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Feeding Horses on Box Rest


The need to put a horse on box rest for recovery or repair usually occurs with very little notice 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 has been advised.

Coping with Sudden Diet Change Due to Box Rest

Changes to a horse’s diet should normally be made gradually. 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 that is 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.

The Issue Of Immobility

Immobility due to box rest is not good for digestive health or for the health of the lymphatic system. Moving around aids the removal of gas from the digestive system and encourages bowel movement. As a horse at rest is sedentary, it increases the risk of problems such as  . 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. A horse on box rest that is not eating very much can experience lymph accumulation. This can result in filled legs and other concerns.

Box Rest Is Stressful

Any change to a horse’s usual routine can cause stress, but box rest can be particularly stressful for horses that are not used to being stabled. This can result in a lack of appetite which may cause weight loss and problems such as colic. Providing lots of different types of fibre whilst the horse is at rest 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 at Rest?

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, which is common on box rest, the level of indigestible fibre they are consuming increases. In some cases, horses at rest 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, Meadow Grass with Herbs or Pure Grass. The grass in 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 Whilst On Box Rest

Soaked sugar beet, such as Dengie Alfa-Beet, is a source of highly digestible fibre and so is ideal for poor doers, older horses and horses at rest. As it is fed soaked it carries additional water into the digestive 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, antioxidants and other parts of the immune system. They are therefore vital for effective repair and recovery whilst on box rest, 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, making it an ideal feed for a horse at rest, too. 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 thrive in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. Yeast mops-up oxygen in the horse’s hindgut and 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.

For more information on how to care for a horse at rest or for a specific diet management plan whilst your horse is on box rest, contact a Dengie nutritionist today!