With some horses needing restrictive diets and others requiring extra calories, feeding throughout the summer can be tricky but once you have an effective plan, your horse will look better than ever.
Horses, particularly hardy native breeds, are naturally inclined to put weight on over the warmer months in preparation for winter. However, with warm rugs, cozy stables and quality feed, horses can hold onto the weight and develop an ever-increasing waistline, putting them at risk of conditions such as laminitis and insulin resistance. The summer can also pose issues for competition horses where balancing feed amounts, turnout and workload are vital for maintaining performance.
For all horses, maintaining a healthy bodyweight is achieved by finding a balance between energy intake (from feed, grazing and hay) and energy expenditure, through maintenance and exercise. For those needing to maintain a bodyweight the two must balance, whereas for those needing to lose weight, energy use must be higher than intake.
With better weather, many more shows are added to the calendar and for horses competing regularly, it is important their feed covers the energy expended in both training and competition. The general rule is to increase your horse’s work before increasing energy intake to ensuring you are feeding to just makeup the shortfall and not overfeeding.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for the body’s correct structure and function, and for a working horse, protein is particularly important. Protein is essential for the building and repair of all body tissues, including muscle, and is made up of amino acids, some of which are termed “essential” because the horse cannot synthesise them and must receive them through feed. Without quality protein the working or growing horse will be less able to build strong muscle tissue or to repair damaged tissues suffering the wear and tear of performance.
Although grazing may be lush, some horses in intense work may struggle to maintain weight. Adding oil is an easy way to increase energy levels as they are very energy-dense and due to being slow-release, it is ideal for improving stamina and endurance.
The combination of hot weather, hard work and extended turnout can lead to horses having limited appetites or becoming fussy. If the horse is showing no signs of ill health, check that the horse is hydrated and has constant access to a clean supply of water as well as a mineral salt lick. If the horse is dehydrated, offer an electrolyte supplement to restore the balance.
For horses that turn their nose up at the addition of new supplements, adding a soaked feed can mask the taste and make the meal more palatable. Those in work with limited appetites, try offering a higher-energy feed in a smaller portion, rather than a selection of lower-energy feeds. For horses that become disinterested in their feed but are otherwise healthy, changing the flavour may encourage them to finish.
If your horse is overweight, it is essential to develop a weight-loss plan that will allow the horse to drop the excess weight gradually. Limiting turnout is the first stage for creating an effective plan, which can be done by stabling the horse for longer periods, turning out in a smaller grazing area or using a grazing muzzle.
While limiting a horse’s time at grass will reduce sugar intake and lead to weight loss over time, it is also important to review what is provided once stabled. Soaking hay for at least half an hour will reduce the sugar content and is easily scheduled into a daily routine. Having forage tested to measure the sugar level is also very helpful as it allows you to make a more informed decision when purchasing hay, as well as a more accurate understanding of your horses diet. Hay and haylage can also be replaced with low-energy, chopped fibre feeds, which have a far lower sugar content and keep the horse’s gut functioning while stabled. Straw can be used as a source of forage without the calories, as long as it is introduced slowly, but shouldn’t be offered to horses with poor teeth or a history of impaction colic.
Helping hand from supplements
Throughout the summer season, flies can cause a number of problems for horses, ranging from minor irritations to more severe skin conditions such as sweet itch and infection. Offering your horse an ‘internal’ fly repellent will cause the horse’s body to secrete oils that will repel flies, or raise the pH of the horse’s blood enough to put flies off from biting. Such repellents take time to produce an effect so combining these with other protection methods initially is recommended. The most common ingredient to feed is garlic, which also has benefits for the respiratory system and blood pressure as well as antiseptic, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be fed in granulated, powdered or shredded forms, but recommended feeding rates must be kept to otherwise owners have the risk of causing anaemia by over consumption.
For those in work, including a joint supplement within the feed can offer relief and aid recovery after riding on harder ground. Joint care supplements are mainly aimed at the regeneration of cartilage, with ingredients including glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and chondroitin. Helping to maintain the joint could be as easy as additional oil in their feed, which can then be added to with a herbal joint relief supplement.
Maintaining good hoof condition is important for any horse, as poor hooves can lead to loss of shoes and lameness. To help your horse’s hoof growth and condition, you can supplement with Vitamin B in the form of Biotin. Biotin is produced in the hindgut as it digests and breaks down fibre. Often horses that are good doers, on a restricted diet and therefore eating less fibre, will produce less biotin and can suffer more from bad hoof condition. Calcium, readily found in alfalfa, can be also be added to the diet too as it is important in the cell structure within the hoof horn.
When exercising in warmer weather, most horses will benefit from the addition of an electrolyte supplement. Containing essential salts that are lost through sweat, an electrolyte supplement can aid rehydration and a horse to work to its maximum potential.
While it is tempting to cut out hard feeds when grazing can support long turnout hours, this doesn’t necessarily mean the horses will be getting the full spectrum of nutrients and minerals needed. UK soil is generally short of minerals such as selenium, which boosts the immune system, copper, which is aids the development of bone and cartilage, and zinc, which is important for bone development and healthy hooves and coat, therefore young horses, or those working and competing regularly, will benefit from the addition of a mineral lick or balancer. Vitamin and mineral supplements are readily available in both powder and concentrated pellet forms.