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.