Hoof Nutrition Intelligence is a twice-a-month web segment that is designed to add to the education of footcare professionals when it comes to effectively feeding the hoof. The goal of this web-exclusive feature is to zero in on specific areas of hoof nutrition and avoid broad-based articles that simply look at the overall equine feeding situation.
Below you will find Part 2 of the latest question and answer installment that you can share with your footcare clients.
Q: Can’t horses be fed hay free-choice?
By Juliet M. Getty, PhD
A: I caution against the stress of forage restriction. Some have said free choice forage feeding leads to increased obesity and an increased risk of laminitis. They are mistaken.
During a harsh winter, when the food supply is sparse, wild horses hold on to body fat to help them survive. They do this by having an elevated blood insulin level. When insulin levels are high, the cells cannot release fat.
We duplicate this when we restrict forage, since the domesticated horse responds the same way, as he’s in survival mode. And he holds on to his body fat.
Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t seem to make sense that eating more causes weight loss. It’s not the amount eaten, but the type of food consumed that has the most impact.
We also know that starving oneself will result in weight loss (mostly muscle loss), but will dramatically slow down the metabolic rate so the weight comes back on with far fewer calories than it originally took to maintain one’s weight.
Yet the horse-related studies we choose to follow involve starving the horse to get him to lose weight. Give the horse hay equal to 1.5% of his body weight, keep him in confined small space much of the day so he can’t graze and he loses weight! And if he doesn’t, reduce the amount of hay to 1% of his bodyweight!
What are you left with? A horse with less muscle mass, stressed to the max, with a sluggish metabolism so he will never live a normal life of grazing on pasture again.
When horses are forced to eat on our schedules, they quickly become out of touch with that innate ability to eat slowly, a little at a time, and stop when satisfied. Instead, they eat quickly with barely a breath in between each bite, because they do not know when their next meal will be available. When it gets close to feeding time they pace, bob their heads, paw the ground and make strange noises. This is not normal and well-meaning horse owners and caregivers are putting their horses into survival mode.
Horses are unlike humans in one very significant way, as their digestive tract is not the same as ours. The horse’s stomach produces acid continuously, necessitating the action of chewing to release acid-neutralizing saliva. The digestive tract is made of muscles and needs to be exercised to prevent colic by having a steady flow of forage running through it. The cecum (the hindgut where forage is digested by billions of microbes) has both its entrance and exit at the top, thereby requiring it to be full so material can exit to avoid becoming impacted.
You should not put your horse in a pen or a stall with no hay. You should test your hay to make sure it is suitable for the horse (low in sugar, starch and calories). If testing is impossible, soak it to remove a significant amount of sugar and starch.
Let your horse tell you how much he needs to eat, a message you want him to understand. Start by giving him more hay that you’ve tested for suitability or soaked than he could possibly eat – enough to last all day with some left over the next morning. If he runs out of hay, he will never get the message and will continue to overeat and continue to be fat.
It may take a few weeks (though most of the time it is far shorter than that) for the magic moment to occur when he walks away from the hay, knowing it will still be there when he wants it.
When done properly, the overweight horse loses weight. The horse with chronic laminitis doesn’t suffer any more. The horse with Cushing’s disease can live a longer, healthier life. Equine metabolic syndrome becomes a thing of the past. And the owners can throw away all their worry and instead experience the sheer joy that horse ownership can bring.
Juliet M. Getty, PhD, is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Located in Lewisville, Texas, her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.
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Click here to read part 1 of the Dec. 15, 2019 installment of Hoof Nutrition Intelligence: Since my 17-year-old trail-riding horse isn’t used much these days, does he need to be trimmed as often?