If there's one thing that owning horses teaches us, it's that rarely is everything perfect! This is never more apparent than during the winter months, when we probably can't exercise our horses as much as we would like and they have to spend long periods of time in the stable because they can't be turned out, either. Most of us are aware that this isn't an ideal situation – so why do we do it?
There are many reasons, but one of the main problems is that we live on a tiny island with lots of people, horses and enough rain to saturate our land. This means that there are often more horses than acres and, as soon as it rains, paddocks quickly become muddy swamps. Also, horses often need to be stabled to protect their health. If they are good doers or prone to laminitis, for example, stabling can sometimes be the only way to stop them from becoming seriously ill.
Whatever the reason, stabling a horse inevitably alters its diet and feeding behaviour, which increases the risk of digestive upsets and other problems. Improving your understanding of how the horse's digestive system works should mean that you can feed more sympathetically and, hopefully, keep your horse healthy.
Why is fibre so important?
The horse has evolved to function most efficiently on a high-fibre diet. Horses at grass will spend at least 16 hours every day eating and, because they are consuming material that is either very diluted with water (spring grass) or very fibrous (winter grass), they can afford to eat lots of it.
By feeding meals of concentrates, we provide a horse with lots of calories in a small volume of feed, which obviously doesn’t take anywhere near as long to eat. A similar situation would be like you either eating as much celery as you want all day or being allowed only one or two cream cakes instead. Although you might prefer the cream cakes, you know that, first, you would be hungry a lot of the time and, second, the celery is better for you.
What many horse owners are guilty of is attributing human feelings and emotions to the horse, which – to give it its technical name – is anthropomorphism! This means that, because coarse mixes are much more appealing to us and, yes, probably the horse, too, we like to feed them to our horses because it makes us feel good. What we need to remember, though, is that fibre is much better for our horses and has many important functions.
Facts about fibre
- Fibre takes longer to eat than concentrates – feeding plenty of fibre allows a horse to eat like a horse.
- Chewing produces saliva – fibre needs to be chewed more than concentrates, which produces more saliva, which helps to moisten and soften food to make it easier to swallow. If you do feed concentrates, adding some chop will help to slow horses down when they're eating to promote better digestion.
- Saliva is needed to regulate the acidity of the stomach contents – because fibre requires more chewing, more saliva is produced. This helps to regulate the acidity of the stomach contents because saliva contains bicarbonate, which neutralises some of the acid. Too little fibre in the diet is believed to contribute to gastric ulcers.
- Fibre is important for encouraging gut motility – humans are encouraged to consume more fibre to promote regular bowel movements and to try to reduce the incidence of colonic cancer. The horse also needs plenty of fibre to keep everything moving though the digestive tract. Too little fibre can result in build-ups of gas, which can lead to colic symptoms.
- Fibre is digested by bacteria and other micro-organisms that produce heat as they break the fibre down – the heat produced from fibre digestion helps to keep the horse warm. Feeding plenty of fibre during the winter is vital for keeping your horse snug.
- Bacteria produce energy as well as B vitamins as they break down fibre – fibre is often perceived just to be bulk but, actually, it can make a valuable contribution to a horse's nutritional requirements.
What you need to know is how to make sure your horse is getting plenty of fibre through the winter.
Feeding forage ad lib
Feeding ad lib means that, whenever you go to your horse's stable, there is always forage there. Many people think that, because they feed lots of hay or haylage, this is ad lib when it often isn't. All horses, apart from good doers, should be fed forage ad lib and, if you have a good doer, make sure that you are feeding as much forage as you can without promoting weight gain.
There are lots of tricks for making hay and haylage last longer, such as placing it in small-holed nets or putting several haynets inside one another. The most important thing is to try to keep the period of time the gut is empty as short as possible and, for good doers, this means using small amounts of forage at frequent intervals. Rather than giving one big hay net in the morning and one at night, try to provide four as evenly throughout the day as possible.
Giving horses a choice of feed
Research is beginning to provide us with more of an insight into what helps to keep stabled horses happy and what doesn’t! Providing more than one type of forage in the stable allows horses to perform more of their natural browsing/foraging behaviour and is being recommended by researchers. You could therefore use hay and/or haylage, plus a variety of chops such as Dengie Hi-Fi Senior or Meadow Grass with Herbs, as well as root vegetables including carrots and swedes. The greater the contribution fibre makes to a horse’s nutritional requirements, the fewer concentrates are required. Therefore, try to find as good-quality forage as you can and feed plenty of it.
I can't feed my horse just on fibre, can I?
Many horses and ponies can extract enough energy from fibre to maintain their body weight, as well as supporting any work they are doing. Good doers might require just a vitamin and mineral supplement alongside their forage. For horses doing more work, though, or that need more help to keep their weight and condition, consider using higher-energy fibre sources before turning to mixes and cubes. For example, did you know that alfalfa contains just as much energy as a low-energy, high-fibre mix? If you have needed to use only a low-energy mix or cube in the past, you might find that you could use an alfalfa chop, such as Dengie Alfa-A Original, instead. This will take your horse much longer to eat than a mix or cube, thereby keeping him occupied for longer.
Because oil is a slow-release energy source, like fibre, the two work well together to provide energy for work or weight gain. It is no wonder, then, that there are now feeds available that combine the two, such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil. Because oil also helps to generate good coat condition and promote improved stamina, it is a particularly useful addition to the feed for horses in work over the winter.
Most horses require an alteration to their diet as the seasons change. One of the consequences of change is an increased risk of colic – a change of either the concentrate ration or forage can double the risk. Therefore, whichever feed you decide to use, the most important thing is to introduce it slowly over at least a couple of weeks to give the horse time to adjust to a new diet.
So, if you want to feed your horse sympathetically, the key is fibre and plenty of it. If you can go one step further and provide your horse with several different types, you should find that it is happier too, and don’t just assume that, if it needs more energy, you have got to use a mix or cube – there are other fibre-based options available.