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Dr Andrea Ellis from Unequi Ltd is a nutritionist specialised in food intake behaviour. In this article Dr Ellis discusses how we can restrict calories without causing frustration.
Optimum bodyweight while maintaining a good muscle to fat ratio (fitness) is something we all try to achieve for ourselves and our horses (ponies or donkeys). This is easier said than done as we all know. The first step is recognising a problem. To do this I have created a 4-POINT traffic light system (Ellis, Unequi Ltd) which allows you to keep an eye on the main areas of the horse.
If your horse has moved into more than one yellow or even any red zones of these descriptors it is time to increase exercise, if possible, and restrict calorie intake. In horses (and humans) carrying excess bodyweight over time can lead to metabolic conditions which make them less able to deal with absorbed sugars from feed. Simple sugars (glucose and fructose) are the final end product that is absorbed from carbohydrate breakdown by water, bile and enzymes in the foregut. These sugars from non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) are easily converted to fat in the body. Initially excess carbohydrates are easy to cut out by reducing or eliminating processed or straight concentrate feed rich in starch for horses, containing grains, peas and beans (or chips and chocolate in humans). Remember never to make any sudden changes to the diet.
But what about Forage Intake? We now know that horses have an intrinsic ‘urge’ to carry out foraging and chewing behaviour to a minimum of 8-10 hours per day, which is fulfilled by provision of plenty of grazing or conserved forage (see latest Recommendations Infogram below).
Most up to date recommendations on the importance of Forage Intake in Horses
There are of course also some NSCs in forage – with the highest amount in young grass and these will also be broken down to small sugar units in the foregut and absorbed. Restricting intake of calories from forage becomes necessary in overweight horses or equids prone to obesity. Grazing with a muzzle or restricting grazing through strip grazing or dirt paddocks are an option to reduce outdoor feed intake. But beware if you restrict turnout hours, horses walk less and tend to compensate by grazing in a more concentrated manner (increasing bite-rate and having less rest periods). Their ‘urge’ to forage is very strong.
In order to keep the horse busy for a longer time when stabled or in barren paddocks, slow feeder intake systems like the Haygain Forager can be used in conjunction with low energy forage (late cut hay or deseeded hay is lower in NSC’s than greener hays or haylages).
Hay containing low ‘sugars’ can be put into the Forager and this will slow the feed intake down and keep the horse busy for longer, avoiding behavioural side-effects of being on a ‘diet’.
Some chopped straw, if your horse is used to it, can also be introduced between the layers of hay. If you introduce this new then use very little and allow your horse 10 days to slowly acclimatise by feeding this separately at first.
In addition, providing multiple feeding stations around a stable or an area can help to keep your horse busy, moving and feeding for longer. The perfect set up could be two Foragers, but to have something like a Forager Feeding station in one corner and a small haynet doubled up in another corner is also a possibility Beware for some horses doubled haynets may cause frustration, so it should only be used as a complementary method, with the main forage available from a natural feeding position such as in the Forager. Always make sure horses have free access to water at all times.
Find out more about the Haygain Forager
Dugdale, A., Curtis, G., Cripps, P., Harris, P., & Argo, C. (2010). Effect of dietary restriction on body condition, composition and welfare of overweight and obese pony mares. Equine Veterinary Journal, 42(7), 600-610.
Ellis, A. D., Redgate, s., Zinchenko, S., Owen, H., Barfoot, C. and Harris, P. 2015. The effect of presenting forage in multi-layered haynets and at multiple sites on night time budgets of stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 171 (2015) 108-116
Hallam, S., Campbell, E. P., Qazamel, M., Owen H. and A. D. Ellis 2012. Effects of traditional versus novel feeding management on 24 hour time budget of stabled horses, In: Forages and Grazing in Horse Nutrition, EAAP Publication No. 132, Wageningen Academic Publishers, pp. 319-321
Harris, P.A., Ellis, A.D., M.J.Fradinho, A.Jansson, V.Julliand, N.Luthersson, A.S.Santos and I. Vervuert. 2017. Feeding conserved forage to horses: recent advances and recommendations; Animal Science, Animal. 2017 Jun;11(6):958-967
Longland AC, Byrd BM. Pasture nonstructural carbohydrates and equine laminitis. J Nutr 2006;136. 2099S–2102S.