Meeting the Challenge of Providing an Optimum Diet For Your Horse …

With Minimal Or No Natural Grazing Available

By A.C.A.N. Student Midi Fairgrieve

I hope one day that my 3 horses get to experience the joy of grazing on fresh pasture but because we live in Southern Spain, a dry, hot Mediterranean climate, there’s not much fresh grass to eat. I expect many horse owners face a similar grazing challenge.

We get a glimpse of grass for a few short months in the spring and I love watching our horses, heads down, seeking fresh green foliage, occupied all day long grazing as nature intended. For the rest of the year, their diet is mainly hay.  

This poses a challenge to provide optimum nutrition, because feeding horses needs to be grounded in the laws of nature and that’s based upon both the nutritional and psychological requirements of the horse.1 We need to provide real food to nourish our horses, beyond the basics of functioning, we need to reach for optimum nutrition. Whatever the conditions, species appropriate nutrition cannot be ignored as it is forms the basic components of tissue building, repair and biochemistry. Food provides energy for life, helps repair worn out cells, provides essential nutrients for enzyme action and metabolic processes in the body. 2

Horses are not just grazers, they are browsers too and given the opportunity they seek out and select herbs and tree bark. These plants add a rich and varied source of nutrients to their diet, such as antioxidants, metabolic co-factors, anti-inflammatory nutrients and ‘medicinal foods’. Horses know what to eat when they feel ill, and which plants can heal them.

So how can you provide optimum nutrition when access to a variety of grazing and foraging isn’t available? It was my first horse that made me look for the answers. He used to have colic and his condition fuelled me to look more closely at what I could do to help him. As a human nutritionist, it was natural for me to look first to his diet, but being new to horses, I lacked confidence and was swayed by marketing and what everyone else was doing. I began meal feeding a grain-based mix out of a bag and giving hay twice a day. He was getting everything he needed nutritionally wasn’t he? Clearly not, as the colic continued.

As I researched deeper into equine nutrition I did a complete turnaround and saw that meal feeding and grain feeding was totally wrong for horses. Their intestinal system is designed to eat a large amount of forage on an almost continual basis and therefore the bulk of the diet needs to be forage. A horse’s stomach is relatively small and non elastic, suited to trickle feeding which is why the common practise of meal feeding is completely opposite to their needs. An equine stomach produces acid whether they are eating or not, and if they have long gaps between feeds, there’s nothing to buffer that stomach acid, leading to ulcers and colic. Saliva acts as a natural ant-acid and is produces by chewing but if a horse has nothing to chew on, there’s nothing to buffer the continual production of stomach acid. To find relief, they can develop ‘behavioural’ issues, such as cribbing, pawing, even eating their own faeces to reduce the pain. A horse can start to display behavioural issues and appear moody or ‘unmanageable’ just because their stomach hurts, yet this ‘behaviour’ is rarely linked to poor dietary management.

It’s also highly stressful for horses to be without continual access to food and raises their levels of stress-related hormones with associated knock-on effects. One aspect of raised stress hormones worth noting is that it promotes fat storage and you can actually get into never ending cycle of high/sustained oestrogen and fat production; this can have profound complications, especially in mares. This is why putting an overweight horse on a restricted diet actually has the opposite effect. 3

Continual access to forage is what horses need and the answer to healing the colic; but I was now challenged with how to overcome the lack of grazing? How to mimic 24/7 grazing? This is really important because pasture or hay offered free-choice also affects how horses behave. The more we treat a horse like a horse in the wild, the calmer and more content they will be. Behavioural issues such as cribbing can be relieved by simply feeding free-choice hay. In a situation where there is minimal grazing, the best way I have found to offer hay all day is to use slow feeder hay nets. These aren’t ordinary hay nets, they have much smaller holes (1 inch squares) so that the horse can literally only nibble little bits at a time, similar to natural grazing. I have been using slow feeder nets for nearly 2 years, we are colic free and the horses are happily eating around 16 -18 hours a day, just as they would be if grazing naturally. Because the hay never runs out, they don’t gorge on it and quickly adapt their intake to their needs.

We know that forage needs to be the most part of what you feed, but given that hay will have been cut perhaps months before it’s used, there will be a greater or lesser degree of nutrient degradation. Dry hay doesn’t have the same high life force energy of fresh hay either. This presents a further challenge to overcome. How do we enliven their diet and provide sufficient nutrients, and in the right balance? In the wild, horses are able to roam and self select and constantly balance their nutritional needs with different varieties of grasses, mineral salts, and herbs. Metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fats, which provide the horse with energy, can be compromised without the correct mineral and vitamin co-factors. Nothing in the body works in isolation and this applies to nutrients too, they work together to enhance absorption, while others compete for absorption, and so the right balance over time is always important.

One thing you can consider is to have your hay analysed and find out exactly what is it deficient in, and then add a tailor-made mineral and vitamin mix. You might also need to add amino acids and essential fatty acids. Most hay will need added vitamins and minerals such as zinc, vitamin E and magnesium, but it depends on the grass type, the soil it is grown in, how old it is, how it is stored etc. This isn’t an ‘exact science’ so to speak as the nutrient content of hay can vary from batch to batch, and from one part of a field to another; but it provides a rough guide and can be useful. A bespoke mix of minerals can be expensive especially if you have several horses, so instead you might consider a ready-made balancer mix.

It’s important to bear in mind is the individual physiology of each horse. Some horses may have a greater need for a specific mineral than another, or be less efficient as absorbing it. This is why allowing your horse free-choice is so important. We have to trust their innate wisdom to choose what they need. If you feed the same mix every day, it is essentially force-feeding minerals and they may not need them. It’s better to allow free access to a mineral mix as their needs may change from day to day or month to month. A ready-made blend of chelated minerals is a good option, available free-choice. Research shows that minerals in a chelated form are better absorbed, again an important aspect, as it’s not what is eaten that counts as much as what is absorbed.4

When the majority of the diet is hay, it’s also important to look at the depletion of vital force and enzymes. Dry forage will be quite depleted. Think of a field full of fresh grass, wild flowers and herbs, teeming with life energy, compared to pre-cut and dried hay. So how can we enrich and enliven a mostly ‘dead’ hay diet?

There are a variety of raw foods you can add on an ad hoc basis including raw vegetables – leafy greens, such as kale, lettuce and cabbage and the outer leaves of cauliflower, plus root vegetables, like turnips, Swedes, carrots and parsnips. There are also all sorts of common edible herbs you can plant if you have a garden or along the fence line of their field where they can’t trample them. Herbs contain a broad range of nutrients that can be hugely beneficial; horses instinctively chose the plants they need, for nutritional as well as medicinal reasons and compared to most grasses, herbs are higher in minerals. Weeds and herbs such as the dandelion, nettle, plantain, echinacea, comfrey, red clover and chicory are abundant in minerals and other nutrients.

There are other living foods we can offer such as sprouted seeds, like buckwheat sprouts, lentil sprouts and alfalfa sprouts. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds add protein and act as a slow burning energy source and provide essential fatty acids. Raw nuts (not peanuts) can be fed in moderation and add useful sources of protein, minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids. Other useful nutrients sources include; sea vegetables, algae, goji berries, maca root, acai berries. Tree fruits such as apples, apricots, pears and vine fruits. Remember to offer them free-choice. I have often seen one of my horses barge his way towards a cauliflower and not let the others near it; and on other occasions, give it a disinterested sniff and move on.

You can also offer powdered green foods, such as organic barley grass, wheat grass, spirulina and chlorella. If you can get it, E3live is a fantastic option for high quality blue green algae. All the green super foods are packed with chlorophyll, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes (powerful biochemical catalysts), and essential omega 3 fatty acids. I also give freshly ground chia seeds or linseeds to add essential fats to the diet.

You might also find probiotics helpful, especially if your horse has digestive issues; again it is bringing in a living element to their diet that may be missing from hay or if they have become depleted. Horses, like us, depend on the right balance of bacteria in the bowel for optimum digestion. Diets previously high in grain feeds and sugars can cause the microflora to become seriously out of balance, or if they have had to have antibiotics, a few months of probiotics afterwards is really important. An appropriate diet will bring their intestinal flora back into balance, but it can be useful in initially to flood the intestines with the right strain of flora as a short cut to recovery.

Some of these additional foods you can bring in without too much expense or extra work, such as leftover vegetable ends, the pulp from juicing etc. So why not start now and sprout some seeds and see how easily, you can optimize your horse’s diet, even in compromised grazing conditions. It’s a challenge worth taking on, as your horses will benefit on every level, body, mind and spirit.

References / Sources

  1. Reagan, S. Dr. (2013) Equine Nutrition: From A Species Appropriate Perspective.
  2. Day, Christopher (2012). Feed Your Horse The Natural Way (e-book). Preface.
  3. Getty, J.M. PhD. (2010). Feed Your Horse Like A Horse. P9
  4. Chelated Minerals Enhance Nutrient Bioavailability By Kentucky Equine Research Staff· February 24, 2011. http://www.equinews.com/article/chelated-minerals-enhance-nutrient-bioavailability