Kate Hore RNutr(Animal). Snr Nutritionist at NAF
Horses will be horses, and sometimes there’s no escaping a period of box rest for them. Never easy at the best of times, box rest can be a particular challenge if it hits in summer, as for many horses that means a sudden and dramatic change of management, from total turnout on grass, to total confinement on preserved forages and feed. This dramatic change in both diet and regime is one of the reasons that unplanned box rest is recognised as a significant risk for colic, therefore we need to carefully manage the horse on box rest.
First and foremost, is to ensure we help their gastro-intestinal tract to cope with that sudden change of diet. Preserved forages, particularly hay, will be significantly dryer than pasture grass, so it’s a good idea to soak hay and ensure it is fed while still wet. A short soak, just 30-60 minutes, ensures we are feeding a higher water content, and will also help to control respirable spores, another potential irritant of stabled life. This short soak will also reduce Waste Soluble Carbohydrates (sugars), which may help weight management while they’re not being exercised, without completely washing away all the goodness and nutrients of the hay. Ensure clean, fresh water is also always available, and hang a salt lick so they help themselves to this essential nutrient. Dependent on the reason for box rest, it can be useful to split the forage, water and salt stations around their box as this helps to keep them gently moving while they ‘graze’, which helps to optimise digestive function. It is advised to also feed daily prebiotics with a live probiotic to support the microbiome of the hindgut – so vital to immunity and digestion, but so sensitive to disruption.
Prolonged stabling can be frustrating for any horse or pony, and often particularly so for those least used to it, such as those hardy types who usually successfully live out. Horses evolved as herd animals, so can become anxious if away from their herd. A stable mirror may help them believe they have company, but for safety do use a product specifically designed for use around horses. For some, actual company is the best answer, and goats seem to have a particularly calming effect, having been used for years for calming racehorses. Australian superstar sprinter, Black Caviar, was rarely without ‘Billy’ her caprine companion. However that’s not practical or suitable for all, and certainly caution would be advised before introducing a new resident to the stable of a horse on box rest.
Feeding the right diet will be fundamental to maintaining a calm outlook through their period of confinement. Feed high fibre and forage based, with very little or no concentrates, as starchy carbohydrates at this stage will only increase reactivity and weight gain – neither of which are desirable. For those that need a little extra support look at targeted nutrition. Research shows that magnesium, advised in a synergistic blend with specific herbs, can help support learning and focus, so the horse learns to cope with the pressures of box rest while it lasts.
Once fully recovered, your horse will be looking forward to kicking his heels up and getting back out – again, care is definitely advised if you’re to avoid a second period of box rest! Working with your vet, it’s best to gradually acclimatise them to going back out, with periods of walking in hand and, if appropriate, turnout in a school or small paddock which can help confine their excitement. Here too, targeted nutrition may be advised. Look for a fast acting, readily assimilated product which can be used as and when necessary to help keep your horse’s cool as they get back to normality.