19 Apr Liz Tollarzo: What do I feed my horses?
Liz Tollarzo is a dressage coach and rider based in Western Australia. Having ridden at the FEI level at the Australian Dressage Championships, she knows what it takes to keep horses looking and feeling their best to compete.
“What do I feed my horses…. I see more and more posts regarding feeding and thought I would do my own post on the subject.
I believe in keeping horse feeding as simple as possible. I am highly aware of the fact that the horse’s natural way of feeding is to be a constant grazer – eating nearly all day long with periods of rest. Feeding little and often is very important if the horse is not able to graze or forage 24 hours a day; a situation that is very common in most agistment places or private properties all over Australia (but more prevalent in horses kept near city areas or with competition horses).
Feed must be relative to the age of the horse, breed, type of work, frequency of work, temperament of horse, body condition, weather, stabled or paddocked and even with regard to the rider’s ability.
Before thinking about how to feed the individual horse, it is useful to know how the horse’s digestive system actually works.
Starting with the teeth – regular dentist care is required for chewing to take place successfully. The purpose of chewing is to produce saliva and make the particles of food smaller before swallowing. The horses stomach is small in proportion to the size of a horse; it can only hold 4-8 litres of food, which travels through to the small intestine (often within 20-30 minutes of being eaten, although it can hang around for 1-2 hours)… In comparison, water travels quickly through the stomach.
The small size of the stomach is the reason why the rule to feed little and often is so important, as the horse has evolved to be a continuously grazing animal. Periods longer than 2-4 hours without feed can nearly empty the stomach, which increases the likelihood of stomach ulcers and other issues. Recent findings have indicated that a small feed (such as chaff) before working a horse can possibly help prevent or lessen ulcer issues.
The small intestine’s job is to digest proteins (amino acids), fats and half of any carbohydrates (sugar), whilst absorbing many important minerals such as calcium. Feed travels the small intestine normally within 4-8 hours of being eaten (can be as quick as 1 hour with certain conditions)! The large intestine (including the cecum) is slow moving to allow fermentation and breakdown of fibre, whilst digesting any other proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins and performing the major job of absorbing water. Not providing enough fibre or having excessive grain in the diet will result in hind gut acidosis, ulcers, colic etc.
It can take between 40-60 hours for food to travel along the large intestine, which allows time for the ‘good and healthy’ bacteria to assist in breaking down the feed. If the horse has a problem in the hind gut, this ‘food’ can of course travel quicker resulting in diarrhoea or other issues.
Remember the rules of feeding: water must be always freely accessible to the horse, feed good quality feed that is free of dust and mould, feed according to the work (if not working on that particular day, lessen the energy content to help prevent tying up), feed according to body condition, feed little and often, don’t feed any leftover feeds, don’t make sudden changes to the diet, only feed products for horses (not ruminants), don’t exercise after a full meal and don’t feed a full meal after working the horse hard, don’t allow a horse to guzzle water (particularly cold water after hard work), and ensure to always feed more fibre in the diet than concentrates or grain.
Another point of feeding is that horses like habits; beware feeding exactly the same time every day as the day you can’t make it can create enough stress for the horse to develop colic! Altering your feeding times a little can help prevent stress.
I try and feed my horses in feed bins on ground level to mimic the natural feeding neck and head position, but make sure the feed bins are not easy to tip over to avoid feed spilling onto any sand. Any hay fed in slow feed nets are also tied above rubber mats so the hay falling out of the nets is not dropped on the ground where the horse will fossick in the soil and consume any sand.
I personally like feeding flaked concentrates if I need more energy content in my feed, as the flaking process assists the digestibility of the products. If I want a cheaper alternative and perhaps not so readily absorbable energy source – then feeding a whole grain such as whole oats will increase the fibre content and encourage the horse to chew and crush the grain itself to get the benefit of the feed. Feeding soaked grains can again assist digestion or make whole grains safe to feed (such as whole lupins).
I always make sure I feed more roughage in the form of hay and use chaff to mix with my concentrates to keep the ratio of fibre/concentrates correct, as well as regular turn out with pasture pick. If I don’t have access to pasture, I always feed my hay with some form of slow feed netting to make the horse take more time to eat its hay. In the paddock I use poly safe hay feeders with slow feed netting as these are very safe and have little if any waste.
I rely on Thompson and Redwood bagged grains if I want to increase specific energy requirements, as I know they are a WA produce and all grains are rigorously inspected and quality controlled.
With regards to pelleted feeds, I only feed Thompson and Redwood products to my horses, as I know these are already balanced in minerals and vitamins whilst telling me exactly how much energy, protein, fibre and fat etc is in the product. I particularly like the grain free cubes (Claytons Pellets) for my more energetic horses! Having such a wide range of pelleted feeds enables me to choose which pellet, cube or muesli would be perfect for each of my individual horses – making my feeding so much easier and convenient, whilst allowing me to know and trust my horses are getting the best!”