As the drought worsens, coupled with widespread fires and water sources drying up, keeping a horse’s weight on can become increasingly difficult.  Cost of horse feed is skyrocketing, and common feeds are even hard to source at times.  Honest consideration needs to be made if you can sustain feeding long term during the drought, or if you may need to move your beloved horse(s) on to homes that can provide adequately.  Doing so before it becomes a welfare issue may be wise and the kindest thing to do.

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Daily dry weight of total feed required

Ideally a horse requires 1.7% of its body weight in feed per day to maintain optimal condition.  During extreme times a horse can be managed leaner yet still healthy on 1.5% of body weight in dry weight feed.  The minimum body score to be deemed lean but healthy would be a 2.

Working on what your horse’s ideal weight should be, use this chart to calculate how much dry weight he should be getting.

Text Box: Daily feed requirement in kg
A body score of no less than 2 should be maintained during hard times

Your horse’s daily diet should at a minimum be 70% grass or hay to provide enough fibre to maintain a healthy gut.  During periods of no available grass, hay should be fed in small amounts and often to ensure the gut is never left empty for hours at a time.  A horse not being fed enough forage throughout the day, will develop gut ulcers and poor gut health.  A horse produces stomach acid all day and night, upwards of 30 Litres a day. Leaving the gut empty for hours at a time results in reduced gut pH, allowing the stomach gastric juices to attack the stomach mucosa.  A horse eating regularly produces enough saliva (a high concentration of bicarbonate and mucus) to buffer this attack.  Slow feeder hay nets are a perfect option to prolong feeding time and increase saliva production to buffer and protect the gut lining.  Providing smaller hay nets 2 to 3 times a day is ideal to ensure sufficient forage is consumed over adequate periods of time.

The balance of the daily dry weight feed can be made up of hard feeds to include balanced vitamins and minerals to further ensure optimal health is maintained.

Why you should NOT feed grains

Grains have been the go-to for 100’s of years.  Research is now able to explain why this is likely to increase gastric ulcer incidents and other health issues.  Grains include oats, corn, barley, wheat and millet.  Grains are the seeds of grasses hence high in sugar and insoluble carbohydrates (insoluble fibre pass through the entire digestive tract unchanged so little calorie uptake can occur).  Cereal grain types of hay & chaff (oaten, wheat, rye) are also high in sugar and Non-Structural Carbohydrates, averaging alarmingly between 22% – 39% NSC. 

Text Box: Slow feeder hay net
Slow feeder hay nets – ideal to promote healthy guts from slowing down feed

During the grain digestive process, both sugars and starches are turned into sugar.  Horses have a limited capacity to digest substantial amounts of sugar and starch in the stomach and small intestine.  The excess supply of sugar and starch travels through the small intestines and on into the hindgut where the trouble begins.  An increase of sugar fermentation creates lactic acid.  Lactic acid lowers the pH causing an acidic environment, this in turn kills off the good microbes.  The dead microbes give off endotoxins that now enter the blood stream, this chain reaction often culminates in poor gut health, ill thrift and potentially laminitis.

Most commercially prepared complete horse feeds contain grains or grain biproducts, read the label and ask if unsure.

Suitable base feeds for a healthy gut

Copra, beet pulp and lupins are rich sources of ‘super fibre’ type of polysaccharides.  These super fibres have a high water-binding capacity (viscosity increases from the presence of fibrous polysaccharides).  The fibres carry volumes of water and nutrients un-digested through the small intestines and on into the hindgut (large intestine) to release their nutrients and feed the good microbes such as Clostridium, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Enterobacter and Escherichia hence stimulating colonization of intestinal microflora.

Fibre types of polysaccharides provide sustainable energy (slow release energy) and help stabilize blood sugar levels (reduction in glycaemic response).  Polysaccharides fibre have also been claimed to increase the amount of feel-good chemicals in the brain, decrease gastric emptying, increase satiety, improve immune system health and assist liver function.

Soybean base feeds can be fed short term in preference to grains.  It should be noted soybean is relatively high in phytate.  The behaviour of phytate is to bind to calcium-magnesium and/or to proteins. Phytic acid has also been implicated in decreased availability of other minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium and copper.

Soybean contain isoflavones, there are 12 isomers of isoflavones in soybean.  These compounds have been implicated in reproduction issues in animals fed diets containing large amounts of soybean meal.  Other studies attest to the estrogenic effect attributed to the consumption of soybean biproducts.

Oils

Recent research findings are now showing horses should only be fed coconut oil, hemp oil, flaxseed oil or fish oil.

Coconut oil is an excellent source of non-carbohydrate energy, also being very good for gut health and microbial activity.  Unrefined Coconut Oil is 92% saturated fat.  Two-thirds of the saturated fat is in the form of median-chain fatty acids. Of particular interest is lauric acid, found in large quantities in coconut oil (also found in human breast milk).  This fatty acid has strong antifungal and antimicrobial properties.

The issue with most polyunsaturated oils (rice bran, canola, safflower, sunflower, vegetable oil) is the Omega 3:6 ratio. 

Too much Omega 6

  •              Is pro inflammatory (increase joint pain and allergy symptoms)
  •              increases prostaglandin formation
  •              predisposes a horse to degenerative joint disease
  •              predisposes to laminitis
  •              affects coat hair quality
  •              can lead to arthritis
  •              can lead to obesity
  •              can lead to mood disorders – depression
  •              can lead to osteoporosis
  •              can hasten growth of cancer cells
Text Box: Omega 3 to 6 ratios of common horse feed inputs
Red indicates feed options beneficial to rectifying imbalanced feeds
Third row measurements in mg per 28 grams
Choose RED inputs in preference

Health benefits of correct Omega 3 supply include:

  •   reduction of inflammation
  •   reduced prostaglandin (smooth muscles contraction, help control
  •   bleeding, enable clotting after injury)
  •   improved coat colour and lustre
  •   reduces risk of laminitis
  •   improves blood clot formation
  •   essential for cell functioning – maintaining cell membrane structure
  •   assist central nervous system development
  •   improve sperm shape, motility and concentration
  •   likely strong positive connection with the mare’s reproductive system
  •   improved content of Omega 3 in lactating mare’s milk – resulting in foals with stronger immune systems
  • boost immune system

Premixed horse feeds are typically a combination of grains (wheat, oats, barley or rice), contain added sunflower seeds and vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower or canola oils) contain sugars (maltodextrin – sugars extracted from grains).  All these inputs will increase Omega 6 in your horse’s diet to dangerous levels.  Short term the results may look like quick weight gain and a temporary shiny coat (from supply of added minerals and high fat and protein content), but over time these results may inverse, and the opposite occur – along with many other potential health issues.

Choosing base feeds selectively based on their Omega 3:6 profiles and fortifying with a feed supplement much higher in Omega 3 to 6 (hemp, fish or cod liver oil) will help improve the imbalances from hard feeding in general.

Flaxseed (linseed) has long been a favourite Omega 3 rich add on feed supplement, however flaxseed’s ALA must be converted first by a limited supply of enzymes into usable EPA and DHA. As a result, only a small fraction of its ALA, between 10-15% can be utilized. The remaining value of ALA gets burned up as energy or metabolized in other ways.  Quantities of Flaxseed thus must be higher than using hemp, fish or cod liver oil.

Preferred hay option

Having the luxury to afford and source the preferred hay choice may not be possible during a severe drought, finding some forage is more important than going without, to ensure the gut is never left empty for long periods of time.  If you have the luxury to choose what hay to feed, we recommend lucerne.

Lucerne has been recommended as preferable after comparing the content of non-structural carbohydrates or NSC of alternative hay types. Carbohydrates also include starch, water-soluble sugar, and fructan.  Of note Lucerne hay does not contain appreciable levels of fructan carbohydrate when compared to other types of hay.   It has been shown when lucerne is baled later in the growing season with a stalkier appearance, the sugar content will be at its lowest. 

A close up of some grass

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Ideal base feeds for optimal gut health

Common NSC levels in hay/chaff:

  •               Grass hays average of 13.8%
  •               Lucerne average of 11.3%
  •               Oat hay average of 22%
  •               Rye grass average 39.1%
  •               Clover hay average 11-18%

Making your own base feed

Weigh your chosen base feed ingredients to make up the remaining kilograms necessary to meet the minimum 1.7% of body weight (to keep your horse alive during extreme hardship 1.5% can bed fed for a time). 

Ideally feed cracked lupins, beet-pulp and copra (mixed in equal parts or higher lupins ratio to increase good proteins for muscle building).  Soak the lupins & beet-pulp for at least an hour in 5X volume of water to expand fully (this is essential to avoid colic), combine with equal volume of chaff and The Nude Horse recommends FLOWERS GOLD as a premium quality mineral & vitamin supplement to ensure daily dietary needs are met.  You can now create your own nutritious hard feed to keep your horse healthy during extreme drought conditions and beyond.  (READ: ‘Keep It Simple Diet’ at https://thenudehorse.com.au/nutrition/)

Being in control of your own nutritional input (minerals and vitamins) you know you are meeting daily requirements no matter the volume of dry feed.  Increase volume of feeds to put weight on and reduce to maintenance level once ideal weight gain is achieved.  Never feed less than the maintenance rate.  Feeding coconut oil can safely provide additional low gI calories.