The Rules of Feeding

It crossed my mind the other day how much feeding horses has changed even over the relatively short time I have been working with horses. Does this mean that the rules of feeding we learn so diligently by rote need modernising, or have they stood the test of time?

Let’s go through them one at a time.

  1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, level of work, level of rider. With all the modern complete feeds on the market I think it is easier to choose, and trial, a feed that will suit your horse and then feed it in the correct quantity. For example, you can buy feeds specifically designed for laminitics, veterans, excitable horses, endurance, stud, and any other factor you can think of. However, there is still a huge (excuse the pun) problem of horses being overfed. I feel this is more due to the quantity they are given, their grazing being too rich, and owners being unable to distinguish between healthy and overweight animals rather than the type of feed being unsuitable for them though.
  1. Feed little and often. This rule comes from wise observations of horses in their natural state, and as the digestive tract of a horse has not changed in the last century we can be sure that this rule is as relevant today as it was when the rules were first drawn up.
  2. Always feed good quality food. Just the same that we wouldn’t eat poor quality food, feeding poor quality food can lead to respiratory or digestive disorders as well as being a false economy as the horse will drop weight and under perform. Since the early 2000s the EU has passed many regulations on the quality of equine feeds, which I think makes it far harder to purchase low quality food.
  3. Feed plenty of bulk. This rule is based on the observation of a horse’s natural diet, and as I said before they haven’t changed physiologically in recent years we should still feed plenty of bulk. The knowledge of the average leisure rider has improved vastly so whilst this rule is no less important, it is done more autonomically. Additionally, the complete feeds that you now buy instead of having to mix various straight feeds, are all based on a mainly fibrous diet.
  4. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed. Again, as this rule is based on the horse’s physiology, so is still relevant today. I think the feeds on today’s market does mean that there is less change in a horse’s diet over the course of a year though. Because the off the shelf feed bags are complete feeds within themselves, a horse’s base diet stays the same throughout the year, it may just change in volume between seasons, or it may be supplemented during competition season in order to keep the horse’s performance levels up. When I was young I can distinctly remember our ponies diets changing quite radically between winter and summer. Matt always had to have the oats removed once he started living in, and barley added from September to help keep the weight on him. Nowadays, he has the same type of feed all through the year, but the ratio is adjusted if he needs to gain weight.
  1. Always use clean utensils and bowls. We don’t eat off dirty plates so why should our horses use dirty bowls? The move towards plastic feed buckets in recent years rather than the rubber ones does mean it’s easier to keep them cleaner to a higher standard. And of course you can write names onto plastic buckets more easily, which reduces the risk of cross contamination of illnesses and medicine. I think perhaps the importance of preventing horses getting the wrong medicine, or banned substances in their feed, has increased in recently years with the FEI having more stringent rules surrounding medicines in competition, and the fact there are more non-professional riders competing at the highest levels and under rules. Also more leisure horses are fed drugs for maintenance, such as Bute or prascend, which increases the risk of competition horses being exposed to the drugs.
  2. Feed at regular times daily. Horses are creatures of habit so thrive on routine, but equally having a frequent feed routine helps to keep the digestive system flowing. This helps reduce stress, which is linked to gastric ulcers. There seems to be more cases of ulcers nowadays, but whether that’s because of better diagnostic techniques and understanding of the equine body. Or whether horses have more stressful lives – in terms of routine, competitions, environment – yes, I know that’s a can of worms! So the rule is old and still relevant, but has the reasoning behind the rule changed slightly as our demands on the horse changed?
  3. Feed something succulent every day. This rule is to provide horses with variety to the diet and to provide extra vitamins. Now that complete feeds are scientifically balanced to provide the correct quantities of vitamins and minerals are carrots, parsnips, salt licks as necessary?
  1. Water before feeding. This comes from when horses were predominantly kept in stalls not loose boxes (think of Black Beauty) so didn’t have access to water all the time. This rule has changed in the revised textbooks to “provide a clean, fresh supply of water at all times”. So yes, it has been modernised!
  2. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise and longer before more demanding work. Just like we don’t swim an hour after eating to ensure blood is not diverted and away from the digestive system to working muscles leaving us with undigested food banging around our insides, it’s still not advisable to feed a horse just before riding. However, I do believe this rule needs expanding as now we are beginning to understand the importance of having a little bit of fibre (e.g. hay or chaff) in our horses stomachs when we ride to soak up excess gastric acid and help prevent the development of ulcers. Most people now give their horse a small haynet or a scoop of chaff while they are grooming for this reason.

In all, the rules of feeding are staying with the times and not becoming outdated, which is good news for us oldies! Are there any rules which could be added or expanded to, to make sure they’re more relevant to today’s stable management routines and the feed available on the market?

Another rule I can think of, which is fairly common sense, but still important with the numerous feeds that require soaking prior to feeding, is to follow the preparation instructions of compound feeds. The rules from the BHS textbook I looked at also did not mention about dampening feeds, which is vitally important in preventing horses bolting their food and getting choke.

I’d be interested on a nutritionist’s opinion on the original rules of feeding and their relevance to modern feeds.

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