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Feeding Fibre & Forage

Kate Hore RNutr(Animal)

Horses have spent the last 50-60 million years evolving as plains dwelling animals. The result being their digestive system is now perfectly designed to quietly amble around grazing on a multitude of different grasses, shrubs and herbs for typically around sixteen hours per day. Despite our domestication of horses, try as we might, there is nothing we can do to change this fundamental fact, and the more we ignore it and try to adapt them to meal feeding of concentrate feed, the more problems we build up for us, and more importantly, for our horses.

Starchy concentrate feeds are unnatural to the diet, and their feeding to horses is linked to a number of detrimental issues such as laminitis, gastric ulcers, obesity and reactive behaviour, to name but a few. Meanwhile a high fibre diet keeps their digestive system health, helps maintain a calm outlook, is good for dentition and provides excellent slow release energy for work. Therefore whether feeding the retired pony, or the elite eventer, we need to be leaving concentrates behind and focusing on fibre.

For many, summer grazing, and winter preserved forage alone provides sufficient energy and protein for work. In fact, in some cases, particularly through Spring and Summer, that grazing can provide in excess of requirements,
so do monitor Body Condition Score regularly, and use alternative grazing measures if required, to avoid excess weight gain.

However for some it can be useful to provide additional feed. This may be because the horse is in higher level of work and requires additional energy; or simply that their management dictates it’s useful for them to have a small feed – particularly if neighbouring horses are all being fed! Feeding a small feed is also a useful way to feed additional targeted nutrition from supplements, as required. Nevertheless, even though we are feeding a bucket feed we can still focus on fibre. Short chop alfalfa, dried grass, sugar beet or straw mixes all make great fibre based bucket feeds, and, dependent on type, can either fuel a racehorse or help a native to control their weight; so choose a fibre feed suitable for your horse.

Also in the bucket we would advise feeding a broad spectrum vitamin, mineral and trace element supplement.
This is advised as the forage based diet, although natural and the best choice for our equines, does tend to be micronutrient deficient. Modern grazing is usually limited to just one or two species of grass, and maybe a legume, so nothing like the diversity of the natural plains grazing. Added to that, UK soils are commonly deficient in certain nutrients, for example, selenium, zinc, copper and magnesium, meaning a broad spectrum supplement is definitely recommended. Choose one that is suitable for your horse. For those in work, and maybe travelling or competing regularly, a concentrated balancer which includes pre and probiotics to maintain digestive health is advised. Conversely, for those that, perhaps, maintain condition a little too well, choose a product designed to naturally balance their diet and support a healthy metabolism.

These days we are increasingly aware of gastric stress in horses, and this is certainly one of the key reasons for keeping to a fibre only diet. If you want to fully support your horse’s gastric health, we advise feeding targeted nutrition to maintain a healthy gastric environment, such as prebiotics, probiotics, antacids and herbal support, alongside your fibre based feeding regime. Splitting the fibre feed, supplemented with targeted nutrition, into several small feeds throughout the day – including a small pre-exercise feed to control stomach splash – is the best way to maintain gastric health in all horses and ponies.

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