to biochemical differences, fat adapted horses carry a lower thermal load and produce less carbon dioxide than horses utilizing glycogen as an energy source.

“Balanced” rations

When considering a concentrate mix for finicky or hard keepers, bear in mind that several ingredients blended together usually provide the most energy and the proper quantities and proportions of other necessary nutrients. A custom blend or commercial mix is recommended over home mixes because it’s easy to unbalance the ration if too little or too much of one or several ingredients are added.

Feeding and managing performance horses should include the use of high quality forage, concentrates that contain high fat and soluble fiber and – equally important – the implementation of a routine program that minimizes digestive, metabolic and emotional disorders. Even when the best feeds are used, horses that are unhappy in their environment will not be able to perform to the best of their ability, as stress and discomfort whittle away at even the greatest genetic potential. Look after all these factors, and you have a winning combination.

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Dr. Amy Gill conducted her graduate studies at the University of Kentucky, receiving a Master of Science degree in equine nutrition in 1989 and a Doctorate in equine nutrition and Exercise Physiology in 2000. Dr. Gill specializes in growth metabolic and exercise related disorders. She has also spent many years breaking and galloping racehorses and working on the racetrack as an equine physical therapist. As a consultant, Dr. Gill has worked extensively with several feed manufacturers. In 2004, Dr. Gill produced a TV show series called horse sense for the satellite channel RF D-TV . Dr Gill is an avid equestrian competitor and is currently campaigning Caesar, a blue eyed, cremello snow cap Appaloosa, as an eventer.