Balancing Act – Designing a Diet for the Modern Horse

Horses have delicate systems that were designed for constant pasture grazing, but modern horsekeeping can throw your horse’s gastrointestinal tract off balance. High-grain diets combined with the stress of training and competition may leave your horse prone to ulcers, digestive problems and poor overall health. But if you build your horse’s diet based on his individual needs, you can help bring him back into balance.

Throw hay, dump grain, turn the horses out. Do stalls, ride, bring the horses in and feed. Sound familiar? If you’re like a lot of horse owners it probably does. What it doesn’t sound like is the way our horses were designed to live. In fact, modern horsekeeping is just about the opposite of what Mother Nature had in mind.

Au Naturale

In their natural habitat, horses spend up to 20 hours a day roaming and grazing on a variety of forages. Their digestive systems have evolved to rely on a slow, steady intake of complex carbohydrates, like grasses. As a result, their stomachs constantly secrete gastric acid, whether they’re eating or not. As horses chew, they automatically produce saliva, which contains bicarbonates that act as a natural buffer against the acids in the stomach.

Serving it Up

Managing a boarding barn is no easy feat. Between blanket changes, turnout, lessons, medications, and being a surrogate “mom” to a number of horses, your barn manager has a lot on her plate. That’s why in most boarding barns, feeding programs are built for speed. Every horse get a couple flakes of hay, give or take a flake for the ponies and the big guys. Grain is used as the main source of calories for energy and weight maintenance.

There are only so many hours in the day, and dollars in your wallet. Your barn staff is probably doing things this way as much for your benefit as for their own. Only carrying one kind of grain, and not wasting hay are ways for them to work faster and save money, which help keep your board affordable. So it’s important to be realistic when balancing what you want for your horse with what is realistically feasible. Fortunately, we can help. Read on to find out how.

What’s The Problem?

Unfortunately, the feeding practices described above can lead to a lot of health problems for your horse.

Most commercial feeds are much higher in Omega 6 fatty acids than Omega 3 fatty acids. While both are essential in the diet, Omega 6s are generally considered pro-inflammatory, while Omega 3s support anti-inflammatory reactions. Since horses were built to thrive on grasses, which are much richer in Omega 3s than 6s, high grain diets can result in a chronic pro-inflammatory state. This can result in added stress on cells throughout the body.

Feeding infrequent meals leaves your horse’s stomach empty for long periods of time. Some barns spread meals out by adding a “lunch.” This additional serving definitely helps, but it’s important to remember what’s happening in your horse’s stomach between meals.

With the constant secretion of gastric acid and no saliva to buffer it, an empty stomach is at high risk for gastric ulcers. This painful condition can affect your horse’s appetite and digestive function, leading to weight loss, an unthrifty appearance, decreased performance, a poor attitude and even colic.

Finally, the equine hindgut was designed for continuous fermentation throughout the day. Fasting and then feasting can cause digestive upset, disrupting the delicate balance in the large intestine, which can result in a number of problems, including painful build-up of excess gas. The modern diet was just not designed for your horse’s optimum health.

What You Can Do

The good news is, you can help! Even if you’re not able to completely overhaul the way you feed your horse, there things you can do that will help keep him happier and healthier.

Where To Begin

The majority of every horse’s diet should consist of roughage, like hay or fresh pasture. In fact, your horse should be eating 1-2% of his body weight in hay or other forage every day. For a 1,000-lb horse, that’s 10-20 lbs daily! Ideally, your horse would have free choice access to hay, but if that’s not possible, try to spread out his “meals” throughout the day.

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While hay and fresh pasture are both forages, they are not created equal. Green grass contains valuable nutrients, like Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamins A and E. However, after being cut, dried and stored, hay loses many of these important components. If your horse isn’t able to graze on fresh pasture year-round, consider supplementing with SmartOmega 3. This unique formula provides Omega 3 fatty acids from Flax Seed and Fish Oil, along with Vitamins A and E.

Going With The Grain

With his hay squared away, consider your horse’s energy requirements. As we discussed, concentrated sources of energy are not a natural part of horses’ diets, so only feed the minimum amount needed to maintain healthy weight and support performance. For hard keepers and extreme athletes, instead of maxing out the grain ration, consider adding a quality fat supplement for a healthy source of additional calories.

Filling The Gaps

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If your barn feeds a fortified grain, as most boarding barns do, you may think that your horse is getting all of the vitamins and minerals he needs from his feed. However, in order to meet his daily requirements, your horse needs to get the full feed ration noted on the label, but many horses simply don’t need that many calories. Check your feed label to find out what serving size is recommended for your horse. If you’re meeting or exceeding that amount, he doesn’t need any additional vitamins or minerals. However, if you’re feeding less than that serving size, as is often the case, a vitamin/mineral supplement can be used to ensure he has the complete selection of nutrients he needs to stay healthy and performing at his peak. If your horse needs a multi- vitamin, consider adding Grand Vite or one of our SmartVites. Our SmartVite line offers eight targeted formulas that account for age, workload and type of forage, to ensure that your horse gets exactly what he needs, and nothing he doesn’t.

Stress Factor

Part of what you love about owning a horse are the fun and adventures you have riding and showing. But these activities are stressful on your horse’s delicate system. Luckily, you don’t have to give them up! You can help safeguard your horse with supplements that support a healthy digestive tract.

Don’t let your horse become one of the 60% of performance horses suffering from gastric ulcers. Support a healthy stomach with a supplement like SmartGut or U-Gard. For more on ulcers, read our post 3 Warning Signs You Might Be Missing

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For a healthy hindgut, provide a supplement with ingredients that support the large intestine, like digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics. Popular digestive supplements include SmartDigest and Proviable®-EQ. For a comprehensive approach, consider SmartDigest® Ultra or SUCCEED, which include ingredients for overall gastric and digestive health.

The Last Word

While you may not be able to start from scratch, you can make small changes that may make a big difference. Take what you learned here and work with your barn manager and your vet to build the best possible program for your horse.

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