FACT SHEET – Feeding for Condition

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Feeding our horses to keep them in the best possible condition can cause a headache for many of us, especially over the colder months if we have a picky horse or one with a poor appetite. Dependant on age, breed and work load, horses will naturally tend to carry different proportions of fat and muscle and it is important we ensure our horse’s diet provides the appropriate calories (or energy) to maintain a healthy weight, whilst, alongside correct work, giving them the building blocks for muscle development. Condition scoring is a useful tool for assessing whether your horse is under, over or at about the correct weight. A 1-9 scale is often used, with a score of 1 meaning the horse is very poor, and 9 being very overweight.  When condition scoring, it is important not just to look at your horse’s waistline, but also his neck and hind-quarters. 

If your horse is dropping condition over the colder months, before his diet is considered there are a few factors which every responsible horse owner should first check. The most obvious of these are ensuring your worming program is up to date, checking the horse isn’t in physical discomfort such as dental or back pain, and making sure he isn’t spending large portions of his time cold or wet.  Having established none of these are an issue, many owners may simply choose to increase the amount of the horse’s current bucket feed, therefore increasing the volume of (potentially) cereal-based feed he receives. However, it is well documented that the digestive system of the horse is designed for an almost constant trickle of fibre, and although this is often forgotten, perhaps our first area of consideration should be what and how much we are putting into his net!

High Quality Fibre

With very few exceptions, almost every horse will be healthiest and happiest when he has ad lib access to a fibre source of some sort (ad lib = fibre is always available). During cold weather, access to fibre has a double advantage; not only does it keep the digestive system functioning correctly, but additionally, the digestion of fibre in the hind gut creates heat as a by-product, quite literally warming your horse up from the inside out! Equally, horses often have to spend increased periods of time stabled during the colder months and the presence of fibre can decrease the likelihood of stereotypical behaviour. This is often caused by stress and/or boredom which in itself can be a cause of weight loss.

So, having established that fibre has an essential role to play in the diet of horses that need help with condition, it makes sense to provide them with the best quality we possibly can. Firstly, forage that is soft, has an appealing smell, and is dust-free is more likely to tempt a fussy feeder to eat. Soft forage with fine stems often indicates that the grass has been cut whilst it is younger compared to a coarse-looking forage and will therefore provide your horse with more calories per mouthful. 

Having considered what you are going to supply in your net, you should also assess what is going into your horse’s bucket. We know that ideally the bulk of the diet should consist of fibre, of which there are a number of options such as high temperature dried grass or alfalfa which are widely available and can provide a valuable contribution to the energy (calorie) intake. These are especially useful if the horse can be excitable or is highly strung, meaning you may want to avoid cereal-based feeds wherever possible. Fibre-based ‘complete’ feeds are particularly valuable in these situations as these also contain a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals, which, when fed at the correct weight, will supply all your horse’s requirements without the need for further supplementation. If you would rather have more flexibility in your feeding, choose a chaff with calorie levels provided through oil and with very low sugar and starch levels to minimise the chance of excitable behaviour. A product such as this this allows you to feed as much or little as you feel happy with as there are no vitamins or minerals added. Do remember to add a broad spectrum vitamin or mineral source such as a good quality balancer. Oil is the most calorific ingredient we can include in our horses’ diets, and as it doesn’t tend to cause excitable behaviour, is very useful for adding condition for poor doers.

Top Tips for Feeding For Condition

  • Never underestimate the importance of forage – always allow ad lib access to the best quality forage you can afford. Ideally it should also be dust-free.
  • Don’t forget the fibre element of your bucket feed. Use high calorie fibre sources or a ‘complete’ feed to enable you to keep cereals (and therefore starch levels) to a minimum.
  • Never try to rush weight gain. Slow and steady is by far the safest for your horse. Assessing your horse’s weight weekly using a weigh tape will allow you to notice any unusual changes.
  • Try to keep an underweight horse as warm as possible; he will lose a significant amount of calories trying to generate heat.
  • Look for ‘complete’ feeds that contain digestive enhancers such as yeast and prebiotics.
  • Don’t confuse fat with muscle. You will not achieve a well-developed top line through feed alone, correct work is also essential.