Environment

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THE NUTRITIONAL & ENVIRONMENTAL REQUIREMENTS OF THE HORSE

The nutritional and environmental requirements of horses are intricately linked and cannot be separated when viewed from a natural perspective.

The horses’ digestive system is designed to function optimally when allowed to graze for 16 to 18 hours a day.  This grazing is done in an environment where the horse walks for kilometres a day, through very sparse vegetation, taking in small amounts of food continuously.  This grazing is also done in a herd environment with lots of social contact and a feeling of safety – the optimal situation for a flight and herd animal - as there is little or no stress. 

STABLED HORSES

As domesticated, and stabled, the horse has a dramatically changed environment.  We force him to adapt his feeding regime to ours.  We make the horses feed 3 or 4 large meals a day while standing still in a stable.  We have also introduced large cereal based meals which the horse has a very limited ability and capacity to digest.  Additionally we often feed him from elevated feed bins which put his head, neck, teeth, and saliva glands in a compromised position, affecting his ability to chew, grind, lubricate and swallow his food.  Finally we keep our horses largely alone in stables without much contact to other horses.  All of this obviously has a huge stress impact on the horse. 

PASTURE KEPT HORSES

When domesticated, and kept on pastures, it is critical that we understand the impact on pasture quality.  Many well meaning owners who want to improve their horses’ environment put them out to pasture without considering that most farming pastures nowadays are more suited for dairy cows - they are lush, green and full of carbohydrates.  Before we know it we have a laminitic horse and we can’t understand what we have done wrong. 

Putting a horse out into one of these ‘picture book’ pastures is equivalent to dropping your child off at a sweet shop and telling him to eat what he wants!  It always ends badly.

Horse health friendly pastures need to be sparse in order to force the horse to look for his food.  In addition, the nutritional value of the grass needs to be looked at in order to ensure that the sugar content is not problematic, that the roughage provided is sufficient and that the nutritional requirements of the horse are adequately addressed. 

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THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM

As mentioned already the horses' digestive system is designed for grazing/nibbling, on high fibre low energy/sugar vegetation for 16 - 18 hours a day.  It has been especially designed to ferment and digest this continuous flow of fibre.  This digestion happens mostly in the large intestine.  The pH environment and balance in the large intestine is incredibly important to allow the digesting bacteria to break down the fibre to ensure that the energy and nutrients are absorbed into the body effectively.  As you can imagine any fluctuation of the acidity in this environment will compromise this process. 

Even though the horse has been domesticated for many years his digestive system has not adapted to being fed large meals 3 times a day which consist mainly of concentrated high energy food and little fibre. He has still got a relatively small stomach which results in excess feed passing very quickly through the stomach and small intestine, arriving undigested in the large intestine.  This then changes the pH balance in the large intestine as the undigested food causes a very fast rise in lactic acid.  The effect of this is the degradation and death of the fibre digesting bacteria in the large intestine.  The result is a compromised digestive system which is not able to absorb critical nutrients required for optimum health.  It will also eventually affect the mucous membrane or lining of the large intestine.  The gut wall can then begin to leak toxins in the blood and circulatory system resulting in toxaemia, laminitis or colic. 

Long term effect of this feeding environment leads to multiple digestive, psychological and physiological problems.  In short, it shortens your horses’ life. 

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NUTRITIONAL RELATED LAMINITIS

The cause of laminitis is known to be influenced from various areas.  However, nutritionally induced laminitis is the most common. Here the overload of grain or soluble carbohydrates, e.g. grass fructose, is the main cause. Preventative nutritional management can ensure that this does not happen to your horse.

 Important Preventative Measures:

  •  Overweight horses are laminitis cases waiting to happen.  Encourage them to lose weight without the reduction of fibre intake.
  • Healthy large intestine function can be maintained by ensuring that the foundation of your feeding plan is fibre based.
  • Restrict the concentrated meal size (if required) to a maximum of 2,5 kg for an average 500 kg horse.  Feed less, more often – not more, less often.
  • Feed your horse according to his individual energy requirement (without increasing concentrated meal size)
  • The addition of live pro-biotic yeast in the diet increases the fibre digesting population of bacteria and helps to stabilise the large intestine.

 NUTRITIONALLY INDUCED COLIC

A definition of the word ‘colic’ is abdominal pain. The cause of this pain comes from various influencing factors. Nutritional factors are frequently a major cause of colic in horses. There are various types of colic: Impacted, Gaseous, Spasmodic & Twisted gut colic.  All of which can have a nutritional cause. 

Here are some simple management points that can dramatically decrease the incidence of nutritionally induced colic: 

  • Ensure that regular maintenance of the horses’ teeth to ensure optimal grinding of food before proceeds further in the digestive system.
  • Availability of fresh clean water at all times – it is not sufficient to water horses twice a day.
  • Anti-parasitic programme that prevents damage to the intestinal walls and parasite blockage of the gut.
  • Mostly high fibre diet with small meals of nutrient balanced concentrated feed.
  • Sugar/starch intake to a minimum to prevent large intestine disorders and gastric ulceration.
  • Do not feed immediately before or after exercise to allow maximum, stress free digestion.
  • Do not feed on sandy floors for the prevention of sand colic.
  • All feed must be dust and mould free.  Store feed in a clean, dry environment.
  • Maintenance of a stress-free environment as close to a horse’s natural habitat to prevent stress, spasmodic colic. 

THE BALANCING ACT 

The balancing act between natural environment and natural feeding is therefore not as easy as one might initially think.  If, however, this balance is attained and maintained the longevity of your horse will be dramatically increased.

The reality is that not many of us have the flexibility or space to keep our horses in a  perfectly aligned natural environment.  We need to critically look at the situation our horses are currently in and, through a creative thought process, optimise the environment for them.

Every owner has their individual situation, with individual limitations, and every horse is different.  However, with awareness and flexibility I do believe that we can all improve the lives of our horses. 

While we learn more about the feeding of horses we need to inform ourselves with regards to the art of feeding.  The right environment, schedule, nutrients, together with a well-trained eye, to constantly monitor the horse’s condition, are all aspects that impact on the sound feeding program.

Never let the individuality of the specific horse be forgotten, as every horse is a unique individual, and therefore should be fed as such. Critical thought based on solid knowledge of the actual digestive, nutritional and environmental requirements of the horse will bring about better situations for our horses.

**VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION**

Correct feeding and keeping of horses is a science and art on its own.  This information should be seen as a very basic insight to the various elements that have to be considered when keeping horses in a domesticated environment.  Hopefully this information will created enough awareness to make you all go out and learn as much as you can to help your horses health.

It is critical to understand that if you want to change a horse’s current feeding system or environment it has to be done VERY slowly, little by little, over a period of a minimum of 2 to 3 weeks.  Any change implemented quickly will result in unwanted stress for your horse.

Change in feeding - whether it is the amount, the content or change of any kind - can cause a disruption in the delicate pH balance in the large intestine and result in health problems.

Change in environment – whether it is from stabled to being kept outside or vice versa – is also a form of stress for the horse.  Stress manifests itself in various forms – from health to behaviour problems – all of which can be avoided if we allow the horse time to adjust to the changes slowly and carefully.

 

Note that no information given on this website should be considered a substitute for consulting your veterinarian or relevant professional.