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Healing Horses Naturally - Part 2

In part one of this series of article I started to talk about Natural Horse Care and how with a more natural approach to lifestyle choices for your four-legged friend you can heal or prevent some of the most pervasive maladies the modern equine faces. Whilst the concept of Natural Horse Care, or NCH for short, isn’t new. It is something that has become more and more a talking point among equine professional and horse-owners alike.

In summary NCH is four fold – Natural Livery, Natural Diet, Natural Horsemanship, and Natural Hoofcare. The order is very specific because each aspect builds on and relies on the later to be right; in order for the concept to work holistically. In my last blog I talked briefly about the needs of wild the horse to be mirrored or synthesized in the domestic setting. The ideal being a livery environment where horses can live as a herd, interact with each other, roam, move and express themselves, and browse on unlimited high fibre, low sugar forage.

I also began to touch upon the Natural Diet, well, at least the forage aspect of a natural diet. The types of forage to offer to simulate a natural diet and why grass can be the bane of our lives as horse owners. Side note: I have two Thoroughbreds and an Anglo Arab (who is a good-doer unlike the TBs) and today the grass has reached the point where, even on the rough dirt we have on the top of our little piece of Wiltshire hill, I now have to restrict their grass intake more to prevent bad things happening.

‘Hard Feed’

I have written and re-written this in my head about 6 times. Hard feed is one of those things that you just about think that you have figured out then your horse throws you a curve-ball and you have to change something. I should state for the record I am not a trained nutritionist, I don’t have a degree in Equine Science – though in the last few weeks of research I could happily write a fairly scientific dissertation – I am a horse owner, a perpetual learner and researcher, and this blog is about my experience and observations. It is not a ‘how-to’ guide when it comes to feeding horses and I make no claims that what is right for my horses would suit anyone else’s – in fact the more I research the more I find that the ‘one-size’ fits all method becomes ever more flawed.

So what is the deal with ‘Hard’ Feed – it’s a minefield, for sure. Hundreds of brands each claiming that their feed is the best thing ever for this or that condition – most of which are conditions that to my mind have been manufactured by unnatural horsecare practices and then we spend endless amounts of money trying to fix –ulcers, laminits, etc etc.

As horse owners in addition to the hay ration we offer our horses we want to be able to offer them a ‘balanced diet’. Much easier said than done – the UK equine feed market is a vibrant market place where the unwary horse owner can easily be sucked into the latest hype or pseudoscience. I can’t say I have tried every feed brand out there – I think that would take decades – but I can tell you a little about my feed journey.

The Biggest Misconception

The biggest misconception out there is that as horse owners we need to feed ‘hard’ food. The term ‘hard feed’ is OLD, the more modern terms are ‘Concentrate Feed’ or ‘Compound Feed’. Basically this term covers a multitude of sins as far as feed is concerned but it is limited to anything that isn’t forage – grains, nuts, mixes, pellets, beets, or if you want to get fancy – pencils, muesli and complete feed… etc etc.

The thing is that most horses in the UK no longer work hard, I’m not talking about international sport horses but rather the 90% of equines that are pleasure horses. Horses in years gone by were working animals – plough horses, carriage horses, courier horses etc. Horses that worked 8 hours a day where not eating during that time and where in need of ‘hard’ feed to supplement their diets due to work load. Most UK equines probably hack out a few times a week when the weather is nice or if their riders are a bit competitive do 30mins of ‘schooling’ 5 days a week. Even those that are in let’s say ‘medium-work’ and are grassroots eventing are still not really working all that hard. So why do we feed ‘hard’ feed?

It’s basically been programmed into us from an early age, I can remember doing my Pony Club ‘C-Test’ and learning all about the types of hard feed that horses need, and never really questioned it. Even if you haven’t had a BHS education you have most likely been led to believe that your domestic horse ‘needs’ feeding, because everyone does it, so it must be right.

Feeding for Work Load

Feeding for work load is a common understanding. Most feed manufacturers will state ‘X’ amount is needed for horses in light, medium, or hard work. The feed manufacturer will even tell you what that type of work looks like, but rarely will you see feeds recommended for ‘Idle’ or maintenance level horses – which probably covers 75% of UK horses. I seriously doubt many horse owners would consider their horses as ‘idle’ in this context, and have likely brought into the notion that their horse that hacks a few times a week is in ‘light’ or ‘medium’ work.

Here are some more sensible definitions -

I frequently see people on facebook groups asking very innocent questions like ‘My horse is starting to do more work now and I would like to know what I should feed him without hotting him up / making him fat?’

For me this is just hard evidence of the great swindle that is the equine feed industry. We are convinced that if Neddy does an extra hour of hacking on the weekend he suddenly needs extra feed to ‘support his work load’ otherwise we are incompetent, ignorant or possibly even abusive horse owners.

Feeding for work load is relevant, it’s that what we feed and why that is questionable. Also, it is to a certain extent laziness on our part. Mostly, when we start talking about ‘increasing feed levels’ we should actually be talking about 'increasing fitness levels' and ensuring that Neddy has adequate minerals available in his diet. If you increase the work levels and Neddy stays about the same weight or if he was a bit fat, loose a bit and builds some muscles then you have made Neddy a fitter, healthier horse without shelling out for the latest ‘performance’ feed, that will likely just make Neddy fizzy or fat or both.

However, if Neddy’s work load increases and he either isn’t building muscle or is being to look run-up or poor – then start thinking about increasing feed, but start with forage, then mineral balance, then proteins and fats and lastly sugars, because again despite what we have been led to believe the majority of proteins, fats and sugars our horses have in their diets comes from forage NOT hard feed.

Wait – what…?

Here’s some simple maths –

And yes that amount of sugar is roughly equivalent to a bag of sugar you buy from the shop – PER DAY! Do you still think Neddy needs a little extra for his work load as he won’t have enough energy? Protein wise he is easily getting the approximate 540gms he needs to maintain he body condition for light work. Providing that Neddy is in good health, doesn’t have a comprised gut or metabolic disorder he will happily live on hay. It might be a bit boring, but he definitely doesn’t need ‘hard’ feed. Give him a carrot if he’s been a good boy.

Supplementing minerals in forage

Yep – I’m banging that drum again. If your horse is at maintenance level or has a light work load then you can save yourself some significant pennies by NOT feeding hard feed. This only works well if the nutritional balance of your forage gives your horse everything he needs, particularly if your horse is barefoot – as most barefooters will know feet are the barometer of the equine diet.

Erm… but what does he need? Well that’s the million dollar question. Again, is it very very easy to get sucked in by the massive hype of the equine supplementation industry. There are a confusing myriad of supplements, balancers and complete feeds out there.

In my last blog I briefly discussed forage analysis, and no I'm not paid by or sponsored by a forage analysis company, the science behind knowing exactly what your horse is eating and the methods employed to uncover the mysteries of nutrition and mineral balance. Again, I can only talk from my own experience on this and the process I have gone through to help my horses be the most sound and healthy horses they can be.

I had my grass and hay analysed for minerals to provide a complete picture of the availability of key minerals in the diet. Then compared this to the recommended mineral ratios –

So I must admit at this point that I learnt a new element on the periodic table during this bit of research – Molybdenum wasn’t covered in my GSCE science class. The others, however, felt pretty familiar – Calcium, Phosphorous, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc, Copper, Iron, Manganese. Even if your brain has at this point gone ‘Ahhh science – hide!’ bear with me because I promise it’s not that hard, particular when nice people work stuff out for you and you don’t have to spend a fortune on feed and ‘scatter-gun’ balancers.

It turns out the hay my horse eat is pretty good, not badly balanced. The grass was not so good. I genuinely believe that some horses struggle with grass not just because of high sugar content but because the mineral availability is so poor. Hay is much more stable (within a reasonable period) as far as the nutrition is concerned, because it is no longer growing and influenced by seasons, weather, growth cycles, fertilizers, and grazing. This is why I try my best to keep my horses eating hay all year around and keep going back to the same supplier.

My horses were lacking magnesium, copper, zinc and sodium from their forage intake. Sodium is fairly easy to fix with salt (Sodium Chloride to be all science geek), they had access to salt licks but they weren’t getting enough by licking alone. The other minerals were provided by ForagePlus in straight form, much cheaper than a complete balancer and tailored to my horse’s needs – one at rest, one in medium work and the young growing horse in light work (who also needed phosphorous because he still growing).

Why are these minerals so important?

As I have said I’m not an equine scientist nor nutritionist, therefore I defer to people who are more knowledgeable -

“Copper supports enzymes that form the strengthening cross-links between collagen and elastin molecules in connective tissue. Deficiencies lead to abnormalities in bone, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and arterial walls among the most dramatic consequences. In horses, copper deficiency has been linked to uterine artery rupture in mares, a fatal complication of labor. Copper deficiency is known to cause developmental bone disease in foals. From research in other animals we also know that copper deficiency has adverse effects in hair quality. Although it hasn't been studied in horses, remember that the ingredients and growth mechanisms for hair and the hoof are virtually identical.”

“Zinc performs a host of functions in the body. Structures on proteins called zinc fingers allow them to bind to DNA. Zinc fingers also influence the folding and structure of proteins. In enzyme systems, zinc is essential for pigment formation, antioxidant function, transport of carbon dioxide in the blood, bone building and remodeling, insulin production and release among others.”

– Dr Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Magnesium is a big deal –

“It has over 3,000 known uses in the body, assisting with everything from regulating blood sugar levels to formation of hormones and enzymes, production of muscle tissue, conversion of glucose to energy, maintenance of a healthy nervous system and formation of bone and red blood cells.”

“Magnesium has been sold as a calmer for many years now. The reason for this is that when a horse becomes deficient they often become spooky and stressed and magnesium is needed to help produce some of the hormones needed to dampen down the adrenalin response. This can start a vicious circle. The horse gets stressed and uses what little magnesium reserves it has to dampen down the stress response. The less magnesium in the system, the more stressed the horse becomes and the more magnesium is needed to dampen down the stress”

Salt is an important aspect to horses, particularly in moderate – hard work.

“Sodium is in shortest supply in the basic diet, followed by chloride, so salt (sodium chloride) is a daily need to the tune of 10 grams of sodium, the equivalent of about 1 oz of salt, for a 500 kg/1100 pound horse. If you are relying on a stall brick salt lick to meet this need, the horse would have to go through a brick about every 2 months.”

– Dr Eleanor Kellon, VMD

Each mineral has an important, if not essential function within the horse. If these minerals get out of balance then the horse will become out of balance primarily physically, but also mentally and emotionally if his physiological state is working against him.

Everything Balances…

Once the lacking minerals are identified everything can then be balanced and it’s easy to begin to see the changes - health, vitality and fitness in my horses have all improved. And also from a hoofcare point of view their feet are improving, it will take time to truly see the results there but I’m willing to try.

Bear in mind that my horses had been on a barefoot friendly balancers for over a year and had okay feet (particularly the young horse who’d never been shod). All were slightly footy over stony ground and didn’t have feet that were medium-work / competition proof.

The other key thing I have noticed is a ‘bulking-up’ of muscles, even in the resting horse this is a change and one that is not influenced by work load as he is at rest (24/7 turnout with a herd).

For my competition horse staying power and recovery have been improved. And it’s only now that with our sights set on our first One-Day Event of the year that I am increasing his feed and mineral levels to ensure I am supporting his increased work load.

In my next blog I’m going to try to finish discussing feed – at least for now.

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