Feeding Horses on Boxrest

The need to confine a horse to the stable for recovery or repair usually occurs with very little notive and needs to take immediate effect. This has many repercussions for the horse's health and welfare and the following factors need to be considered when box rest is required.

A Sudden Change to the Diet

Changes to a horse's diet should normally be made gradually but when box rest is required, it is usually the case that the greatest risk to the horse's health is feeding too much or the wrong type of feed. Therefore, reducing or removing cereal-based feeds from the diet straight away and increasing the amount of fibre fed is very important.

To ease this sudden change, using a live yeast and prebiotic supplement such as Dengie Digestive Health Plus is recommended. This helps to stimulate the good bugs and bacteria in the gut and help them deal with the change of diet more efficiently.

Immobility - not good for digestive health or for the lumphatic system

Moving around aids the removal of gas from the digestive system and encourages bowel movement. Being sedentary increases the risk of problems such as colic. It is important to feed plenty of fibre to promote healthy, normal gut function. Unless the horse is overweight, ad lib forage is ideal.

The lymphatic system filters waste material from cells and relies on muscle contraction, arterial pulse and peristalsis (movement of the gut) to achieve this. The horse has a high number of lymph nodes compared to humans for example, which slow the movement of lymph. Half of all the horse's lymph nodes are found in the gut and work best when there is plenty of food trickling through the gut to stimulate peristalsis. Standing in and not eating very much can result in lymph accumulating which may be apparent as filled legs for example.

Stress of Being Confined

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Any change to a horse's usual routine can cause stress but box rest can be particularly stressful for horses not used to being stabled. This can result in a lack of appetite which may in turn cause weight loss and problems such as colic. Providing lots of different types of fibre in the stable should encourage the horse to exhibit more of their natural browsing behaviour, thereby helping to ensure they consume enough fibre to keep the gut working normally.

Which Forage is Best for my Horse?

Grass is much more digestible than conserved forages like hay and haylage. When a horse is taken off grass and suddenly given a conserved forage, the level of indigestible fibre they are consuming increases. In some cases, horses don't cope with this very well and lose weight as they simply can't get as much nutrition from the hay/haylage as they can from grass. This is a common problem in older horses and poorer doers.

For these individuals consider using haylage as it tends to be harvested earlier than hay and so is more digestible. Alternatively, or in addition, consider using chopped fibre feeds based on grass such as Dengie Hi-Fi Senior (which can be fed to horses of any age). The grass is these feeds is harvested when it is very young and so it is easier for the horse to digest and therefore helps to avoid problems such as weight loss and colic. They can be used as partial or complete hay replacers, either in the short term to aid the transition from pasture to conserved forages, or longer term for horses that can't chew long length forages.

Additional Sources of Fibre

Soaked sugar beet, such as Dengie Alfa-Beet, is a source of highly digestible fibre and so is ideal for poor doers and older horses. As it is fed soaked it carries additional water into the digestible tract - pasture is about 80% water whereas hay is only 20% water, so feeding soaked feeds can help to maintain water intake.

Safe Sources of Calories

For poorer doers, box rest provides the challenge of how to supply "calories" without increasing the risk of digestive upsets. Avoiding cereals is recommended as they contain high levels of starch that is associated with muscle problems, colic and laminitis. The alternative is to use fibre-based feeds that contain oil - feeds such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil provide as many calories as conditioning mixes but are at least 10 times lower in starch (2% compared to 20%+ in most conditioning mixes).

A Balanced Ration

Vitamins and minerals are important components of tissues, anti-oxidants and other parts of the immune system, They are therefore vital for effective repair and recovery and so it is worth looking for products that contain bio-available sources of these essential nutrients. Terms to look out for include chelated minerals which simply means the mineral has been attached to another molecule to ensure it is absorbed efficiently from the gut.

For good doers, balancers and supplements are an efficient way of supplying a balanced diet without additional calories. They can be mixed with a handful of chopped fibre feeds such as Dengie Hi-Fi Molasses Free alongside forage and that's all the horse needs for a balanced diet. For poor doers, the balancer or supplement can be fed alongside a higher calorie fibre feed such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil.

How Do Digestive Enhancers Work?

Unfortunately, there aren't any probiotic supplements containing live bacteria approved for horses but live yeast and prebiotics can be used.

  • Live yeast - fibre-digesting bacteria thive in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. Yeast mops-up oxygen in the horse's hind-gut and so keeps it just how the fibre-digesting bacteria like it! This allows them to work efficiently and so they get more out of the fibre the horse consumes.
  • FOS Prebiotics - a food source that only good bacteria in the gut can utilise. If the bacteria are well fed it means they can function well and are able to keep harmful species at bay - a process known as competitive exclusion. FOS prebiotics seem to be particularly good at helping to deal with diarrhoea in the young and old - however, they are not a replacement for seeking veterinary advice, particularly for foals where diarrhoea can be fatal. 
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