• Holistic Equine

A quick guide to feeding the leisure horse for healthy hooves

Diet is a huge topic in management of the domestic horse - here we summarise nutritional goals and provide a sample diet suitable for most adult horses for healthy hooves and metabolism.

For information including diet and management relating to metabolic disorders, including PPID/Cushings disease, EMS, IR and laminitis, please visit our blog on this topic

Above: Authors dry lot with hay feeders, wood chip loafing area and run-in barn for 24/7 turnout (off grass) for metabolically challenged horses and ponies.

Diet and management goals for the leisure horse

1. A healthy body condition score (BCS) of around 4 or 5/9 - If your horse is overweight, there is an increased risk of laminitis, metabolic disorders and trauma, pathology and lameness due to excess weight carried. In addition you might experience saddle and rug fit issues, which can impact gait and posture and lead to trauma, pathology and further lameness.

2. Support natural lifestyle - keeping horses in accordance to their nature helps provide optimum health and resilience and this helps the horse grow healthy hooves from the inside, out. Foraging and grazing should take up most of the horses day, facilitates movement and nourishment, and the horse is perfectly suited to travelling several miles a day to select what it needs and browse from the ground and also from bushes and trees. This provides a wide range of nutrition and allows the horse to exhibit its natural behaviour. If we don't allow for natural behaviour and nutritional needs, horses can become stressed and sick. The Equicentral System provides a way to care for horses in domestication which supports a more natural lifestyle and this can be combined with a track system to help facilitate movement in track kept horses.

3. Support healthy digestive health - this relates to point 2 and considers the true nutritional needs of the horses for healthy digestion and immune function. Foraging for plants, barks and leaves and healthy grasses support the microbiome and provide much needed phytochemicals, fibre and other nutritional elements for healthy horses and hooves! The microbiome (or equibiome) relates to the microbes that live in the horses digestive tract and are intrinsically involved in the horses health and well-being. Modern management practices and chemicals in the environment is potentially impacting the microbiome of the horse and modern research indicates there is a link in an unhealthy microbiome and the incidence of pathology, disease and lameness in horses.

4. Feed for the nutritional needs of the individual horse and environment - under or over-feeding can result in nutritional imbalances and malnutrition and feeding the wrong things can result in imbalances and digestive complaints too! Horses need the right balance of minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibres, microbes, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) for example, and in various amounts according to their genetic background, age, health status and lifestyle. Most grasses are too high in carbohydrates and most soil and hay samples in the UK are nutritional imbalanced and contain high iron levels. This might contribute to metabolic disorders but the link between high iron in feed and metabolic disorders has yet to be firmly proven in horses. You can test your hay and land to see if your horses diet is adequate, but even this might not provide the very best diet, as all horses are individual and trial and error might be needed to find the best diet for your horse.

Sample diet and feeding practices for most leisure horses

Forage first

Forage is grass and preserved grass (hay or haylage). Horses thrive on a low calorie, high fibre diet and this can mostly be provided by hay and grazing on old fashioned meadows with a rich, biodiverse range of grasses and herbs. Forage should make up most or nearly all of the horses dietary intake.

In the last 80 years or so, modern agricultural practices have changed most of the grazing and pasture land in the UK to favour the raising of cattle. This isn't necessarily suitable for horses and can lead to obesity and diseases such as laminitis and Insulin Resistance. We recommend testing your horses hay and grazing (see the above link) and addressing imbalances while you improve your grazing to better suit the needs of the horse (see the Equicentral link in point 2 above).

Dry lotting for grass intolerant horses

Some horses seem to be grass intolerant and require a dry lot (grass free, all weather area) and this work well within an Equicentral System and track system. Horses which do not eat fresh grass on a daily or regular basis need to be provided with additional nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C and omega oils. (see below for sample bucket feed).

Above: Authors dry lot featuring barn, separate central area for visiting horses, variety of surfaces including wood chip loafing area behind the barn, pea gravel in the barn, road planings and rubber matting walk ways. A track system is accessible at either end and access to a 5 acre paddock in the center.

Feed hay, not haylage

Many horses simply are not suited to thrive on a wrapped hay or haylage diet as it changes the pH of the gut and can lead to disturbances in the microbiome and ability to digest. If you have no choice but to feed haylage, consider feeding a digestive enzyme. Hay should be cut before the seed head dies to avoid ergot ingestion and mycotoxins which might create digestive disturbances. Never feed mouldy or very dusty hay. Hay can be steamed using a dedicated or home made hay steamer. We like and use the HayGain hay steamer.

Soaking hay

Soaking hay can reduce dust inhallation and irritation of the airways, reduce iron and other nutritional levels and also reduce water soluble carbohydrate levels. It can also help manage or prevent respiratory conditions, can be useful for weight management and also in managing metabolic disorders. However it might also increase pathogenic bacteria and more studies are needed to fully understand the impact soaking hay has on the nutritiona