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TEH Equine Nutrition Seminar


On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, Tennessee Equine Hospital in Thompson’s Station, Tenn. hosted an Equine Nutrition Seminar, sponsored by Cargill-Nutrena, with Equine Nutritionist Dr. Martin Adams. Dr. Adams discussed the different feeding programs for the Hard Keeper and the Easy Keeper. Dinner was served prior to the presentation and there were door prizes awarded afterwards. Following is Dr. Adams’ advice for feeding the hard keeper and the easy keeper.

Feeding the Hard Keeper

Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS - Equine Nutritionist for Cargill/Southern States

Most of us don't have to worry about being too skinny. So it might be hard to understand why a horse might have trouble putting on weight, especially if food is readily available.  This type of horse is known as a “hard keeper.” There could be several reasons for a horse being a hard keeper. Some horses have a more active metabolism and require more calories to maintain adequate body weight; others may burn more calories due to a nervous or stressed condition. Before starting a weight-gain program for an underweight horse, identify any of the following conditions that may be interfering with its digestive efficiency.
  • Chronic Digestive Problems: Ulcer, diarrhea, and gut obstruction from an abdominal tumor or surgery can reduce feed intake and utilization. 
  • Poor Dental Condition: Missing or worn teeth can interfere with feed intake and proper chewing of feed, reducing the calories the horse can extract from its diet.
  • Old Age: Weight loss in older horses is often a result of dental problems but decreased digestive efficiency in older horses normally results in weight loss.
  • Parasite Infestation: A heavy internal parasite load can reduce nutrient absorption and prevent a horse from maintaining proper weight or gaining additional weight.  A regular deworming program is essential to sustaining good health and body condition.
Use the following guidelines for a feeding program for your hard keeper. This will allow you to fine tune the feeding program and maintain optimum body condition to get the best performance from your horse. Depending on your horse's initial condition, it may take several months to get to his ideal body condition; a slow and steady weight gain is the best approach.
  • Feed high-quality hay, beet pulp, hay replacer or add some alfalfa hay to the diet. Poor quality hay is more mature and contains more indigestible fiber and fewer calories than higher quality, less mature hay. High-quality alfalfa hay can contain as much as 300 more calories per pound than more mature grass hay. If you don't have a high-quality grass or mixed hay available, replace some of the grass hay in the diet with alfalfa hay. Adding 5 to 6 pounds of alfalfa or high-quality grass hay to the horse's daily ration can add 1,500 to 1,800 extra kilocalories over a sole diet of lower quality grass hay. Hay Stretcher contains 1,100 kcal of Digestible Energy (DE) per pound and beet pulp contains 1,060 kcal DE per pound. Both of these contain more calories than even good quality grass hay and can replace at least 50% or the horse’s daily forage requirement.
  • Select a senior horse feed for older horses. For older horses (over 20 years of age) or younger horses with poor dental condition that are underweight, switch to a feed formulated specifically for them, such as a high quality Senior feed. These feeds contain higher levels of fiber to compensate for the reduced chewing ability of older horses with worn or missing teeth that cannot consume adequate amounts of hay or pasture.
  • Feed horses individually. All groups of horses develop a social structure with some horses being more dominant. When horses are fed together, the more dominant horses will eat their feed and others’ as well. Simply providing more feed will not work; the horse that needs more feed must be fed individually.
  • Switch to a high-fat feed or add a high-fat supplement. Fat contains 2.25 times more calories than the same amount of carbohydrate or protein. Select a feed or a supplement with more fat for your hard keeper so you can feed less grain to minimize the risk of colic and maintain body condition. 
  • Feed according to body weight and activity level. The larger the horse and the greater the workload, usually the more calories are needed to maintain body weight.  Horses can only consume 2.5% to 3% of body weight daily in grain and hay. For a horse at maintenance to light activity (riding for an hour or less once or twice per week), start with feeding grain at 0.5% to .75% and hay at 1.5% of body weight. This would be 5 to 7.5 pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse.  For a horse in moderate activity (riding 3 to 4 times per week for an hour or more), feed grain at 0.75% to 1% and hay at 1.5% of body weight. For intense activity (race training, riding several hours daily for 5 to 6 days per week, etc.), feed grain at 1.0% to 1.5% and hay at 1.25% to 1.5% of body weight. High-fat feeds will allow you to feed less grain and still meet the greater energy needs of a hard keeper. 
  • Monitor changes in the horse's condition with a weight tape. Rely on a weight tape (or a scale, if available) instead of your eye to judge the changes in body condition. A weight tape may not be very accurate for estimating body weight for a particular horse, but it is consistently accurate at finding changes in your horse's weight. Take the measurement every 30 days, applying the tape at the same location around the heart girth and behind the withers, and maintain the same tension on the tape each time you use it. Use this information to adjust your horse's feeding program to maintain a constant body weight.
  • Make dietary changes gradually. Drastic changes in the type or amount of grain or hay could upset your horse's digestive system. Introducing new feedstuffs in small amounts allows the intestinal microbes to adapt without causing adverse effects.  When introducing a new grain concentrate or hay, replace 25% of each meal with the new feedstuff for three days, then replace 50% for three days, then 75% for three days, so that in ten days you have switched over to the new feedstuff without causing a digestive upset.
  • Evaluate the horse for gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcers are very common in the horse and symptoms include poor appetite and inadequate body condition. Your veterinarian can diagnose the horse for gastric ulcers and provide medication for treatment. Diagnosis and treatment for gastric ulcers are expensive. Legends GastroTech Supplement is an economical digestive supplement and is recommended for horses to aid in the prevention of gastric ulcers.

Feeding the Hard Keeper

Just like people, some horses gain weight even under conditions where other horses will lose weight. A horse is considered an easy keeper when it is able to maintain an optimal body condition on less than average amounts of feedstuffs. Such horses are less demanding on the budget than a hard keeper that requires a more substantial diet, but feeding an easy keeper presents a different nutritional challenge. The challenge of maintaining easy keepers is to meet their nutritional requirements (besides calories) while managing to avoid obesity.

Easy Keeper Grazing
The tendency to become obese is likely the most common problem among easy keepers. Obesity is detrimental to horses for many reasons. The biggest problem facing the athletic obese horse is decreased performance due to heat stress.  Excessive fat acts as insulation and decreases the horse’s ability to cool quickly, which causes increased sweating and reduction in physical performance. Additional body fat will also increase oxygen needs due to the extra weight, but the ability to take in oxygen is more restricted in obese horses.

Extra weight may also induce joint problems in horses, which could shorten the career of a horse involved in a performance activity. Insulin resistance and excess weight are thought to cause a higher incidence of laminitis in overweight horses. Obese horses are also more prone to lipomas, which are fatty tumors that can develop in the abdominal cavity. The intestines can become entangled with a lipoma, resulting in strangulation colic. Strangulation colic is a serious, life-threatening condition requiring surgical correction.

Weight reduction will only occur if the horse’s energy expenditure is greater than its energy intake. Weight loss can only be accomplished by reducing the number of calories going in and increasing the number of calories expended. So a combination of diet and exercise is in order to shed extra weight from the easy keeper. Especially if turnout space is limited or unavailable, the horse should be exercised regularly, provided it is sound and healthy. This is one of the best options for weight loss, especially if the horse is usually sedentary.

If possible, exercise the horse more often than it had been before dieting, to increase the rate of weight loss. If an exercise or dry lot paddock is available, where there is no pasture available for grazing, regular turnout will allow for increased activity and weight loss.

To start a weight reduction program for an overweight horse, provide moderate to good quality grass hay at 1.5% of the horse’s target weight, not its current weight. Provide a low-calorie, low starch, vitamin and mineral fortified supplement at the rate of 1 pound per 500 pounds of the horse’s present body weight. Also have water and a salt block available on a constant basis. Once the horse has reached the desired weight or body condition, increase the amount of grass hay to the point where the horse is no longer losing weight. Also adjust the amount of feed to the horse’s current body weight.
Easy keepers can be a joy and a challenge. Keep their dietary requirements simple with grass hay and a low-calorie/low-starch feed. Remember that diet and exercise are the keys to weight management. Keeping excess weight off your horse will allow your easy keeper to avoid heat stress, perform better, and have a longer, healthier life for you to enjoy him.

Tips on Feeding an Easy Keeper
1. Limit pasture grazing time. This is especially true in spring and early summer, when pasture growth is most rapid. If this is not possible, fit the horse with a grazing muzzle, a device that reduces the amount of forage the horse can ingest. Remember to remove the muzzle when the horse is stalled or in an exercise paddock.

2. Don’t feed high-fat supplements. Corn oil, flaxseed and rice bran are high in fat and high in calories. Eliminate these supplements from your horse’s diet and you can cut out a large number of calories and prevent excessive weight gain.

3. Eliminate high-calorie concentrates. Most concentrates or grain-based feeds are formulated for a minimum feeding rate of 0.5% of body weight (5 pounds daily for a 1,000 pound horse) to provide the proper amount of required vitamins and minerals. This amount of feed usually provides an excessive amount of calories for an easy keeper.

4. Start an exercise program. If your horse is not involved in a performance activity, the best type of exercise for any type of horse is of low intensity and long duration. The main purpose of exercise is to increase energy expenditure or calorie loss. Other benefits of daily exercise include an increase in metabolic rate, a possible reduction in appetite, and prevention of bone and mineral losses that may occur during calorie restriction.

5. Replace legume hay with grass hay. Legume hay, such as alfalfa and clover, contain more calories per pound than grass hays. Instead of alfalfa, feed a high-fiber, good quality grass hay free of dust, mold and weeds.

6. Limit the amount of hay fed and divide hay into several daily feedings. Horses are continuous grazers by nature because the capacity of the stomach is limited. This behavior also ensures that stomach acid is buffered by saliva and ingested plant material. Infrequent meals can result in gastric ulceration due to constant exposure of the stomach wall to acid. Divide the amount of hay fed into 3 or 4 daily meals to increase meal frequency along with salivation and stomach fill to prevent ulcer formation. Limit the amount of hay fed to 1.5% of body weight, this is enough to insure maintenance and proper digestive function. If the horse’s body condition is still excessive after weight loss has stabilized, then decrease the feeding rate of hay to 1.25% of body weight and continue to manage for weight loss.

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