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Feeding for Healthy and Happy Horses By Kristina Hiney, PhD, for Omega Fields
Kristina Hiney, Ph.D., for Omega Fields
Two horses, grazing
Natural, fresh, pasture grass contains Omega-3 to Omega-6 in a ratio of 4:1.
Natural, fresh, pasture grass contains Omega-3 to Omega-6 in a ratio of 4:1.
Horse owners are continually being barraged with information concerning the dangers of grazing, metabolic syndrome, obesity and ulcers. One can become overwhelmed by seemingly conflicting information – even to the point of almost being afraid to feed their horse. We all know that our duty as horse owners is to feed them a diet which best benefits their physical and mental health. We look for horse feeding strategies that will optimize not only the health of their digestive systems, but keep them mentally sound as well. To understand how best to feed horses, we first need to discuss the original nature of a horse prior to its domestication and modern management practices.

Back to the Beginning
Horses certainly didn’t evolve on the lush pastures of Kentucky behind beautiful wooden fences. They were plains animals who drifted about continuously looking for sources of food. Horses successfully existed through times of rapid growth of grasses in the spring but also through the dormancy of fall and winter, times of drought etc. Compare that idea to horses who now have laminitis issues when they graze lush pastures! Of course the horse has come a long way since he first grazed on North American plains.

If we examine how horses naturally forage, they are selective grazers who seek out the most nutritious plants at particular stages of growth. In so doing, they move continuously as they look for plants with the best taste and nutritional value. Feral horses will typically spend from one half to two-thirds of their day grazing, moving continuously as they graze. That means horses are meant to eat small nutritious amounts continuously and to travel extensively as they do so. Studies on grazing horses have shown that typically horses will cover 1-3 miles per day as they forage.

Fresh, live, natural forage contains essential fatty acids at the ratio of 4 parts Omega-3 to 1 part Omega-6. Stabilized ground flaxseed, such as Omega Horseshine® from Omega Fields®, contains that same ratio of 4:1 Omega-3 to Omega-6. This makes it an effective natural alternative for horses who are not allowed fresh, live forage.

Why is Omega-3 important?
Cutting-edge research from facilities all over the world indicate that Omega-3s play a crucial role in maintaining health. Omega-3 fatty acids make up the molecules in the membranes of every one of the billions of cells throughout the body -- especially in all the organs (skin is the largest organ of the body), eyes and brain. They have been found vital in new tissue formation. Their anti-inflammatory properties may be useful in treating immune dysfunctions and arthritis.

Too much grass?
The amount of time foraging is dependent upon the nutrient density of the pasture. The more sparse the vegetation, the more need for grazing time. Imagine wandering on the open plains searching for feed compared to grazing on well manicured pastures in Kentucky! On modern pastures that are managed well and improved with fertilization and seeding, it does not take as much time for the horse to meet its nutrient requirements. That is why we often see fatter horses which are managed on pastures, compared to feral horses. They are also confined to a greater extent, and thus may not get the amount of exercise a feral horse would receive. Additionally, many breeds of horses were originally selected from individuals who were more efficient at using feed. Think of our more docile breeds who have an easy going temperament. This personality type is often linked with the “thrifty” genotype. These guys (think ponies, Quarter Horses, Morgans, etc.) often have more problems with obesity and obesity related issues. These types of horses, especially ponies, are often the most commonly afflicted with pasture-induced laminitis.
What’s going on inside!
Equine gastro-intestinal tract
From what we stated previously about the “normal” life for a horse, the horse’s digestive system is designed to deal with small amounts of food taken in continuously throughout the day. When we look at a horse’s digestive system, this easily makes sense. In comparison to dogs, or cats, a horse’s stomach makes up a relatively small percentage of its entire tract - about 10% - while the hind gut comprises 65% of the horse’s digestive capacity.

The rate of passage, or how fast food moves out of the stomach, is fairly rapid. Two hours after eating, half of the solid particulate matter has passed out of the stomach, with ingested food reaching the hind gut within five hours. The stomach will be completely empty ten hours post feeding.

So what does this mean for the horse? Interestingly, the horse’s ability to salivate is directly tied to mouth movements. In other words, they salivate when they chew. In other species, such as cattle, the salivary glands continuously produce saliva, of which a significant component is sodium bicarbonate. This continuous salivation buffers the rumen (or the foregut) of cattle and helps to prevent a drop in pH (preventing an acidic environment). Compare this again to our meal feeders, (dogs, cats, and us), which salivate when we anticipate a meal. This helps the food slide down the esophagus with greater ease. Horses in the natural state have a relatively steady supply of saliva entering their stomach, with buffers included, as they graze throughout the day. However, compare the natural state to what happens when we manage horses in the typical box stall setting. Horses are provided with feed twice a day, with sometimes a prolonged period of time between their evening meal and the morning feeding. When the horse has not been provided with feed after 5-6 hours, the pH of their stomach begins to drop. This is why feeding strategies can directly impact our horse’s health. With a repeated drop in pH, the horse becomes susceptible to ulcers. Couple this with other risk factors for ulcer development and we can get a pretty unhappy horse. So our first rule of feeding horses is to provide enough forage to prevent the horse from being without anything to eat, ideally for less than six hours but at least avoiding a completely empty stomach ten hours post eating.

The stomach of the horse is not the only part of the digestive tract we need to be concerned with. Because horses are designed to graze, their natural diet consists of long stem forages. While they possess the digestive capacity to utilize grains such as corn and oats, these would not make up a significant portion of the horses’ natural diet. However, we sometimes need to supply our horses with more energy-dense sources of feeds when their energy requirements go up, such as during moderate or intense exercise. We may also find ourselves sometimes short of hay due to prices, drought, supply shortages, etc. Thus we may need to look at alternative feed sources other than our typical baled hay. However, as horses are designed to ferment forages in their cecum and hind gut, it is important that we keep that fermentation functioning properly. To ensure this proper function, we need to feed horses at least 1% of their body weight in forage per day. That means if your horse weighs 1200 lbs, it should never receive less than 12 lbs of hay or forage per day. Now if you actually weigh that out, you would see that really isn’t that much at all. Ideally, the horse should receive closer to 2% of their body weight in hay per day. So double that 12 lbs to 24lbs and you will be much closer to what the horse would naturally consume. On their own, horses will consume about 2-3% of their body weight per day. How – or if – we provide that amount of feed is our decision.
Meal concentrate
For horses that have high energy requirements, it may be necessary to provide them with extra concentrate. However, large meals of concentrates may not be great for gut health. If the rate of concentrate intake exceeds that of the horse’s ability to digest it in the small intestine, it escapes to the hindgut of the horse. Here, there are types of bacteria that will thrive on this meal of simple carbohydrates. Unfortunately, these carbohydrate fermenting bacteria will produce more acidic by products. The lowering of pH in the hindgut can set off a chain of unhealthy events, including laminitis, colic, diarrhea, etc. Thus, horses should never be fed concentrate meals (the grain portion) in levels over 0.5% to 0.6% of their body weight at one time. Beyond this point, we exceed the capacity of the horse’s small intestine to digest and absorb the meal. For our 1200 lb horse, that means that his grain meal should never be over 6-7 lbs. If the horse truly requires that much grain (12-14 lbs per day), the best solution would be to split the concentrate into multiple, smaller meals, rather than just two meals per day.

The result of understanding and following these simple guidelines? A healthy and happy partner with fewer health issues to worry over.

Omega Fields® is the preferred source for highest quality stabilized ground flaxseed products. For information on premium, stabilized, ground flax supplements that are rich in natural Omega-3 to help maintain a shiny healthy coat, strong solid hooves, and top performance – and for clear and concise labels – for horses in all life stages – please visit www.OmegaFields.com and click on Equine Products.
Tags: equine health