Dangerous Diets

Learn do’s and don’ts for feeding your horse, and how to avoid making dangerous diet choices.
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Learn do’s and don’ts for feeding your horse, and how to avoid making dangerous diet choices.

“Every horse should have a daily ration of oats…”

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“Arabians can’t eat alfalfa…”

“You’re using that feed? It’s so expensive; you should use this one instead.”

Sound familiar? Hang around your local feedstore for an hour or two, and you’re bound to hear as many different opinions about how to feed your horse as there are people to share them. But guess what? What you hear around the “feedstore water cooler” isn’t always best. While there are probably as many different acceptable feeding plans as there are opinions on the subject, there are just as many feeding mistakes. In fact, some diets can be downright dangerous.

I’m going to introduce you to some of my equine patients, and will tell you about their diet-related health problems. You’ll learn what mistakes you should avoid, and what you can do instead. Then, you can refer to my list of feeding “do’s and don’ts” on page 44 for some simple feeding rules.

Fat Freddy

Freddy is a 12-year-old Quarter Horse gelding, dearly loved by his elderly owner who trail rides once or twice each week. He lives in the Pacific Northwest where he’s kept on a lush green pasture year-round. He’s also fed two flakes of grass hay twice daily, and two pounds of a concentrate ration every night along with a weight-appropriate dose of a basic vitamin supplement.

What’s the problem? Freddy’s just plain fat. His ribs are so far buried beneath a layer of fat they’re impossible to find, and he’s developed fat deposits around his sheath, along the crest of his neck, and at the head of his tail. He looks a little like the equine version of the Michelin Man.

Diet Danger: Over feeding.

Health Risks: With all that excess fat, Freddy has a high risk for developing insulin resistance, a diabetes-like condition in horses that can lead to a life-threatening founder episode if left unchecked. Not only that, but even with his moderate exercise demands, his excess weight also puts unnecessary stress on his joints, tendons, and ligaments—increasing his risk for a musculoskeletal injury.

The Solution: Freddy’s owner is literally “killing him with kindness,” and the solution is simple…feed him less. If he’s going to live on pasture year-round, a grazing muzzle would be an excellent addition to his everyday attire, especially during spring and fall months, when pasture grass is growing strong. Adjusting his hay ration according to the time of year should be another important part of his dietary management. He’d probably be fine with pasture alone if the pasture is well maintained. Finally, he really doesn’t need a concentrate at all. A handful with his vitamin supplement would be plenty.

Freddy’s owner should keep him at a weight where she can easily feel his ribs by running her flat hand along his side with just a little bit of pressure. Allowing him to be so fat is just plain dangerous.

Larry Long-Legs

Larry is a 9-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. His teenage owner is on her high school’s equestrian team, where she uses him mostly for jumping. She does a little bit of gaming, too, and has a pretty intense work schedule six days a week. He’s fed three flakes of grass hay twice a day, and two pounds of rolled oats.

Although Larry has plenty of energy (in fact, he’s a little high strung), his owner is really unhappy with how he looks. Even with all his hard work, he still has a big pot belly, yet she can see his ribs. And no matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to get him muscled along his topline.

Diet Danger: Protein deficient.

Health Risks: A mature horse in hard work should have 10- to 12-percent protein in his daily ration to build muscle. Although a lack of protein may not lead to any serious health threats, Larry’s athletic potential will be limited. He also could be at risk for musculoskeletal injuries if he doesn’t have the muscling he needs to support his bones and joints.

The Solution: The protein content of grass hay can range from very low (less than 5 percent) to quite high (as much as 20 percent). The only way to know for sure is through hay analysis. If Larry’s owner discovers that her hay is low in protein, she can make up the difference by adding a flake or two of alfalfa hay (typically 15- to 20-percent protein) to his ration. And/or, she can replace his rolled oats with a commercial higher-protein concentrate ration. She can reduce the amount of grass hay in his diet as needed to maintain his weight once she starts to see the results of these diet changes.

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I suspect that Larry will begin to build more muscle fairly quickly, and his ribby, pot-bellied look will soon be replaced by a sleek, athletic one. As a side benefit, Larry’s owner might notice that his “high strung” temperament will settle, as he has more sustainable energy to do his job.

Crampy Charlie

Charlie is a fiery little 4-year-old Quarter Horse gelding who’s being fine-tuned as a cutting horse. His owner keeps him at home, but transports him for training to a high-end cutting trainer and maintains a heavy competition schedule. He feeds a 12-percent protein timothy hay, and a basic performance-horse concentrate ration of 3 pounds, twice a day.

Charlie “tied up” (suffered painful muscle spasms) several times last spring, prompting us to test him for polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a genetic muscle disease known to affect Quarter Horses and breeds that use Quarter Horses as outcrosses. Charlie was negative for PSSM, but his blood levels of selenium were low. This mineral, lacking in the soil in many areas, is important for maintaining proper muscle function.

Diet Danger: Missing a vital nutrient.

Health Risks: The lack of selenium in Charlie’s diet puts him at risk for poor muscle function—to the point of repeated tie-up episodes. In a worst-case scenario, these tie-up episodes can damage his kidneys, and even lead to life-threatening kidney failure.

Selenium isn’t the only nutrient that can be lacking in your horse’s diet. It’s just the most common. It’s important to make sure that all of his vitamin and mineral needs are met. Some horses, such as those with PSSM, suffer from genetic diseases that affect their ability to process certain minerals.

The Solution: Charlie’s basic feeding plan is good. Still, adding an all-around vitamin/mineral supplement would help ensure that he’s getting basic nutrients that might be missing from his hay and grain. His owner should find a supplement that’s designed for the area where he lives; in his case, selenium is likely deficient in the soil, and should be included in the supplement. Consult with your vet on how to create a safe diet for horses with conditions like PSSM

Betty Bellyache

Betty is a sweet 16-year-old Morgan mare whose owner uses her for light pleasure and trail riding. She lives in a large, dry paddock with a loafing shed. Her owner feeds her once daily in the morning before she heads off to work. Betty’s diet consists of three flakes of grass hay and a flake of alfalfa, along with a scoop of equine senior and a vitamin supplement.

Betty has had several colic episodes during the past year—two that resolved on their own, and one that required a visit from one of our clinic’s vets to treat her.

Diet Danger: Infrequent feeding schedule.

Health Risks: It’s not just what you feed, but also how you feed it that keeps your horse healthy. Your horse’s digestive tract is designed to accommodate a grazing lifestyle—eating small amounts frequently throughout the day. Infrequent feedings of large amounts increase the risk for colic due to alterations in the motility of the GI tract that result in gas accumulation. A simple colic may resolve on its own, but more complicated cases can require aggressive medical care, or even surgery. A severe colic can be life-threatening. In addition to increasing colic risk, infrequent feeding also increases the risk for stomach ulcers.

The Solution: Betty’s owner should plan to schedule a minimum of twice-daily feedings. Three or four times daily is more ideal. If a more frequent feeding schedule simply isn’t possible, she could consider installing a “slow feeder” in Betty’s paddock to encourage her to consume her daily ration slowly throughout the day. There are several different types of slow feeders available that would do the trick.

Slobbering Sally

Sally is a 7-year-old Appaloosa mare whose young owner uses her for 4-H and local open shows. She’s tough as nails, and has always been “healthy as a horse”—until one day when her owners found her drooling in her stall. On closer inspection, they discovered large open sores in her mouth. They immediately called us for an emergency visit, and by the time I arrived, Sally had started exhibiting colic symptoms.

Because of the mouth ulcers and salivation, I first checked the hay shed, where I was lucky, for Sally’s sake, to discover blister beetles in a bale of alfalfa. These insects cause severe burning of the mucous membranes. She was treated aggressively with intravenous fluids and anti-inflammatories, and made a full recovery.

Diet Danger: Poor-quality hay.

Health Risks: Many things can contaminate hay, including blister beetles—often first noticed because of excessive salivation. Severe blister-beetle toxicity can lead to colic, shock, damage to the kidneys or heart—or even death. Botulism is another potentially life-threatening toxin that can contaminate hay, and is most likely found in moldy hay or hay containing animal carcasses, such as those of small field-dwelling animals that got baled into the hay. Even in the absence of a toxin, hay that’s moldy, full of weeds, or simply poorly cured increases your horse’s risk for gastrointestinal upset, including diarrhea or a colic episode. And poor-quality stemmy or coarse hay may cause your horse to choke.

The Solution: Sally was lucky to have survived her ordeal, as blister-beetle poisoning easily can be fatal. In the future, Sally’s owner should take care to pay close attention to the quality of the hay she feeds. Blister beetles aren’t the only health-threatening contaminant that can be found in hay; they’re just one of the most deadly. The bottom line is that you should purchase your hay carefully, and look at every flake you feed.