Supplementing Your Horses Diet
Horses and ponies, as we all know – love to eat all day long! Having evolved as trickle grazers horses would naturally spend 16-18hrs a day grazing pasture. This should not be mistaken for greediness – this is a natural adaptation to allow horses to digest tough, fibrous plants and extract their energy requirements and nutrients from their natural habitat. This means that to keep your horse or pony healthy and happy their diets should be based predominantly on forage e.g. hay or haylage. Feeding a natural diet high in fibre and low in starch have been shown to reduce the risk of common issues such as gastric ulcers and laminitis, whilst also improving behaviour and reducing excitability.
The only issue with sticking to a forage based diet is that it could well be lacking some essential nutrients – particularly micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and trace elements. The reason for this is that modern pasture land lacks the variety of shrubs, herbs, legumes and trees - modern grazing will usually only include a couple of grass species and perhaps a lgume. Horses in the wild have access to a much large variety – indeed they will even select different herbs when grazing depending upon the time of year. Moreover, soil deficiency in certain nutrients such as selenium and copper are reasonably common in the UK. This deficiency will be reflected in both the grazing and the forage harvested from these areas and it is for this reason supplementation may be necessary.
When deciding on which product is best for supplementing the diet it is important to consider the age of the horse, the workload as well as their body condition score – you should also be careful of supplements which claim to provide 100% of the recommended daily intake. If you provide 100% of the RDI in the supplement, theoretically the horse wouldn’t need to eat anything else. Indeed if you over-supply then the body will only have to work harder to excrete excesses.
Supplements are available in a number of forms – powder, liquid or concentrated pellet. Some larger yards may find liquid forms more user friendly as measuring the correct ration can be as simple as using a pump dispenser. Liquids tend to be more easily mixed into the feed ration so are ideal for fussy eaters. However, if you are looking for a balancer which includes additional gut support these are generally only available as a powder as the probiotic yeasts are incompatible with liquid formulations.
Many of the feed balancers will include some form of gut support on the principle that the harder the horse is working, the harder the gut has to work. Keeping the gut in top condition is key to keeping the horse in good condition. The gut support ingredients can vary from live probiotic yeast, natural antacids such as calcium carbonate or herbal such as mint, ginger or psyllium.
Once you are confident that the diet of your horse is balanced you can then look at supplementing for specific health conditions; the most common used are supplements for joint support or gut support but specialist supplements are available for the whole range of equine health conditions. Calming supplements are useful during periods of stress such as competing or during firework season. For horses prone to Laminitis there are specific formulations to both support hoof health as well as flush out toxins and reduce inflammation. Effectively, whatever condition your horse is suffering from there is usually a supplement to help – though these should be used only when necessary once the diet is balanced.