The Rules of Feeding

If you are training towards your BHS exams then you should be able to recite the Rules of Feeding by heart. If you are a recreational horse owner then some of the rules of feeding you will know, and others are common sense.

But have you ever paused to consider the reasons for these rules and how they can affect a horse`s health.

1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, type of work to be done and the level of rider that will be riding him.
This sounds obvious really, but it is incredibly common for people to overfeed their horse. I think it comes from two reasons. Firstly, we feel better giving our horse a nice big dinner. And at the other end of the spectrum we feel cruel giving the chubby pony just a handful of chaff while the rest of the barn of Thoroughbreds munch through their buckets of oats. The other reason is that owners grossly overestimate the level of work their horse is in. Just because you hack him five days a week doesn`t mean that he should be fed competition mix, as he is still only in the “Light Work” category.

2. Feed little and often.
Horses have a small stomach, approximately the size of a rugby ball, which is quite rigid. Therefore there is a risk of colic by overfilling the stomach as undigested food is pushed through into the intestines, where it is more likely to get blocked as it isn`t digested. Furthermore, in the wild horses are designed to eat little and often so by providing them with small, regular feeds you are mimicking their natural lifestyle.

3. Always feed good quality food.
Let`s bring it back to basics. Would you like to eat mouldy or dusty food? Firstly, it`s bad for the respiratory and digestive systems. Secondly, so many people fall into the trap of buying in bulk to save precious pennies, but their feed goes out of date long before they use it. Why don`t yards get together and put in a bulk order so that everyone still benefits from buying in bulk? Another little tip is to ensure that feed bins are completely empty before refilling them. This may mean having a bag of feed sat in the feed room for a couple of days, but this bag won`t become contaminated by any bad feed at the bottom of the bin. Furthermore, you won`t end up with four scoops of dusty, bad feed sitting at the bottom of the feed bin.

4. Feed plenty of bulk.
The horses digestive system is designed to breakdown grass, or it`s replacements. The fibre helps the digestive system work efficiently as it ensures peristalsis can occur and the intestines are less likely to tie themselves in knots.

5. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed.
I remember this rule being drilled into me whenever I was told to feed my pony oats. It wasn`t explained to me at the time, but the horses stomach contains bacteria which are specific to the food type they break down. For example, a horse fed a lot of barley has a lot of barley bacteria in their stomach, whilst one who isn`t fed any barley doesn`t have any barley bacteria in theirs. If their feeds were to be accidentally swapped the horse with barley bacteria wouldn`t come to much harm, he would just give his barley bacteria a day off. The horse without the barley bacteria though, could have serious problems. Because his stomach cannot break down barley, the barley will pass undigested through his stomach and into the intestines, where it risks getting blocked and causing colic.

6. Always use clean utensils and bowls.
This sounds obvious again, as we wouldn`t eat off a dirty plate, but in many yards this a job left at the bottom of the list. If you fed your horse from a bucket on the yard that had just been swept, and picked up the bucket as soon as he was finished, the bucket is still probably fairly clean. Or at least, it looks clean. You want to be careful though as germs are invisible and a horse could be suffering from a slight infection and these germs could be passed from horse to horse should another horse eat from that feed bucket.However, if your horse has their feed bucket in their stable all night it gets squelched around and the bottom covered in muck – both visible and invisible. One of the morning jobs at most yards is to remove all feed buckets and stack them up in the feed room. When you stack the buckets you put mucky bases into the cleaner insides and so provide a filthy bowl for your horse to eat from the following day. For this reason I always wash both sides of a bucket, and then I know I can stack in peace.

7. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise, and longer for demanding work.
This is another rule that was drummed into me as a child, but I didn`t realise until I was training on a yard, that you shouldn`t feed before travelling or doing anything stressful, as a stressed horse will divert his blood supply to the muscles and away from the digestive system, which means that food takes longer to be digested and risks being pushed into the intestine and becoming jammed.

8. Feed at regular times daily.
Horses like routine, and yes I don`t like them to become too fixed into a routine, in case you have a problem or just need a lie in. A benefit of feeding at regular times on a busy yard is that everyone knows what is going on. For example, you could turn up at the yard in the morning ready to ride your horse, knowing that the yard staff will have fed all the horses between 7.30 and 8.00. I know I would hate it if I turned up to ride my horse and he had only just been fed. It wastes precious hours in the day. My usual routine for Otis and Llani is to split them in the field and feed them between 7.30 and 8.00, but for the last week I`ve been house-bound with the world`s worst Christmas Chest Infection (Yes, I do need sympathy!) and my friend has been feeding the boys. Obviously this means they had breakfast a bit later in the day, and at slightly different times. The result? Llani canters around the field and throws a shoe! Otis on the other hand, just isn`t talking to me.

9. Feed something succulent every day.
A stabled horse can be kept happy by apples and carrots being added to his diet. To many people, this means giving their horse treats from the hand. It doesn`t. I always stress to new owners that treats are given in a bucket, to avoid creating nippy ponies. I turn out so many livery horses who search my pockets from treats, nudging and trying to nip me, as we go to the field. It`s annoying and very rude as they don`t give you any personal space.

10. Water before feeding
This rule is from a time before horses had access to water at all times. Grooms used to lead them from their stall to the trough, and back. Incidentally, this is also where the saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can`t make him drink.” comes from. In the olden days horses used to take big gulps of water, which could wash undigested food through the digestive tract. Nowadays, it`s not such an issue, but I always like to offer water to the horses before feeding them, by putting them in their stable for a few minutes, or offering them a bucket when we`re at another venue.

A further rule I would like to add is Maintain the feed room in a clean and orderly fashion as it is my pet hate when I see buckets scattered around the yard. For one reason, Otis sees a bucket and assumes it is a) full of feed, and b) for him, which can lead to behavioural problems – he stands gazing at the bucket, completely ignoring the fact I`m trying to pick out his foot! Additionally, the sugar beet bucket should never be left out on the yard. It is dangerous if a child lost control of their pony, or a horse broke loose and the sugar beet isn`t soaked sufficiently. A clean feed room with airtight bins and no feed on the floor is less likely to attract vermin. One of my daily jobs is to sweep the feed room out, even if no food has spilt. Nowadays, so many livery yards have micro feed rooms, so that individuals keep track of their own food. Livery owners must be encouraged to keep their environment clean and tidy to reduce the risk of rats.

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