FEEDING THE EVENT HORSE OUT OF SEASONZoe Davies MSc.Eq.S.,R.Nutr.
Another event season has come to an end and horses that have worked and competed hard throughout the season will now have a good rest, over winter.
Unfortunately this often coincides with winter grazing where pasture is nutritionally poor. It is important therefore to accurately assess the condition of the event horse at the end of the season as this well affect the choice of management and diet including whether horses will be part stabled or have 24/7 turn out.
If possible horses should be weighed, using a weigh tape is sufficient as long as a record is kept to record changes. Ideally the horses competition weight should also be known. This is the weight at which the horse performs best through the season. Horses may have lost a significant amount of weight after a long hard competition season particularly if this involved travel over long distances including overseas. Some horses on the other hand particularly those competing at a lower level are able to maintain their body weight and do well and so should be fed differently.
As previously stated pasture is likely to be nutritionally poor over winter and so hay or haylage will need to be fed. This often but not always the case as mild winters with higher temperatures will lead to some growth of pasture and horses will be able to derive some nutrition from it. Grass will continue to grow even though this will be relatively slowly over 6°C.
The choice of supplementary forage will depend on many factors, such as storage and availability. Event horses will require the best quality forage to support them over winter. Haylage should be nutritionally good but also have fermented thoroughly as poorly fermented haylage will be more likely to contain fungal spores, mycotoxins and bacteria. Very high levels of yeast will also make haylage unstable. If possible find forage that has been analysed (ask your supplier) or send a sample for analysis before purchase. Choose a medium to high energy, medium protein, lower NDF (Neutral Detergent Fibre), high Digestibility forage as this will provide a much higher level of energy to horses and contribute other macronutrients to the diet. High NDF forage may also lead to hay bellies and reduces the horses natural appetite for all food. Bigger event horses on high NDF forage can soon switch into negative energy balance and start to lose weight and this often confuses horse owners as they may be being fed similar feed to previous years. Forage is the great unknown aspect of the diet and visual assumptions of its nutritional quality should not be relied upon.
Likewise it should not be assumed that pasture and conserved forage will necessarily meet all the horses requirements particularly for trace minerals. Many UK pastures contain very low levels of copper and selenium for example. Vitamin levels are also much lower in pasture over winter.
So once good forage has been found horses should be given as much as possible to supplement their pasture. Horses should also be fed compound feeds to ensure mineral and vitamin
￼requirements are met.
Balancers such as Gain Opti-care are ideal for horses that are maintaining their body weight on good quality forage , providing high levels of nutrition in small quantities. Balancers do not provide high levels of energy as they are fed in such small amounts (often 0.5-1.0Kgs/day) and so cannot accurately be described as conditioning.
Gain Opti-care not only provides high levels of vitamins and minerals including vitamin E but also includes Yea-saac to aid digestion, particularly of fibre and help maintain the health of the digestive tract. Gain Opti-care also contains a highly innovative ingredient, namely Proviox 50 which contains Grape PP extract and other natural plant antioxidants which also add bioflavonoids, i.e., more antioxidants. This will help support the immune system following a long season and preparing for the next. Immunity is known to be influenced by the relation between oxidants and antioxidants in the horse.
For horses needing more calories or energy to maintain or add condition then a compound feed providing a higher level of energy will be required. A low starch, high energy compound feed e.g. Gain Freedom mix will provide high levels of required nutrients whilst not overloading the digestive tract with starch. A low starch feed is preferred for horses to support health of the stomach and for those horses that quickly become over excitable. Top dressing the feed with Gain Infinity a low starch stabilised rice bran product will also add extra calories when required without unbalancing the ration.
Care should also be taken not to over supplement particularly with fat soluble vitamins and minerals. Feeding to much of these nutrients may affect liver function as it has to store the excess fat soluble vitamins which eventually stop it working as efficiently. If feeding a balancer at the correct amount, further micronutrient supplements should not be required unless under the advice of a vet or qualified registered nutritionist.
Feeding oil to supply essential fatty acids such as linseed oil may also be beneficial. Fats and oils are digested in the small intestine and will not affect fibre fermentation in the cecum of the horse the same way they would in the rumen of cows for example. Although essential fatty acid requirements have not yet been established for the horse the NRC recommends 0.5% linoleic acid in the diet. It is thought that linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic acids may be dietary essential fatty acids, though a fatty acid deficiency in the horse has not yet been reported in the literature. Linseed or flaxseed oil contains the highest amount of essential fatty acids of vegetarian sources available for horses.
Horses are very susceptible indeed to changes in diet and so these should be made slowly including this introduction of new forage.
Free choice salt should also be made available even if horses are out 24/7.
Attention to detail regarding the event horses diet will help support a healthy immune system and
prepare the horse for the following season before the fittening programme and competitions begin next season.