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Overweight Horses: How Much Hay Is Too Little?

To some horse owners, maintaining easy keepers on an appropriate diet requires incredible restraint. While owners may wish to turn their horses out in bountiful pastures, they know it’s best to limit intake and use the drylot or grazing muzzle instead. Likewise, caretakers who want to dish out just a few pounds of sweet feed refrain from doing so and offer a balancer pellet in lieu. When it comes to hay, these same horse owners know too much is not helpful, but how much is too little?

With a limited menu available for overweight horses, maximizing hay intake is important, said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Hay intake should be about 2% of body weight, if horses are receiving no other feed or forage.”

If the horse requires weight loss for optimal health, less hay can be fed, about 1.5% of body weight.

“Though it doesn’t seem like a large difference, reducing hay intake to 1.5% of body weight should be considered the absolute minimum,” said Whitehouse. “Anything less than this might cause gastrointestinal problems for horses.”

A horse’s weight can be estimated through the use of a weigh tape, usually available for purchase at tack shops and feed stores. Once the body weight is estimated, calculating how much hay a horse requires becomes simple. Multiply the weight of the horse times 0.02 (for 2%). A 1,200-lb (545 kg) horse requires about 24 lb (11 kg) of hay per day to maintain body weight, so long as no work is asked of it. By weighing the hay available, the appropriate amount can be determined and fed. If a horse owner calculates that one flake of hay weighs 3 lb (1.4 kg), then this 1,200-lb (545-kg) horse should receive about eight flakes of hay each day to maintain body weight (3lb [1.4 kg] x 8 flakes = 24 lb [11 kg] of hay).

“How that hay is fed to the horse is key,” continued Whitehouse. “The hay can be strategically offered to extend the time it takes for the horse to consume it. This is usually done by placing the hay in a feeder that allows only small bites, such as a haynet with tiny holes, sometimes referred to as a slow-feed haynet.”

One study* demonstrated that mature horses fed off of the stall floor consumed hay at a rate of 3.3 lb (1.5 kg) per hour, while those fed from a slow-feed haynet with 1-inch (2.54-cm) holes consumed 1.9 lb (0.86 kg) per hour. Using the example above, eight flakes of hay, or 24 lb (11 kg), would give the horse a little over seven hours of chew time. If the same horse were to eat the eight flakes from a slow-feed haynet, as described above, it would take nearly 13 hours of time. Protracted periods of eating mimic natural grazing patterns and are most healthy for horses.

If the horse is in a large barren field or drylot, hay can be placed in several stations. This will encourage horses to move, which is also important for horses on restrictive diets.

In addition to how hay is fed, consideration should be given to the type of hay offered to an overweight horse. High-quality hays typically pack more calories than those of middling quality. Overweight horses generally do not need the best hay money can buy, but they do need hay that is free of mold, dust, weeds, and other extraneous material. A mid-quality grass hay that has been properly harvested will usually work well. Hay can be analyzed to determine its nutritional value; by having this analysis available, a nutritionist can pencil out an appropriate diet for the horse.

All horses on forage-only diets should receive a well-formulated vitamin and mineral supplement, as dried forages lose much of their nutrient content as they are processed and stored. Micro-Max is a low-intake source of digestible vitamins and minerals that fulfills the nutrient requirements of horses on all–forage diets. In Australia, look for Gold Pellet, Perform, or Nutrequin to round out the diets of horses fed only forage.

*Martinson, K., E. Glunk, and W. Weber. The effect of hay net design on rate and amount of forage consumed by adult horses. University of Minnesota Extension.

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Vitamins for Bone Health in Horses

Young horses require vitamins for growth. Some vitamins must be provided nutritionally, while others can be synthesized by the healthy individual. While vitamin D gets the lion’s share of attention for skeletal contributions, other vitamins are just as important, including vitamins A, C, and K.

Vitamin A has a distinct role in equine growth with both deficiency and toxicity of vitamin A adversely affecting growth, body weight, and rate of gain in young growing horses. “In the growing horse, vitamin A supports the proper functioning of osteoclasts, or bone-resorbing cells, during bone remodeling,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor for Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “There is limited information on absolute vitamin A requirements for growing horses, but for horses grazing sufficient quantities of green pastures, vitamin A requirement can be met entirely by the carotenes in the forage.”..

Exploring Aloe Vera for Equine Gastric Ulcers

In the seemingly never-ending battle against equine gastric ulcers, a research team from the University of Adelaide in South Australia reached for an unusual solution: aloe vera. According to those scientists*, aloe vera isn’t just soothing for burnt or irritated skin but also potentially beneficial for protecting the sensitive lining of the stomach.

“The inner leaf gel of the aloe vera plant has been reported to be effective in the prevention and treatment of gastric ulcers in man and in animals in experimental models. Its anti-ulcer properties have been attributed to a variety of possible mechanisms, including anti-oxidant activity, anti-inflammatory properties, cytoprotective and mucus-stimulatory effects, and its ability to regulate gastric acid production,” explained the researchers...

Water-Soluble Vitamin E for Horses Proven Superior

Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) supplementation helps prevent various disorders affecting both the nervous and musculoskeletal systems, including neuroaxonal dystrophy/equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy, equine motor neuron disease, vitamin E deficient myopathy, and nutritional myodegeneration. These conditions can be prevented largely by providing adequate dietary vitamin E to horses, and recent research shows* that a liquid vitamin E supplement may be more beneficial than a powdered formulation.

“The current recommended daily dietary intake of vitamin E for adult horses is 1-2 IU/kg. Many horses obtain adequate vitamin E from pasture. When horses have limited access to pasture, either due to an underlying metabolic condition or during times of drought, and are instead offered hay, vitamin E levels may be depleted. In such cases, vitamin E supplementation could prove beneficial,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER)...

Electrolytes Vital for Performance Horses

More than one horse owner has asked herself this simple question, “Why don’t feed manufacturers put electrolytes in feed specifically designed for performance horses?” According to Joe Pagan, Ph.D., founder and owner of Kentucky Equine Research (KER), this is a reasonable question but one that is easily answered.

“A horse's energy requirement stays the same during consistent work,” explained Pagan, “but sweat losses change with weather, work intensity, and other factors. Horse owners need to be able to easily adjust the amount of electrolyte given based on sweat production.”..

Changes in Horse Manure Consistency

Loose manure and diarrhea in horses typically stem from one of three causes: antibiotic therapy, diet, or disease. Because of excessive water loss associated with diarrhea, affected horses can become dehydrated and have other problems, so horse owners should investigate changes in manure consistency immediately, calling in a veterinarian if necessary.

Antibiotics are a well-known trigger for loose manure because they eliminate many of the innate and beneficial microorganisms that reside in the horse’s hindgut...

Microbiota of the Neonatal Foal

During the first few weeks of a foal’s life, the development of a diverse and healthy microbiota occurs. The microbiota, or population of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and protozoa, plays a major role in the proper function of the immune system and will serve to protect the foal from harmful pathogens as it matures. The microbial population is influenced by environment and diet. Most discussion surrounding the equine microbiota involves mature horses, and a closer look at a foal’s hindgut inhabitants provides interesting insight.

Foals are born with a sterile gut, but microbial colonization begins the first day of life. Some researchers found that meconium, the foal’s first feces after birth, is not sterile, while others report that it is. Differences may be attributed to the mare or sample collection techniques...

Maximizing Equine Health, Welfare Using GPS

Other than discretely observing your herd for hours on end in the rain, sleet, snow, or blistering heat at various hours of the day or night, how can you know if your horses are truly getting all the care they need? According to a group of Japanese researchers*, affixing global positioning system (GPS) units to halters of horses and tracking their movement generates important information for managing herds of all shapes, sizes, and compositions.

For example, the researchers used GPS units on mare-and-foal pairs to determine mare-foal, mare-mare, and foal-foal distances to better understand behaviors of broodmares. They found during the first month of age, dam–dam and foal–foal distances were significantly greater than dam–foal distances. This finding makes sense considering how frequently foals nurse during their first month of life. During the second month of age, the dam–foal distance increased, and by the sixth month of age, dam–foal distances were significantly greater than foal–foal distances.  ..

Gastric Ulcers in Horses: Injectable Treatment in Development

The effects of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) keep many horses from performing their best. Greater awareness of this has led horse owners to be more conscientious of management practices that optimize gastric health, including the use of FDA-approved treatments such as omeprazole and research-based nutritional supplements such as Rite-Trac.

A buildup of acid that is not buffered by saliva and feedstuffs can cause the development of gastric ulcers in horses which, in turn, can account for many roadblocks to well-being, such as inappetence, weight loss, dull coat, and sour disposition. A recent study* in Australia has suggested that a long-acting, intramuscular formulation of omeprazole (LA-OMEP) may suppress gastric acid for up to a week after administration...

Metabolic Syndrome in Horses: Use of Sweeteners Studied

Despite best efforts by owners to follow strict diet recommendations for horses with metabolic syndrome, some feeds and medications contain sweeteners, including certain medications used to counteract equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

Horses with EMS are insensitive to the effects of insulin, typically overweight, and may suffer chronic bouts of potentially life-threatening laminitis...

Research on Algae for Horses with Ulcers

Treatment options and management strategies to help horses fight or prevent stomach ulcers exist, yet the ideal solution to ridding horses of these uncomfortable, niggling nuisances remains elusive. Could a high-algae supplement finally be the reprieve horse owners are looking for?

“Current options for handling ulcers, widely referred to as equine gastric ulcer syndrome or EGUS, include pharmaceutical drug administration, such as FDA-approved omeprazole products, nutritional supplements, and management changes,” remarked Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a Kentucky Equine Research (KER) nutritionist...

Five Tips for Avoiding Pasture-Associated Laminitis in Horses

Scores of horses will gorge themselves on that long-awaited lush, green pasture of springtime. As many of us already know, overgrazing grasses and legumes that are high in water-soluble carbohydrates puts horses at risk for laminitis—a painful, life-threatening condition of the hooves.

“Many horse owners are already aware that pasture-associated laminitis is particularly concerning for overweight horses and ponies, easy keepers, those with insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome, and horses and ponies with a history of chronic laminitis. It is important for owners to appreciate, however, that pasture turnout can trigger a bout of laminitis even in lean, nonobese horses with no history of laminitis,” says Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., director of nutrition at KER Australia. ..