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It is a long standing joke that only fools breed horses as it is rarely a profitable venture and is hugely demanding on your time and energy. However, if you have taken the decision to breed from your mare or are buying a youngster for the future, getting their nutrition right is vital and this starts with selecting the right horse feed for them by securing an appropriate youngstock feed and/or balancer. Ensuring an age appropriate, balanced diet may help to avoid some of the potential pitfalls that can occur when breeding horses, especially regarding nutrition.

The Newborn Foal

A foal is born weighing between 7% and 13% of its adult bodyweight – this is equivalent to a 70kg woman giving birth to a baby weighing between 5 and 9kgs or 10.7 to 20lbs! Bigger breeds tend to be a lower proportion of their adult weight when they are born (7%-10%) whereas Shetland ponies have been shown to be around 13% of their adult weight at birth. This is one of the reasons that bigger horses tend to take longer to mature and so may need more time to develop before they are ready for work.

One measure of growth rate is average daily gain (ADG) which simply relates to the amount of weight the foal gains on average each day. During the first 2 months a foal gains between 1.5 to 2kgs per day. Clearly this creates a huge demand for youngstock horse feed that contains the best energy and nutrients and at this time it is usually the mare’s milk that needs to meet this demand, this milk is of course the best feed for growing horses. A 500kg mare can produce between 10 and 17.5kgs of milk a day which is largely comprised of water and is why the lactating mare will drink a lot and should always have access to plenty of water. Interestingly, mare’s milk has a relatively low fat content with the White Rhino being one of the few species said to produce milk with less fat in it than horse milk. This probably reflects the fact that as an herbivore, the mature horse’s diet is naturally low in fat and so their metabolism has evolved to function on a carbohydrate based diet.

At the 2006 European Workshop on Equine Nutrition (EWEN) which focussed on the nutritional requirements of the broodmare and youngstock, a leading French researcher commented that “the period between 3 and 6 months is very sensitive for Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD) as it is established that 67% of foals exhibit potential bone lesions which regress for most after weaning when feeding is correct and suitable exercise is provided.”

There are many factors that affect growth but clearly a balanced diet is essential to feeding a yearling horse, new-born horses and other young horses. The protein, vitamins and minerals supplied in the diet determine the strength and integrity of the structure of the horse. Tissues like bone, muscle and tendons all require a balance of these nutrients to be formed correctly. If the foal is overweight or growing too quickly then it is an indication that the amount of energy that is being derived from their feed should be reduced but it is vital that levels of protein, vitamins and minerals are maintained in line with their development.

A study carried out by Kentucky Equine Research (KER) in the USA showed that high blood glucose levels and the consequent high insulin response to a cereal based feed was associated with an increased incidence of DOD. The advice from the researchers was to reduce reliance on cereal based feeds for breeding and youngstock and use fibre and oil as energy sources instead.

How do I know if my youngster is growing too fast?

Contracted tendons or epiphysitis are clearly evidence of a problem but the aim is to try and spot a fast growth rate before clinical signs of DOD are apparent. Regularly weighing a youngster allows you to monitor ADG which can be plotted on a simple graph (see below): plot time along the bottom or x axis and weight up the side or y axis.

Plotting your youngster’s weight every couple of weeks will create a growth curve. This will help you in feeding your yearling horse correctly. If you see a very steep growth curve forming, you may want to reassess the diet, reduce energy intake, and consider changing the youngstock horse feed and sizes that you are using. In contrast, if the curve is very flat it’s an indication the foal isn’t growing very well which may indicate an underlying health problem or simply that the mare isn’t milking very well and so may require more feed.

Condition scoring foals is slightly different to adult horses in that when they are born, foals have very little body fat and so their ribs and the scapula for example, will be clearly visible. Within a few weeks they will begin to fill out and bony areas such as the point of the shoulder and the pelvic bones will have a smoother appearance and should look less protruding. Foals are slower to cover their ribs with fat and so don’t worry if you can see your foal’s ribs as they may still be in optimal condition. As long as they have rounded quarters and are developing a top line, visible ribs in foals shouldn’t be a cause for concern as it might be in the adult horse.

Growth spurts often mean youngsters can lose weight as they put their energy into growth. This needs to be addressed by increasing energy intake to ensure weight loss isn’t too great or that a lack of energy suppresses growth. The aim is to achieve as smooth a growth rate as possible with a youngstock horse feed that is carefully tailored to their current nutritional needs, including where applicable a youngstock balancer. If a youngster experiences a period of sub-optimal nutrition which is sufficient to slow their rate of growth, they will catch up as soon as they receive a higher plane of nutrition. This can result in what is called as “compensatory growth” and may result in a weaker musculoskeletal structure and delay maturation.

Weaning

Weaning is usually carried out at around 6 months of age which often means it occurs in the autumn months when grass quality is declining. This naturally helps to dry the mare off and gives her time to gain condition prior to having another foal in the spring. Between 3 and 4 months of age the foal’s digestive tract starts to develop the ability to gain more nutrition from fibre and so becomes less dependent on a milk based diet, this means that other youngstock horse feeds can be introduced. This is because it takes the foal time to build up a population of the micro-organisms it needs in the gut to digest fibre. Until this time the foal is really dependent on a milk-based diet and so weaning prior to 4 months of age is not ideal.

Most foals are sticking their heads in mum’s bucket within a few days of being born as they are naturally inquisitive to know what’s in the bucket! Getting them established on their own feed before weaning is important in helping to minimise weight loss post-weaning especially if this is happening in the autumn as the foal will start to use more energy for keeping warm.

Post Weaning

Most weanlings, yearlings and 2 year olds are out in the field for at least some of the day and so grass will be making a contribution to their nutritional requirements. When grass quality is good they may not need any additional energy from youngstock horse feeds to maintain their weight and growth but they do still need vitamins and minerals. Copper is an important mineral for growth as it helps to give tendons elasticity and a deficiency has been linked to epiphysitis. UK pastures are naturally very low in copper and so supplying a supplement or a youngstock balancer designed for breeding stock is advisable for all. This can be mixed in a handful of chopped fibre and fed alongside ad lib forage. This may be enough for breeds and individuals that are naturally good-doers all year round but lighter breeds may need some supplementary feed in the winter months or at other times if grazing is sparse.

Research suggests that reducing starch intake may be beneficial in reducing the risk of a number of problems including gastric ulcers and colic as well as DOD. Feeding a high calorie, chopped fibre feed such as one that combines alfalfa with oil, is a safer alternative to a cereal based feed but can still provide sufficient energy for a youngster. Fibre feeds with about 10% added oil contain around 12.5MJ/kg DE which is the same level of energy found in a traditional stud mix. All you need to feed alongside is a supplement or balancer to balance the diet.

At 3 years of age the growth rate has slowed sufficiently in most horses that they would be considered adults. The biggest Warmblood and Draft breeds may still need higher calorie and protein rations to help them fill out and finish growing but this can be achieved using adult conditioning feeds rather than stud rations. When starting to back any youngster, avoiding high starch horse feeds is usually beneficial for promoting good behaviour. This was backed up by a study supported by Dengie and carried out at the Royal Dick Vet school where it was found that horses on fibre and oil diets were less reactive to novel stimuli than those on cereal based equine feeds.

Show or Sales prep

If you are planning to show or sell your youngster, then it is tempting to put them on to a higher plane of nutrition so they carry extra condition that unfortunately still tends to be rewarded in the show ring. This is a decision that only you can make but you should be aware that by putting extra weight on immature joints and limbs you are increasing the risk of problems. The age at which you are doing this can also be significant. If you recall earlier in this article the researcher at EWEN mentioned the importance of exercise for avoiding growth problems in foals and research has shown that free range exercise – simply turning out in a field – is the best way to promote good bone mineralisation. Forced exercise where youngsters are walked in hand or are put on walkers, which is often used when “prepping” youngsters for sales, doesn’t create as good bone density and although not proven, is highly likely to increase the risk of problems later in life.

Whatever you choose to do with your youngster, investing in good quality nutrition and horse feeds that are well-tailored to youngstock in their formative years is likely to pay dividends in the years to come.

As winter approaches and turnout time is limited, horses and ponies may spend more time stabled. In general, keeping your horse occupied during the winter months can often be a cause for concern for many horse owners. Horse treat balls and snack balls can be a great way to help reduce boredom and provide a more natural ‘trickle’ feeding rate. Use low sugar low, starch horse treats to keep them occupied, entertained and their nutrition up to scratch.

Finding a treat to use in a horse treat ball that contains tasty, healthy ingredients can sometimes be a challenge. Thankfully, our Dengie range consists of a great many different low sugar low starch horse feeds. Our Grass Pellets may just be the perfect addition to your horse treat ball! Providing fibre in a concentrated form, our grass pellets are naturally low in sugar and starch. This product is also FREE from:

Another great alternative for your horse’s treat ball is our Alfalfa Pellets which are simply 100% alfalfa – rich in calcium and other naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. As alfalfa is naturally low in sugar (5%) Alfalfa Pellets are ideal for horses and ponies that require a low sugar diet such as laminitis prone individuals, including those with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID). Our Alfalfa Pellets are one of our favourite low sugar low starch horse treats for your horse treat ball.

Did you know: Alfalfa and Grass Pellets are not just a high-fibre source for horses and ponies, other animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and camelids can also enjoy the benefits of these versatile feeds.

For further advice on how to keep your horse occupied during the winter months or whilst on box rest call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or fill out our feed advice form.

Very few horse owners pay much attention to what usually makes up at least half of their horse’s diet, which is probably partly due to the fact that many people perceive forage to just provide bulk and therefore, as long as the horse has something to chew on, it’s doing the job.

Ensure Your Horse Is Consuming The Right Forage

The other factor that contributes to this lack of appreciation for forage is that many people don’t have control over the forage that is fed to their horse. Unless you’re lucky enough to have sufficient acres of your own to be able to make hay or haylage, the chances are you’re buying it from someone else and that means it can be difficult to control what forage your horse is eating. However, there are ways that you can counter this and ensure that your horse is consuming the right forage feed for his needs.

The Basic Facts About Forage Based Horse Feed

One of the most basic characteristics of a herbivore is that it spends a long time eating foods that contain low concentrations of energy and nutrients. This means that it is necessary for herbivores to eat for long periods of time in order to obtain sufficient energy and nutrients to survive.

The horse’s digestive system has evolved to function most efficiently on this basis, which is why forage-based feed needs to make up such a large proportion of your horse’s diet ration.

Not using the right forage can mean that no matter how precise you are about perfecting the rest of your horse’s diet, you are unlikely to achieve the results you want. Ignoring the contribution forage makes to your horse’s requirements is the equivalent of you trying to lose weight but only eating low-calorie food half of the time.

The most common types of horse forage feeds are grasses, legumes such as alfalfa, and cereal straw. The climate in the UK means that it is necessary to use conserved forages at certain times of the year when availability of fresh forage is reduced.

Forages may be harvested as young plants, which tends to be the case for alfalfa in the UK as well as some grass or they can be allowed to mature to create hay, haylage or even silage.

Hay v Haylage

The principle of conserving horse forage is based on removing water or oxygen in order to stop the forage from moulding or decaying. When making hay, the water content is reduced to below 20% whereas haylage typically has a water content of between 40 – 50%, which is not sufficiently dry enough to protect it and so it has to be wrapped to create an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.

As haylage doesn’t need to be “sun-dried” for as long as hay, it is usually harvested earlier in the season when the grass plants are younger. As younger plants are more digestible, harvesting them earlier creates a forage with a higher nutritional value and so horses tend to do better on it.

Horses are often willing to consume more haylage than hay if fed ad-lib. If you have a poor doer and are supplied with hay as part of your livery agreement, why not consider topping up with haylage to increase the amount of energy from forage your horse is receiving. Another alternative is to feed a highly digestible fibre such as alfalfa.

The Differences Between The Good, The Bad And The Ugly:

There are two main criteria that determine the quality of a forage based horse feed; its nutritional value and its cleanliness and the two don’t always go hand in hand. The first priority is that thehorse forage forage is clean because it doesn’t matter how many nutrients it contains, if it’s dusty or mouldy it could result in respiratory problems. For horses with respiratory disease finding consistent clean forage can be difficult. Haylage is generally a much cleaner forage than hay but if you have a good doer, using haylage might not be a practical solution. In this instance, the Hi-Fi range of products are ideal hay replacers which can be fed on a weight for weight basis rather than hay.

High nutritional value horse forages are not always the most suitable for every horse and so this is where careful selection of the right forage can make a big difference to your horse’s welfare. If selecting a forage for a good doer, it is advisable to find one that is low in energy as this will mean that more can be fed without promoting excessive weight gain. As a guide, the more like straw a hay looks, the more likely it is to have been harvested later and so will contain more indigestible material.

The opposite applies to poor doers as the more nutrients and energy they can gain from forage based horse feed the less reliant on cereals they will be which is usually beneficial for their health. Older horses whose teeth are starting to wear out also benefit from softer, leafier hays as they are easier to chew. The leaf is where most of the nutrients are stored and so it usually follows that leafy hays contain more nutrients.

In a study supported by Dengie, the effects of poor dentition on horse forage consumption were explored. It was found that older horses with poor dentition refused their forage seven times more frequently when hay was used compared to a short chopped combination of alfalfa and grasses (Hi-Fi Senior), and in a given time period older horses consumed 68% less hay than horses with normal dentition. This difference was reduced to around 30% less when the short chop forage was used. When forage normally makes up such a large proportion of the total diet, it is apparent why older horses lose weight quickly when they are no longer able to chew easily. In these situations, it is important that easy to chew forage is supplied either as short chops or even as soaked mashes such as products that contain sugar beet and alfalfa (Alfa-Beet).

Horse Forage Analysis

If you want to know how good your forage is then a laboratory analysis can be conducted. To get a more realistic interpretation of the whole batch of forage, samples should be taken from a number of bales rather than from just one. The cost of analysis can be quite high, particularly for trace minerals, and so if you are thinking about getting your forage analysed, consider which nutrients are most relevant to your horse. For example, if laminitis is of concern, then the sugar and starch levels are probably most relevant.

The mineral status of a forage tends to reflect the mineral content of the soil it is grown on. If your soil is deficient in a certain mineral then conserving forage from your own pasture means that you are compounding the deficiency. In these situations, it is important to ensure that you supplement to counteract the deficiency and it may also be worth considering buying forage from another location that doesn’t have the same deficiencies.

For further information about having your horse forage analysed click here.

Too Little Forage Can Compromise Your Horse’s Health

As herbivores have evolved on the basis that they eat for long periods of time, altering this fundamental process can significantly compromise their health and welfare. Just as for humans, a high fibre diet is vital for promoting regular bowel movements. Too little fibre can lead to an accumulation of gas in the horse’s digestive tract, which can eventually result in colic symptoms.

An additional health problem associated with too little fibre is gastric ulcers. Originally highlighted as a problem affecting thoroughbreds, it is becoming apparent that the more we look for ulcers, the more we find them. Several scientific studies plus anecdotal reports are suggesting that leisure horses are also vulnerable to gastric ulcers. Good doers on restricted fibre intakes are particularly at risk as well as those not given fibre when travelling and competing.

If you would like further information on fibre or to talk to one of our nutritionists about fibre analysis, please call 01621 841188.

The main advice for managing horses with gastric ulcers is to reduce the amount of non-structural carbohydrate (starch + sugar) in the ration and feed more fibre. Using sugar beet that is free from molasses as a horse feed is one way of achieving this especially for horses that are working or struggling to maintain condition. This is because sugar beet for horses has a number of positive features, including the following:

The reason for this minimal sugar content is because the sugar has been extracted from the sugar beet for use in human nutrition and the sugar beet pulp that is left for use in horse and animal feed is the fibrous residue which is very low in sugar.

Sugar beet, like alfalfa, contains higher levels of calcium compared to other forages. Studies that have found a reduction in the incidence and severity of ulcers in horses fed a ration that includes alfalfa, have partly attributed this to the high levels of calcium and protein that alfalfa contains. These nutrients can then act as a buffer. 

As sugar beet also contains higher levels of calcium compared to other fibre sources it may also provide some additional buffering benefits. An early study of ruminant feedstuffs in the laboratory found beet pulp had a higher acid-buffering capacity. 

Dengie Alfa-Beet combines alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet. We recommend a 2 hour cold soak or a 15 minute hot soak time. Alfa-Beet is an ideal sugar beet horse feed and is perfect for adding to the ration of working horses or those that need to gain weight and is also useful for tempting fussy feeders.

Biotin is a sulphur containing B vitamin essential for cell proliferation and is the most commonly identified nutrient for improving hoof quality, biotin supplements for horses have therefore risen in popularity quite dramatically in recent years. B vitamins are synthesized by micro-organisms in the digestive tract as a by-product of fermentation. In a healthy digestive system, the horse would be expected to produce sufficient biotin to maintain hoof condition. If the supply of fibre is compromised or the environment of the gut is not conducive to allow bacteria to function efficiently, then the production of B vitamins, including biotin, may be compromised. Poor hoof condition can often be a reflection of an unhealthy digestive system and therefore these horses may benefit from the addition of B vitamins, particularly biotin.

How much biotin should you feed to your horse or pony a day?

Numerous studies have tried to identify the level of biotin required to help address poor hoof horn quality. Buffa et al. (1992) found that supplementation with 15mg of biotin per day over a 10 month period achieved increased hoof hardness and greater growth rates than horses supplemented with 7.5mg per day. Josseck et al. (1995) found 20mg of biotin per day over a 3 year period reduced the severity of hoof horn defects, increased tensile strength and improved the condition of the white line. Commonly hoof supplements that contain biotin provide 15mg or more of biotin per day at the horse feeding rate to promote improved hoof horn.

Dengie supplements that contain biotin to support horses’ hooves

Specific products within the Dengie range that will help to balance the ration and include biotin at a level to supply 15mg daily for a horse are as follows: –

Healthy Tummy – for horses working up to a moderate level or those that need help to maintain their weight. Healthy Tummy combines chopped and pelleted alfalfa with a rapeseed oil coating, herbal blend, vitamins, minerals and ADM Protexin in-feed formula.

Healthy Hooves – for horses in light work or those that hold their weight well. Healthy Hooves combines chopped and pelleted alfalfa and straw with a light molasses coating, vitamins, minerals and garlic.

Healthy Hooves Molasses Free – for horses in light work or those that hold their weight well. Healthy Hooves combines chopped and pelleted alfalfa and straw with a light rapeseed oil coating, vitamins, minerals and garlic.

Performance+ Balancer – for working horses and breeding stock. Performance+ Balancer is a pelleted product that not only supplies a broad-spectrum of vitamins and minerals but glucosamine for joint support and prebiotic for digestive support.

Leisure Balancer – for horses and rest or in light work. Leisure Balancer is a pelleted product that supplies a broad-spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

Performance Vits & Mins– for horses working up to a hard level. Performance Vits & Mins is a powder broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement that also includes live yeast for digestive support.

Leisure Vits & Mins – for horses at rest or in light work. Leisure Vits & Mins is a powder broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement that also includes live yeast for digestive support.

Do you need help with show riding and in-hand techniques? We spoke to Olympia champion Lizzie Briant to discover her top showing tips that can be applied to anyone looking forward to trying some showing this season, whether it’s ridden or in-hand.

Top Tip 1. Separate your grooming kits

Lizzie has two identical grooming kits – one for grey horses and one for black. “Doesn’t it drive you mad when someone comes along and uses your horse’s brush on another coloured horse?” says Lizzie. “I have a grey grooming kit and a black grooming kit, because I can’t stand one colour of hairs getting in the brushes of the other.”

After grooming with a body brush, Lizzie wipe’s her horses down with a mixture of hot water, a splash of Dettol and a splash of oil, “it’s great for taking dust out!” To finish, Lizzie rubs her ponies over with a velvet cloth. “I always rub them over with velvet because it takes the dust off the coats surface.”

“Another tip is with black coloured ponies I always wash them off after work with a weak Dettol solution, as I find that sweat bleaches the coat” says Lizzie. “I also always cover them with a sheet in the sun, to stop them from getting bleached by the sun.”

Top Tip 2. Keep your pony’s mane ‘Au Natural’

“Between shows I don’t brush my ponies’ mane’s; I just tease it through with my fingers with a little bit of baby oil every two or three days to keep it untangled” says Lizzie. “I try not to wash my ponies’ manes too often because I don’t want to strip out the natural oils. When I do wash it before a show, I put a lot of human conditioner through it.” With natives having so much hair, there is the potential that it won’t all stay in place in the ring. “I have a small tub of hair gel in my show ring grooming kit,” says Lizzie. “Then if there is a bit of hair that has decided to stick up, I can easily deal with it.”

Top Tip 3. Vary your pony’s schooling sessions

Although obedience rates high on the necessary skills list for showing classes, Lizzie doesn’t drill her horses too much in the ménage. “During the show season, I school only once or twice a week, then hack out three times a week. I also have regular lessons with Matthew Lawrence.”

“I like to try to include variety in my ponies’ routines to keep them interested. I don’t take them in the school a lot because it can make them stale. I keep schooling sessions short – only about 20 minutes of walk, trot and canter on both reins. I think you can tell which ponies are over-schooled in the show ring.”

Top Tip 4. Don’t try and teach your own child!

“Freddie goes to Team Holder for all his lessons. Find a suitable, safe pony and keep it fun with lots of small jumps and obstacles” says Lizzie. “This will help small children gain a natural seat. Don’t make them have endless hours in the school, keep them riding with friends so they enjoy it. To keep their ponies calm and looking great feed a high-fibre feed, such as Dengie Healthy Hooves.”

Top Tip 5. Schedule some R&R for your pony

To be successful at showing, you don’t have to be in every class at every qualifier. In fact, Lizzie likes to keep the number of shows attended low. She says: “In an ideal world, I would do about eight sessions a season with each pony. I think the more you do, the more likely they are to get bored. However, if you are chasing the qualifiers you have to do more.”

And sometimes the time off is as important as the training itself. “After a show, my ponies have at least a day off. Or if the show was miles and miles away they have at least two days off, because I think travelling is quite tiring for them.”

“I also think that ponies should be turned out every day, even when they are in work, when I‘m not competing them, I like them to have a holiday of a couple of months.”

Top Tip 6. Fit not fat

As a rider, producer and judge, Lizzie likes natives to look ‘fit not fat’ in the show ring. Just as with people, a key part of equine fitness is a well-balanced diet. “I feed my ponies all year round mainly because of the level of work they are in,” says Lizzie, “I feed them Dengie Alfa-A Oil to ensure they have enough energy and stamina for their workload. The rapeseed oil coating also gives them a fabulous ‘showring’ shine to their coats”.
“For my ponies who are not in work, they will still get fed a ration of Hi-Fi Molasses Free.

A great way to assess whether your pony is at the correct bodyweight is by condition scoring. To learn how to condition score your horse, the Dengie nutrition team have produced the video below to explain the steps.

Top Showing Tips

For more information about managing your horse’s weight

Our team of highly experienced nutritionists are on hand to advise and put together a personalised feeding plan for your horse or pony to help you help them manage their weight. To contact the Dengie nutrition team call the Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to email.

The effect of diet on behaviour has been studied in many species – including humans and rats – but little work has been done to explore the link between diet and the normal behaviour of horses. This is quite surprising given how influential behaviour is on competition success and the desirability and value of leisure horses. No-one wants a spooky skittish ride, whether it’s for dressage or a hack on the common.
Despite evidence of strong links between nutrition and behaviour in humans, we cannot assume the same applies to horses. However, although the digestive system of the horse is very different from the human’s, the concept of Glycaemic Index still applies and it is important to understand this to appreciate how diet may affect behaviour.

What is GI?

Glycaemic Index (GI) refers to the effects of food on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. Foods that cause a large rise in blood glucose are considered to have a high GI or glycaemic response. High-fibre feedstuffs result in a low glycaemic response. Interestingly, research has shown that adding low-sugar fibres, such as alfalfa, to cereals, which are high GI, reduces glycaemic response compared with feeding cereals alone.
Feeding meals of high-starch feedstuffs can cause peaks and troughs in energy, which may influence the normal behaviour of horses. After a high-starch meal, blood glucose levels peak 1.5-2 hours later, which might cause increased reactivity and unpredictable behaviour. Feedstuffs that have a low glycaemic response, such as sugar beet pulp and alfalfa, provide more consistent energy levels than feeds with a high GI.

A horse who is more reactive and difficult to handle is likely to be harder to train and increases the risk of harm to riders, handlers and the horse itself. It’s also not much fun riding a horse who is spooky and unpredictable and it’s particularly frustrating if tense behaviour mars performance.

“It seems that this is a common problem judging by the number of enquiries about calmers we receive on our feedline”. says Dengie Technical Manager, Katie Williams. “Rather than trying to deal with the symptoms we always start by adjusting the diet to one based on fibre – and oil if additional energy is required – as anecdotal feedback from horse owners supports our belief that this is the most effective way to approach behavioural problems. However, we wanted some evidence to support our theory and we were delighted that project leader Dr Jo-Anne Murray and researcher Louise Bulmer at Edinburgh University were willing to investigate further.”

The Study
Eight mature horses were used, including a selection of Warmbloods, cobs and an Appaloosa, from 14.2hh to 16.1hh. All were maintained in light work for the duration of the study, including jumping and flatwork five days a week. At weekends, the horses were turned out for four to six hours a day. The study took place from January to March, when grazing was very sparse.

Two different diets, both containing exactly the same amount of energy and based on haylage, were fed. One diet included Dengie Alfa-A Molasses Free, with a starch level of 2%, and the other contained a traditional, cereal-based concentrate mix, with a starch level of 22% – a fairly typical level for a medium-energy mix.

The high-starch diet provided 0.7g of starch/kg of body weight (BWT) per meal, whereas the high-fibre diet supplied 0.3g/kg BWT for the same amount of energy – both well within the levels recommended to avoid digestive problems. The horses were divided into two groups and fed each of the two different diets for 28 days in a crossover study.

Louise Bulmer measured the horses’ behaviour to see how reactive they were to new situations and equipment. She also measured horses’ heart rates as an indication of stress levels during the tests. They were carried out in early morning with few other disturbances, within a few hours of feeding, when glycaemic response should be at its peak.

The novel stimuli test was carried out in a section of an indoor school. The horse was first familiarised with being released, and free to approach and eat from a feed bowl. Once the study was started, white noise was introduced to one metre behind the feed bowl – a well established test of reactivity. The time taken for the horse to approach and eat from the feed bowl was recorded. A handling test was also carried out where the horse was led to a curtain of red and white strips of plastic, and verbally encouraged to go through – no pulling or force was used. Again, the time taken to pass through the curtain was recorded, along with the behaviour of the horse.

Behaviour Test Results
The study showed that horses fed a cereal-based concentrate mix were overall more reactive to new situations and equipment. They were less consistent in their behaviour and had higher heart rates compared with horses fed the fibre-based supplementary feedstuff.

“This suggests that, while high-starch diets are considered to be an effective energy source for humans undertaking increased exercise, they are not necessarily ideal for providing the energy for working horses,” explains Louise.

“Energy may be better provided by feeding a good quality fibre diet instead. This approach would not only promote gut health but as our results suggest would also reduce reactivity, making horses easier to handle from the ground.”

Adding to the Evidence
The results of Louise’s study concur with the results of one other previous study that looked at the effects of diet on a horse’s behaviour. It was carried out on horses with Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, the muscle problem previously known as Azoturia or Tying-up. Here, the researchers found that horses fed a high-starch diet became more reactive, demonstrating increased nervousness and excitability compared with when they were fed a diet low in concentrates and high in fibre.

So, although the benefits of high-fibre diets to digestive health are increasingly appreciated, it appears that there is growing evidence that they may also help to create calmer, more manageable horses.

Case Study

Beth Day & Delilah
Dengie’s Alfa-A Oil has made a massive difference to Delilah. She’s more rideable, allowing me to go for more expression in her paces, and has much more power and stamina too. Her temperament has improved, she’s more relaxed when away at events and I’ve even managed to remove her hormone supplement. Since switching to Alfa-A Oil her condition and topline have improved and her coat is gleaming. She’s a picture of health.”

Photo taken by Camille Peters

Why is Alfalfa so good for Breeding & Youngstock?

Breeders have heard that alfalfa is particularly beneficial for breeding and youngstock, but why does alfalfa deserve this reputation? Below our nutrition team explain in more detail the beneficial nutrients supplied by alfalfa.

Protein

Alfalfa is well known for supplying abundant amounts of protein. Along with energy, the overall amount of protein needs to be adequate in the diet to support optimal growth. Whilst the amount of protein in the horse’s diet is important, so is the quality of the protein supplied. By protein quality we mean amino acids, especially the essential amino acids:

Alfalfa Fact – how much protein and lysine does Dengie alfalfa supply?

Dengie’s Alfa-A range typically supply 12-14% crude protein and 0.7% lysine. For comparison the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses gives a reference value for mature cool season grass hay at 10.8% protein and 0.38% lysine. Alfalfa therefore supplies 1.8x as much lysine as average hay.

Whilst alfalfa is a very useful way of improving the nutritional quality of the forage ration, adding a pure alfalfa feed, such as Alfa-A Original to a hay only diet alone will not meet requirements in all circumstances. This is why grass is such an important part of the lactating mare’s diet.

A 500kg mare at 1 month lactation requires a staggering 84.8g of lysine compared to 30.1g for the horse in light exercise. A diet of 10kg of average hay and 2.5kg of a pure alfalfa product will supply 55.5g of lysine and so there’s still a shortage. The other factor to consider is that not all hay is average and there will be large variations between years and batches. A forage and alfalfa only diet for breeding and youngstock should therefore be topped up with quality protein and other nutrients by using the advised amounts of a stud specific feed balancer, such as Performance+ Balancer or if required mix/cube; especially if the mare isn’t at grass.

Dispelling a myth- excess protein causes Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD)

A myth that has been around for years is that excess protein results in an increased risk of Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD). This myth has been dispelled and it is known that rapid growth encouraged by high energy supply, combined with a trace mineral deficiency are the key things to watch out for.

The importance of calcium

Alfalfa is also well known for its abundant calcium levels. Calcium is found predominantly in bones and also plays a role in muscle contraction, cell membrane function, enzyme regulation and blood coagulation. Any deficiency of calcium will mean that stores in bone are drawn upon to meet demand and therefore a deficiency in calcium in young horses can result in skeletal deformity. It is not only the intake of calcium in the youngster that is important, but in the mare as well, as the majority of calcium present at birth is deposited in the 8th to the 11th month of gestation.

It is not only the amount of calcium in the diet that’s important, but its ratio to other minerals particularly phosphorus. An excessive intake of phosphorus even with an adequate intake of calcium can result in calcium deficiency as they compete for the same site of absorption. Ideally the total diet should provide a ratio of in the region of 1.5-2:1 calcium (Ca) to phosphorus (P).

Alfalfa Fact – how much calcium does Dengie alfalfa supply?

Dengie’s Alfa-A range of feeds supply 1.5% calcium. For comparison the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses gives a reference value for mature cool season grass hay at 0.47% calcium. Alfalfa therefore supplies 3x as much calcium as average hay.

Dispelling a myth – alfalfa supplies excess calcium

Well actually this one could be true if alfalfa was fed as the sole diet. Whilst alfalfa hay is commonly fed in other countries, here at Dengie we put an upper feeding rate on the pure alfalfa products of 500g per 100kg of bodyweight daily to avoid excessive nutrient supply.

Going back to the calcium to phosphorus ratio, alfalfa has a ratio of 6:1 Ca:P which is higher than the 2:1 we try to achieve in the total diet. However when we talk about Ca:P it is important to remember we are talking about the total diet and not just 1 element. A 500kg horse having 10kg of hay with the addition of 2.5kg of alfalfa will result in a Ca:P ratio of 2.6:1 and also supply sufficient calcium and phosphorus throughout gestation for example. Ratios as high as 6:1 Ca:P haven’t been found to cause any issues as long as phosphorus requirements are met. Whilst there is unlikely to be any advantage to feeding calcium in such excessive levels it isn’t going to cause harm.
Again it is important to remember that average figures are just that and not all pastures or forages supply this amount of calcium and some can be much lower. For breeding stock particularly it highlights the value of getting forage analysed as low calcium forages can easily be supplemented with alfalfa to improve nutrient supply where required.

Energy from Fibre

Along with protein, having adequate energy in the diet is vital for optimal growth. How useful a fibre source is to a horse in providing energy is dependent on its digestibility. This is determined by many factors including environmental conditions, but particularly by the age of the plant at the time of harvest. The more mature the plant the less digestible it is. Dengie alfalfa is cut when the plant is not fully mature and this combined with high temperature drying results in a more digestible, highly nutritious fibre source.

In recent years there has been increased interest in looking at the effect of energy source on growth and long term health. Focus in particular has been on lower sugar and starch rations and the benefits to long term insulin sensitivity, behaviour and stress at weaning and digestive health to name just a few. As with the adult horse, high starch rations at the expense of fibre has its consequences.

Alfalfa fact- how much energy does alfalfa provide?

Dengie alfalfa naturally supplies around 10MJ/kg of digestible energy. When oil is added to alfalfa as with Dengie Alfa-A Oil 12.5MJ/kg digestible energy can be achieved which is equivalent to a stud mix/cube but with only 2% starch.

Dispelling a myth- An alfalfa based ration can’t supply breeding stock with sufficient energy

As we have seen above, when combined with oil, alfalfa can supply as much energy as a traditional stud feed and as long as it is combined with a stud specific balancer, such as Dengie Performance+ Balancer, can provide a good all round balanced ration.

In practice whether it can meet the energy demands of breeding stock depends on what type of horse is being fed. A Jan/Feb foaling mare has her highest energy demands when grazing quality is poorest and reliance on conserved forage is high. Alfalfa can make a great addition to the ration here, but extra energy may be required. Conversely a mare foaling in May/June has her greatest energy demands through a period of time when grass is typically abundant and is likely to thrive on a fibre only ration with the addition of a stud specific balancer.

Headmore Stud run by Sarah Oppenheimer and her daughter, Dengie’s own brand ambassador and British Dressage Rider Alice Oppenheimer, have been feeding Dengie Horse Feeds for many years now.

2016 was a particularly special year for the Headmore Team as Headmore Valentina, out of Rubinsteena x Vilancio, was awarded an elite premium at the British Breeders/British Equestrian Federation Futurity with a score of 9.7, the joint-third highest ever mark at that time.

Headmore Valentina’s diet included Dengie Alfa-A Original and Performance+ Balancer in addition to grazing and additional forage. During the period of 2017-2018 we were able to monitor her bodyweight changes during weigh-ins on the Dengie portable weighbridge. Val’s weight changes can be seen in the chart below:-

As can be seen in the chart there is a steady increase in weight over the years. Although it looks quite big on the chart the weight loss between Jan and March 18 was only 8kg, which can be common at this time of year with poorer grass quality and a reliance on conserved forage. During the winter period, particularly in a youngster’s first winter it is important with any slow growth to watch for periods of rapid compensatory growth come spring.
Now rising 3 years old Val’s diet consists of 2 scoops of Dengie Alfa-A Original, 1 scoop of Dengie Grass Pellets and Dengie Performance Vits & Mins. Keep an eye out as Val is likely to be a dressage star of the future!

For further advice and guidance on what to feed your youngstock please contact the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or send us an email.

 

With temperatures forecast to be below zero and snow fall for areas of the country, ensuring your horse or pony is kept warm and going about your normal routine can be a challenge. In our latest blog the Dengie nutrition team have come up with their top tips to help your horse and pony brave the cold weather.

What is an alternative to soaking hay?

In winter, soaking hay can be a real challenge as taps and water-filled buckets freeze. Steaming is one alternative and a commercial steamer uses much less water than soaking hay. Using a commercial steamer also produces a much cleaner hay which is very important for those with respiratory issues. Unfortunately investing in a commercial steamer isn’t always viable and so alternatively Dengie have a wide range of chopped fibre feeds that can be used as complete or partial hay replacers! For those soaking hay to reduce sugar intake, steaming isn’t as effective due to the smaller volume of water used and alternatively the use of a low sugar partial or total hay replacer from the Dengie range can help to manage overall sugar intake. Click here to read more about the Dengie hay replacers.

How to keep your horse warm – feed lots of fibre!

Feeding fibre is the best way to keep horses warm in the winter months as heat is produced when fibre is fermented in the horse’s digestive system. However, if your horse is carrying a little too much weight ensure you choose a low-calorie fibre feed such as Dengie Hi-Fi Lite. Did you know that Hi-Fi Lite has half the sugar level of hay!

Is your horse drinking enough?

When it’s really cold, some horses can be put off drinking, which increases the risk of dehydration and colic. Regularly check your horse’s water to break and remove ice. Floating a tennis ball in the trough or buckets can help mean your horse can always access water as the bucket won’t be totally iced over.

Research has shown that horses tend to drink 6-14% less in colder weather. Providing a soaked fibre feed, such as Dengie Alfa-Beet is a great way to provide an additional source of moisture to aid hydration in the winter, plus with a 15-minute hot soak your horse or pony can benefit from their own warm breakfast and dinners! Click here to find out more about the benefits of feeding a soaked fibre feed.

How to keep your horse entertained when stabled

Research has shown that offering a variety of forages and fibrous material to horses not only provides a more stimulating environment, but it allows them to demonstrate more natural foraging behaviour. Try offering a selection of fibres such as Dengie Hi-Fi Senior or Meadow Grass with Herbs alongside your horse’s usual forage of hay and/or haylage.

There are lots of tricks for making hay and haylage last longer, such as placing it in small-holed nets or placing several haynets inside one another. When feeding a chopped fibre offer it in several rubber trug buckets to encourage foraging activity.

How to make dietary changes

Diet change is one of the biggest risk factors associated with colic. When making any dietary changes, including grazing and forage it should be done gradually ideally over the period of at least a couple of weeks. In situations of adverse weather conditions this may not always be possible and so if your horse normally lives out and you know bad weather is on the way try to supplement the grazing with the forage you would feed if your horse then has to be stabled suddenly and then at least they will have been used to having some in their diet. At times of diet change or stress also consider the use of a digestive supplement such as Dengie Digestive Health Plus.