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Feeding through the holidays

By Hannah Botha, MSc Equine Science, Epol Nutrition Advisor

The December holidays are finally upon us! For many, that means a well-deserved break for both horse and rider; for others, it means more time to ride, and so the workload increases.

Assessing your horse’s diet prior to making changes in workload will ensure that all the essential nutrients are fully covered to maintain his overall health this holiday.

Increased workload for a few weeks 

If you are going to be riding a lot more over the holidays, it’s likely your horse will need additional feed during this time. All horses should receive at least 1.5% of body weight per day of forage (hay, grazing, hay cubes etc.) This could be increased to 2% should your horse be working harder, or you could look at changing a portion of his forage to a higher calorie forage such as lucerne or a high fibre cube to add extra calories without increasing the amount of forage fed.

For those not on concentrate, it may be worth adding in a balancer. While this won’t give additional energy/calories, it will ensure your horse receives all the essential vitamins and minerals he needs when moving up a workload level. For those receiving a concentrate, all that’s likely to be needed is a small increase in the amount fed alongside your horse’s normal daily portion of forage.

Time off: One day – one week 

For this length of time off, there is no need to reduce or change the horse’s feed, especially if the horse’s rest period can include some level of activity such as lunging, use of a horse walker and/or extra turnout time.

However, if an individual is prone to weight gain or excitability, then reducing the horse’s concentrate feed slightly may be worthwhile. For example, a reduction of 15-20%, which is around 500g-700g for a horse on 3.5kg per day, may be all that’s needed.

Time off: Two – four weeks 

As it is still a relatively short time off, and changes should always be done gradually, it may not be worthwhile changing to a different product (especially if the current diet works well), so the safest option would be to simply reduce the amount of concentrate feed.

For this length of time off or for cases where the horse is being fed a concentrate that is higher in cereal grains, the reduction may need to be around 30-50%. This will lower the starch and sugar content of the diet to minimise excitability and the risk of the horse becoming ‘tied-up’ or experiencing digestive upsets. This risk is further reduced if the horse gets a good amount of paddock time on his rest days and, of course, adequate forage per day. When cutting back by this larger amount, it may be worthwhile adding in a good quality balancer to ensure that the horse still gets all the nutrients he requires.

If the horse is not only excitable but also struggles to maintain weight, then reducing the concentrate portion while increasing the roughage portion (this could be made up of hay, grazing, chaff, hay cubes, or beet products) may be a better way to go as it ensures your horse gets the calories required, without the added fizz.

If the horse is not in a high level of work and therefore doesn’t get much concentrate feed, the need to reduce may not be as great; in fact, your ability to reduce anything will be fairly limited, and balance can be happily maintained by reducing the daily concentrate intake by only 20-30%.

PLEASE NOTE: Reducing feed does not necessarily mean cutting out meals, and some horses can become quite upset if they start to miss out on meals. So, if feed is normally given three times per day continue to do so just with less food per meal.

What happens if I run out of feed? 

Honestly, it’s not such a huge deal. Yes, disrupting the horse’s routine and dietary plan is never ideal, but the horse isn’t going to be too concerned if hay is provided.

Often, we obsess about what’s going in the bucket but forget that the horse’s diet shouldn’t be made up of concentrate feed alone but rather should be made up of forage (hay and grazing) with concentrate provided to make up for any nutrients not supplied by his forage. If the horse is going to miss out on a meal or two, then simply ensure he has ad-lib access to hay 24/7. You can also consider adding some of this hay to his ‘bucket’ along with any extras like supplements, carrots etc., so that he is fed at a normal time under similar conditions. This will help to reduce the stress associated with a change in routine.

If your horse is already getting ad-lib hay, then perhaps he can have some extra time in the paddock to ensure he can eat as much grass as he likes before coming into his stable. Alternatively, if he is happy and used to being out, he could stay out 24/7 in his paddock to allow him to graze constantly.

What happens if there is no stock of my food?

We all know that sudden changes to a horse’s diet are not a good idea, and so if your horse is only going to miss a meal or two, it’s not worth changing feed as it takes the horse’s digestive system 7-10 days to adapt to something new in the diet, and so sudden swaps in feed could put the horse at risk of digestive upset. In these cases, follow the instructions above to make up for the meal or two they miss.

On the other hand, if feed will be in short/no supply for several weeks, then yes, it may be wise to start something new. However, you must take time and introduce this new feed slowly over the 7 – 10 days needed to adapt.

Final thoughts

The end of the year can see changes in your horse’s routine and also your feed company’s opening hours. The best thing you can do is plan in advance and chat to your Equine Nutritionist if you have any concerns.