Horses originally come from barren steppes and savannahs and are sometimes busy foraging and eating for up to 18 hours a day. In doing so, they cover distances of up to 30 kilometers per day. The food they consumed was predominantly meager and not very nutritious. This nutrient-poor basic fodder in combination with the movement, is the reason, why fodder quantities of up to 50 kilograms per day did not lead to health restrictions. Over the centuries, the organism, and especially the sensitive gastrointestinal tract, has adapted to this way of life, and it is this factor that must be taken into account when feeding. After all, the correct feeding of horses serves above all to maintain the health of the animal and must be adapted to its needs, so that neither psychological nor physical damage occurs.
The be-all and end-all of horse feeding: roughage.
The staple food of any horse should be high quality roughage such as hay. Straw can be fed in addition to hay. Here, however, attention should be paid to the quantity, as too much straw can cause constipation colic. Horses with hay allergy can be fed silage or haylage, which has a relatively high moisture content. This makes it more nutritious and it should be fed in portions. The basic rule for feeding hay is 2 kilograms of hay per 100 kilograms of horse weight. If the horse is overweight or underweight, the horse feed should be reduced or increased accordingly. A horse’s stomach is relatively small and therefore does not hold large quantities. Therefore, feeding several small meals per day is recommended. If long pauses in feeding occur, stomach ulcers and colic can be the result.
Concentrated feed is not a must
Feeding concentrated feeds such as oats, barley, corn or various mueslis is not mandatory if the horse’s needs are well covered by hay. However, in the case of sport horses, pregnant mares and stallions, a sufficient supply of roughage alone cannot always be ensured. In such cases, the feeding of concentrated feed is recommended. Care should be taken to divide the feed into several portions so as not to overload the horse’s gastrointestinal tract. By feeding rice germ oil or linseed oil, horses can be supplied with energy in a natural way. The advantage is better digestibility, although oil may only be fed in doses. The guideline is 200 milliliters of oil distributed over several meals for a 600-kilogram horse. In addition to water, a mineral and salt lick should be provided. Horses that sweat a lot in particular need to compensate for electrolyte loss. In addition to the horse’s blood work, a nutrient analysis of the feed will show whether feeding mineral feed is necessary. Horses tend to be deficient in zinc and selenium because many soils in Germany are poor in these nutrients. Therefore, supplemental feeding is always necessary for many horses.
Hay nets, racks etc.
The most natural way for horses to feed is from the ground and throughout the day. In many stables, “hay ad libitum” feeding has become the norm, where horses have the opportunity to have hay available without restriction for 24 hours. While this benefits the gastrointestinal tract, it also has disadvantages. What is not a problem for some horses is a particular downfall for robust breeds such as Icelanders and Norwegians. Diseases of affluence such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), Cushing’s disease and laminitis can result. For horses that feed easily and tend to gain weight quickly, it is advisable to use hay nets, hay toys, feeding boxes or similar constructions to slow down the feed intake and thus reduce the amount over the day without having to drastically shorten the feeding time. Timer-controlled feeding troughs are also possible. In principle, horses can handle feeding breaks, but these should not last longer than four hours. Horses continuously produce gastric acid, which is neutralized by saliva. However, the horse only produces saliva when it eats. Therefore, to protect the sensitive gastric mucosa, feeding breaks should be avoided in the best case.
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