Top 5 Equine Nutrition Resolutions to Keep in 2014

Top 5 Equine Nutrition Resolutions to Keep in 2014

Maintaining a healthy weight and diet is just as important for our horses as it is for us. To that end, we've consulted with equine nutritionists and compiled a list of the top five resolutions to keep for your horses in 2014.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

While you're making plans to finally get that gym membership or cut calories, fat, or carbs from your diet, don't forget to include your four-legged friends in your new year's resolutions. Maintaining a healthy weight and diet is just as important for our horses as it is for us. To that end, we've consulted with equine nutritionists and compiled a list of the top five resolutions to keep for your horses in 2014.

Resolution #1: I will become an equid weight watcher. Many of us are regretting that extra piece (or two) of holiday pie we couldn't resist last week, and this resolution fits right into that theme. Resolve to be proactive about maintaining your horse at a healthy weight (generally around 5 on the 9-point body condition scale), rather than being reactive after they have gained or lost to the point of concern. Monitor his body condition weekly, and adjust his diet or management plan as needed.

Also, resolve to predict when a diet-related management change will be needed, rather than waiting for the consequences. For example, know that once lush spring pasture begins to emerge, horses prone to obesity or those that have experienced laminitic episodes in the past will need to be monitored daily for changes in condition. Then, put a plan in place to reduce or eliminate pasture intake, such as employing a grazing muzzle or turning out in a drylot.

Resolution #2: I will focus on “forage first.” Grey Parks, MS, an equine science lecturer at the University of Tennessee, stressed that increasing the forage (hay and grass) portion of your horse's diet is the single most important thing you can do to increase his physical and mental well-being. Horses with access to free-choice forage have lower rates of colic, gastric ulcers, and stable vices. And the best part? “Pound for pound, hay is cheaper than grain,” said Parks. This resolution is a win-win proposition for both you and your horse.

Resolution #3: I will cure my grain-a-phobia. While forage should always be the base of your horse's diet, it might not cover all of the animal's nutrient requirements. So some type of concentrate might be beneficial to your horse's diet.

Not all grains are built the same, and not all of them are high in sugar and starch. For example, soybeans are a grain commonly used in horse feed as a quality source of protein. Rice bran comes from the rice grain and is often used as a fat source in equine diets.

A wide range of commercially formulated grain products are available on the market today. From a low-calorie ration balancer to a high-octane performance horse feed, each is specifically formulated to meet the needs of the types of horses they are intended for.

“Many people with 'easy keepers' will cut back on the grain to cut back on the calories, but commercial grain mixes fed below recommendations will likely not meet all vitamin/mineral requirements,” explained Kristine Urschel, MS, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at the University of Kentucky.

Be diligent about understanding the product, its purpose, and the recommended feeding rate to ensure your horse is getting all the nutrients he needs to remain healthy. Consult your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist if you're unsure whether your horse might need a concentrate or grain in his diet or if he's getting the appropriate nutrients from forage alone.

Resolution #4: I will feed treats without fear. Treats are a small reward that many horse owners love to spoil their charges with. But some owners have concerns about treats' nutritional value, especially where sugar and starch is concerned. But that concern might be unwarranted in some cases. Take, for instance, the sugar cube. The average sugar cube weighs 3 grams, which amounts to approximately 0.03% of a horse’s daily feed intake (comparable to a human consuming about two M&M’s). And like a human's daily sweet fix, when fed in small amounts (i.e., a handful a day) and unless otherwise instructed by a veterinarian, treats (even pure sugar) should not have any effect on your horse’s nutritional well-being.

Resolution #5: I will consult with an equine nutritionist to balance my horse’s diet. A recent study showed that only 25% of horse owners surveyed consulted a nutritionist for help with developing and balancing their horse’s feeding program. Why consult a nutritionist? Shannon Pratt-Phillips, MS, PhD, associate professor of equine nutrition at North Carolina State University, explained that using a nutritionist can allow owners “to be confident that your horse has received educated, science-based nutritional advice that is suited specifically for your own horse and his own nutritional needs and centered around the forage that is provided or available.”

Qualified equine nutritionists are available for consultation from many horse feed companies and university extension programs, and many offer services through a business, the same as farriers and veterinarians. These individuals have advanced degrees (an MS and/or PhD) specifically in the field of equine nutrition and are willing to put their knowledge to work for you to help keep your horse happy and healthy.

Have a happy new year filled with long rides and healthy ponies, and resolve to make friends with a nutritionist!

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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