How to Achieve Maximal Performance From Your Equine Companion

  • Understanding Horse Nutrition, Part 5: Broodmares and Babies, Oh My

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Over the last few months we have been discussing exactly how many calories (or megacals for those who are paying attention!) your horse needs to consume, depending on what activities he performs, his personality and what the weather might be doing.

    Broodmares and babies.

    We have yet to discuss an entirely different class of horses, the broodmares and babies. With the breeding season approaching, it is probably appropriate to talk about this special class of horses’ nutritional needs. While this article will focus on their energy requirements, remember, it is especially key for mom and baby to receive the correct amino acids, vitamins and minerals in the diet. These important nutrients are vital for proper growth and development, and ultimately the longevity or usefulness of your new arrival.

    Megacals for Mom - before baby is born.

    Let’s start with our expecting momma. Her energy requirements during her early pregnancy are not actually that much higher than a lightly worked horse. (Refer to Table 1 – ENERGY REQUIREMENTS FOR WORK). She should already be in good body condition if you have done your job of preparing your mare for her upcoming pregnancy (See Part 1 of this series, TOO FAT, TOO THIN, OR JUST RIGHT).

    If you haven’t (shame on you) your goal is to get your mare to a BCS of at least 5 by the time she is at her ninth month of gestation (See CALORIES, KILOCALORIES, MEGACALORIES – HOW MUCH DOES YOUR HORSE NEED? for more information on increasing your horse’s body condition score). Otherwise, you want to ensure that your mare maintains that healthy BCS of around 5.5 -6.

    Essentially the mare in early and mid gestation has lower energy requirements than a horse in light work, making her fairly easy to feed. You can usually support her increased energy needs by simply increasing the quantity of good quality hay. However, during the last trimester of pregnancy, her fetus is growing rapidly, which drives up her energy requirements to fall between horses in light and moderate work.

    Table 4. Energy Requirements (Mcal/d) for Pregnant and Lactating Mares. 
    Activity Time – tracking weight increase.

    If you like being a very hands on horse owner (again – great youth project!), you can also track your mare’s increase in weight that is healthy for her and her foal. Using your weight tape (or string), check your mare’s increase in weight over her pregnancy. Overall, she should gain between 12-14% of her non-pregnant weight. She should gain around 5, 7, 10 and 13% of her original weight in her 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th month of gestation respectively. See Table 5 for a handy reference.

    Table 5. The Expected Weight of Mares During Late Gestation by Month Compared to the Mare's Original Non-pregnant Weight. 
    Megacals for Mom - after baby arrives!

    But look what happens after baby arrives! The new momma actually has quite the job to do in producing milk for her rapidly growing offspring. Her energy requirements have now increased by over 50% of what she needed during gestation. Compared to our working horses, your mare now almost reaches the energy needs of a racehorse of the similar size! Many horsemen often forget how demanding a job milk production truly is for your broodmare. Typically it is most effective to supplement your mare’s diet with a concentrate that is already specifically formulated for broodmares. Consult your local equine feed store or horse nutritionist for advice. This will allow her to meet her increased needs for other nutrients as well. While the broodmare definitely needs the extra calories, it is equally important that the diet is balanced to meet her protein, mineral and vitamin requirements to support lactation, and thus foal growth.

    Feeding tips.

    In order to provide a rough estimate of the amount of feed you will need for your mare, let’s work through a typical feeding strategy for a mare. We will work with a 1000 lb mare for simplicities sake. Now for both health and behavioral reasons, I encourage owners to always feed horses 2% of their horse’s body weight in hay or forage per day. We will actually visit the logic in feeding strategies in an entire article coming soon. For this mare, that means she should be eating 20 lbs of hay per day. I like to feed the pregnant mares and lactating mares a good quality alfalfa hay, in part to help meet their protein needs, as well as an increased need for calcium. Let’s use alfalfa hay which has a caloric density of 0.93 Mcal/lb fed. If we multiply the caloric content of the hay by the lbs eaten we reach her total caloric intake. 0.93 Mcal/lb * 20 lbs = 18.5 Mcal

    Comparing our value here with Table 4 above shows us that the mare can consume enough hay to meet her energy needs. She just doesn’t need to consume that many additional calories. However, I would still recommend supplementing her with a ration designed for broodmares. Her energy intake is, of course, dependent on the mare consuming all the hay she is offered. Does she refuse to eat some of her hay and is therefore wasting it? Do you offer her hay free choice? If the hay is of high quality and is palatable to the mare, typically she will volunteer to eat more than 2% of her body weight per day. Also, remember the best indicator of caloric needs of the mare is her BCS. Keep an eye on her condition when changing feed intake.

    Feeding when baby is here!

    Now let’s compare our girl while pregnant to when she is lactating. Again, we will feed her the same amount of hay, so that she consumes 18.5 Mcal/d. However, during her peak lactation, she is now 10.4 Mcal short! What are our management strategies now? One easy strategy is simply to allow the mare to consume as much forage as she wants. These girls will often increase the amount of hay they eat per day in order to support their lactation demands. However, as mentioned before, we usually supplement these girls with a broodmare concentrate. Let’s use a grain mix with a calorie content of 1.3 Mcal/lb. (I’m using the energy value of a typical commercial feed designed for broodmares). To determine how many lbs of grain we would feed, divide the amount of calories needed by the calorie concentration of the feed. 10.4 Mcal needed/1.3 Mcal lb = 8 lbs of grain Ideally you would split her grain into two equal feedings per day. Now, while this is a fictitious scenario, most alfalfa hays and typical horse feeds will be similar in their caloric content. Read your feed tag for specific information on the feed you select.

    Minerals of Note: 

    While this month’s article is truly based on the energy needs of our ladies, I would feel remiss to not mention calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) when talking about broodmares. It is essential for proper bone development that these two key minerals are not overlooked. Not only do we need to feed adequate amounts of Ca and P, but they must be fed in the proper ratio. Ideally we want to see the ratio of Ca to P in the diet at approximately two parts Ca for every one part P, or 2:1. However, anywhere between 1:1 and 6:1 is acceptable. What you don’t want to see is the amount of Ca to extend beyond 6 parts or for your ratio to become inverted. In that case, you would have more P than you have Ca. Not sure how to figure it out? Let’s assume she is getting 105 g of Ca and 23 g of P from her hay. We would divide the g of Ca by the g of P, or 105/23 = 4.6. The ratio of Ca to P in this scenario is 4.6:1 which is acceptable. However, our girl will be short on P if she is receiving no additional mineral supplement.

  • Understanding Horse Nutrition, Part 4: Exercise and Energy Needs

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

     

    In the last article, we tried to categorize exactly how much work your horse is performing, and how many calories he needs to consume to match his energy output with his energy input. If you have been following along our series, you now have determined how much your horse weighs, what his body condition score is (and what it might need to be), and how many calories your working horse needs at rest and during the period you are riding or training him. Again, we are focusing solely on the caloric part of the equation, realizing that work does indeed change the requirements of some other nutrients. However, if we do not meet our horse’s energy needs, no amount of supplementation will make up for the lack (or abundance) of calories!

    Energy requirements regarding work.

    This month we are going to discuss other factors that might change your horse’s energy requirements regarding work. This will almost wrap up our discussion of energy needs in horses. However, we still need to discuss the broodmares and babies, especially as the next generation is just around the corner! So let’s begin!

    Categorizing your horse.

    By examining the frequency, the duration and the intensity at which your horse works, you were able to put him into one of four categories described by the National Research Council – light, moderate, heavy or very heavy exercise. However, these distinct categories might not fit for every horse and some adjustments might need to be made. When in doubt, always refer back to your horse’s body condition to assess your feeding program.

    Testing to determine energy requirements for exercising horses

    To realize why your horse might not fit precisely into these categories, sometimes it is useful to understand how these numbers are actually derived. Energy requirements for exercising horses are actually based on determinations of how much oxygen the horse consumes during an exercise bout. Typically these studies are performed on a treadmill while a horse wears a mask over the nose. The amount of oxygen the horse takes in is compared to how much he breathes out. This allows one to calculate the amount of oxygen the horse used by the difference in oxygen concentration of inspired vs expired gases. The amount of oxygen the horse uses relates to the amount of calories he is burning.

    Remember the TCA cycle I mentioned last month? This is where the carbohydrates, fats and proteins (sometimes) are “burned” at the cellular level with the assistance of oxygen to produce ATP. Horses, and people too, need energy in the form of ATP for muscle contraction. Thus, the harder and faster the muscles contract (ie speed or effort), the more ATP they need, so the more oxygen the horse needs to breath in. The amount of oxygen used directly relates to the fuels the horse uses to produce that ATP – the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins provided in the diet.

    Exercise physiology break!

    In order to accomplish an increase in oxygen delivery to its muscles, horses perform some rather amazing feats. One of the unique characteristics of horses is that they breathe in rhythm with their stride. Pay attention next time you ride to the blowing noise your horse may make while cantering or galloping. Right in time with their feet! Occasionally they will skip a breath in order to take a next bigger breath, but for the vast majority of the time, respiration rate and locomotion are linked. We call this phenomena stride coupling. So how do they get more oxygen if they can’t breathe faster? Well for one, if the horse is going faster, his stride rate increases and therefore increases his respiration rate. But he also breathes deeper as well. Essentially the horse takes a bigger breath – aided by the contraction and expansion of the horse’s ribcage as he runs faster and extends his stride. This makes breathing very efficient for the exercising horse. But that’s not all they do! Horses also have the ability to boost the oxygen carrying capacity of their blood. Red blood cells are responsible for picking up oxygen from the lungs, traveling through the body and delivering that needed oxygen to the working tissues. The more red blood cells present in the blood, the more oxygen that can be delivered. Horses have a unique ability to store their red blood cells in their spleen, waiting for the moment they are needed. When the horse exercises, adrenalin (epinephrine) is released into the blood, which causes the spleen to contract and eject all of these additional oxygen carrying cells into the horses blood stream. Instant (and natural) performance boost! .
    Testing – testing - testing?

    So why might these tests on a treadmill not always reflect the calories your horse needs? Well for one, galloping on a treadmill is relatively easier than working over uneven surfaces. The deeper the footing, the more exertion the horse will need to work. Think of running across an arena – it wears you out faster than running on pavement doesn’t it? Also, if your horse is being worked over hills (a great way to condition their cardiovascular system) this will increase its caloric requirement as well. We don’t typically have riders on top of the horses on a treadmill either. The weight of the rider and tack will also increase the energy demand on the horse.

    A for effort.

    There are other intangibles as well. The effort exerted by the horse also factors into the equation. Take for instance a jumper who routinely jumps his fences by over 5 inches versus the horse who barely skims over the fence. That horse over-jumping is working harder. The same can be said for almost every athletic event. Think about cutting horses, reining horses, barrel horses etc. The more athletic and talented the horse, the harder he tries, or the more effort he puts into each maneuver. Therefore, we may have a horse who spins faster, cuts a cow with more authority or finishes a barrel pattern with tighter turns and a quicker time. All of these factors affect his energy needs. Conversely, that lazy horse might be ridden the same amount of time as others, but may actually be expending far less energy than you think he might!

    Gaits are hard work!

    The gaits the horse performs can also influence its energy requirements. Typically a horse’s heart rate (which reflects its oxygen needs) increases linearly with speed (see Graph: Heart rate (bpm) vs speed). However, horses can travel at the same speed but be at different gaits. For example, think of someone long trotting a horse next to one that is cantering at the same speed. The horse that is long trotting or using an extended gait, is actually working at a higher intensity and using more oxygen than the horse cantering. The same is true for horses working at collected gaits. Thus, if your horse spends time working at both extended and collected gaits it may explain why they need more calories to maintain their weight than if we strictly account for the time they are ridden. For example, if you have watched dressage horses work at extended gaits, or watched an animated park horse travel around the ring, you can appreciate just how much work these guys are doing!

    Keeping your eye on your horse.

    Just as when we determined a horse’s maintenance requirements, climate, body condition and level of fitness will all affect the amount of calories that horse needs to consume. Remember, while feed tags, equations and tables all provide us with numbers to use in determining how much to feed a horse, they are just a starting point. There is no substitute for the horseman’s eye in evaluating the needs of your horse.

     


     

  • Understanding Horse Nutrition, Part 3: Energy Requirements For The Working Class Horse

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

     

    In the last two articles we discussed evaluating your horse’s body condition and then determined how many calories your horse needs to maintain their weight. We discussed factors that will influence the horse’s “at rest” or maintenance requirements; including his condition, his personality, and the weather. This month we are going to talk about more active horses, the Working Class.

    Be Realistic About Your Horse’s Workload.When we discuss how much energy, or calories, our horses’ need for work, we first need to be realistic about how much we are riding them. Just because we may be at the barn for quite a while, many overestimate the time the horse actually spends exercising. It may seem like we might ride for a good hour, but it might actually be quite less. I’ll use myself as an example. I might ride my young horses about 30 minutes per day, but I find it takes me three hours to ride just two horses! The time spent grooming them and chatting with your friends definitely can’t be counted in your horse’s workload!
    Where Does Your Horse Fit?The National Research Council suggests four basic categories for work. These descriptors are light work, moderate work, heavy work, and very heavy work. First let’s discuss what these categories include, then later, what may alter these basic requirements.
    Light Work.Horses in light work typically are not ridden every day. These horses may only be ridden 1-3 hours per week and usually at a slower pace. The majority of their exercise is performed at a walk or trot, with very limited time cantering. A good example of this type of horse is one that is used for light trail riding on a limited basis. For owners who have limited time availability to dedicate to their equine pursuits, they might find their horses fall into this category of work. Horses ridden at this level are typically the easiest to feed. The increase in their caloric needs is quite modest, increasing by only 20% over their “at rest” values. Horses that may only be ridden once per week or even less can really be treated the same as a maintenance horse. Riding a horse once every two weeks or so will not alter the energy needs of the horse significantly.
    If you are unable to ride your horse multiple times per week, or even if you can, make sure your horse has adequate time to stretch his legs!  Horses which are stalled and not kept in a consistent riding program quickly become bored and may develop many unhealthy habits.   Horses naturally spend the better part of the day grazing and therefore moving at the same time. When we prevent these normal behaviors through confinement and don’t provide exercise, horses develop abnormal behaviors to help alleviate their frustration.  Stall walking, weaving, wood chewing and cribbing are all symptoms of a frustrated horse. So do those horses in light work a favor, and keep them outside if possible. Your horse will thank you for it.
    Moderate Work.If you consider an active training schedule for most horses, we would expect to ride the horse on average five days per week. Typically, these horses are being physically conditioned for an event or are in some sort of consistent training process (even if the training is more for the rider. Expect the horse to be ridden between 3 to 5 hours per week and to do more intensive exercise. Horses will spend more time at a trot or canter, and may be performing more specific skill work. This could include jumping low fences, beginning work on barrels, dressage maneuvers, etc. Most of our performance horses which don’t engage in strenuous activity but are ridden regularly fit the category of moderate work. To meet these horses’ needs, typically the amount of calories the horse consumes would increase by 40%.
    Heavy Work.The horses in heavy work will be ridden a similar number of days per week, and perhaps even for the same duration, but the intensity of the exercise has increased once again. The horse may work at a faster gait, such as a much faster canter or gallop, or their effort in work has increased. The horse’s may be jumping larger obstacles, performing longer, or running faster. Examples of horses in heavy work would include reining horses, three day eventing horses, jumpers, polo horses, or even ranch horses. One major difference between the horse at moderate work and heavy work is usually the addition of anaerobic activity. In general, if a horse is working at a level in which its heart rate is over 150 beats per minute, they are using their anaerobic energy systems. For instance, in reining horses, the fast circles, spins and stops of a trained horse will cause the heart to beat at 150 beats per minute or greater. Horses in the heavy work category will generally need an increase of 60% over their maintenance requirements.
    Aerobics for Horses?

    When describing work intensity, exercise physiologists use the terms aerobic vs anaerobic work.  Technically aerobic work is at a low enough intensity that the muscles of the animal can rely on the slower metabolic pathways. You may remember learning about the TCA cycle or the Kreb’s cycle in previous schooling. That is the aerobic energy systems. Its job is to provide the energy source for muscle contraction – a little molecule called ATP. All dietary energy sources; fats, carbohydrates and protein can be utilized in aerobic metabolism.  The word aerobic means that these fuels are burned in the presence of adequate amounts of oxygen.  That means that the horse’s heart and lungs can keep up in the race to deliver oxygen to the tissues.When the horse’s muscles are contracting faster or harder than the ability of the cardiovascular system to keep pace, they then enter into anaerobic metabolism. The horse must then switch to a different supply of fuel, primarily carbohydrate metabolism.  They are simply working too hard for the aerobic system to keep up with the demands of the muscles for ATP.  Don’t worry too much about the details right now, we will spend more time with these topics in later issues.
    Very Heavy work.The last category of work intensity probably has the fewest numbers of horses within it. These are our race horses, whether they are Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, or even endurance horses. They have quite the job to do, and need the fuel to do it. While their training schedule may be a bit more varied than the previous two categories, the level at which they work raises their energy requirements to almost twice that of their energy needs at rest. Maintaining the proper caloric intake in these horses and keeping them at the proper condition can potentially mean the difference between win, place or show.For next month we will discuss other factors that might change your particular horse’s energy requirements for work. And we certainly can’t forget to mention the growing horses and the broodmares! For now, try to determine what work load your horse is in, and look up its caloric requirement below, in Table 1. Energy Requirements For Work. And remember, be honest!
    Table 1. Energy Requirements For Work (Mcal/d).

    Wt of horse (lb) Light Moderate Heavy Very Heavy
    900 16.1 18.7 21.4 27.7
    1000 17.8 20.8 23.8 30.8
    1100 19.6 22.9 26.2 33.9
    1200 21.4 25.0 28.6 37.0
    1300 23.2 27.0 30.9 40.0
    Quick Tip!While we haven’t discussed caloric intake sources (coming soon), a great way to increase calories is to add safe fat to the diet. Fat has 2.25 x the amount of calories per lb compared to anything else we can feed our horses. Add safe fat sources made with stabilized ground flax seed (rich in Omega-3 essential fats) and/or stabilized rice bran (rich in powerful antioxidants and Omega-6 essential fats) – Omega Horseshine®, Omega Antioxidant, Omega Grande®, Omega Stabilized Rice Bran, or the horse treats that Horse Journal™ named: “Best Buy” – Omega Nibblers®. These supplements add calories quickly and safely.Watch for January’s Health-E-Letter when we will talk about EXERCISE AND ENERGY NEEDS - WHAT IF MY HORSE DOESN'T FOLLOW THE RULES? - Part 4 in my Understanding Horse Nutrition: How to Achieve Maximal Performance From Your Equine Companion series.


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  • Understanding Horse Nutrition, Part 2: Calories, Kilocalories, Megacolories--How Much does your Horse Need?

     Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
    Energy means calories!Last month we discussed your ability to evaluate your horse’s body condition, and what the optimal condition for your individual horse may be. This month we delve a little further into the energy requirements for horses. Remember – when referring to energy, we mean calories! As stated last month, it does not mean how your horse feels. There are many other factors that influence your overall horse’s attitude, and while certainly how many calories he consumes is part of it, it isn’t the entire picture.
    Let’s talk technical.

    In the equine world, due to the horse’s body size, we talk about their energy requirements in megacalories (Mcal). One Mcal is equivalent to 1000 kilocalories (kcals). To make it relatable, the average woman between 31 and 50 years of age who is moderately active is recommended to consume 2000 kcal/d. That would be equivalent to 2 Mcal for a horse.

    How much energy (or calories) does your average horse need to consume per day?Well, first we need to define even what average is. When we discuss energy requirements, we usually begin with the animal’s maintenance requirements. Maintenance is defined as a mature horse not undergoing any exercise program or reproducing. Essentially the average, older horses just out hanging around. Numerous researchers have studied the energy requirements of horses, and as a result we have equations to calculate exactly how much a horse needs to eat. For example, the maintenance requirement of an average 1,050 lb horse would be 14.5 Mcal/d. These numbers are derived from the body weight of the horse multiplied by the energy required to maintain one kilogram of that horse’s body weight.But even average is not always average. The defined maintenance requirements for horses are based on horses in a moderate condition – those horses between 5 and 5 ½ we talked about last month. If your horse is overly fat, he needs less energy to keep him at the same weight. Fat tissue is metabolically less active than lean tissue, or muscle. Therefore, a 1,100 lb horse who is fat actually needs to eat less than a 1,100 lb fit horse to maintain the same weight.
    Where do these numbers come from?

    For those truly interested, the results of equine nutrition studies have been combined into a lengthy document entitled The Nutrient Requirements of Horses edited by the National Research Council (NRC). Teams of scientists world-wide review the collected work of all researchers to create recommendations published in this document. Animal nutritionists use “NRCs” to determine the nutrient requirements of all species of livestock and companion animals. The latest NRC for the horse was published in 2007 and is available through the National Academies Press (www.nap.edu). If you would like to calculate your own horses requirements from scratch, this book will provide the equations to do so.

    Understand the important goal. Now, the point of this discussion is not to have you whip out your calculators and revisit your algebra and calculus days. The important goal is to understand what factors we have control over that will alter how much energy our horse needs. Then we will discuss how best to meet these energy requirements to optimize your horse’s health and performance.
    Easy keeper or not?Even your horse’s overall temperament will change its energy requirements. We have long known that hotter, or more nervous horses take a lot more feed to keep weight on, while those with a more laid back attitude need less feed. Typically those horses that were selected to have a more laid back personality, such as our stock breeds or draft horses, fall into that easy keeper category vs our horses who were selected for speed (think Thoroughbreds).On average, a more active horse (youngsters in pastures, nervous Thoroughbreds) will need 20% more energy than an inactive horse to maintain its weight. So let’s say we have a 1,100 lb laid back, fatty American Quarter Horse vs an active, lean 1,100 lb Thoroughbred mare. Our laid back horse needs 14.8 Mcal/d while our active girl requires 17.8 Mcal/d (see Table 1 to estimate your horse’s maintenance requirement). She will need to eat 3 Mcal/d more than our couch potato. That’s even before we start working her!
    Table 1. Energy requirements for maintenance (Mcal/d) based on average activity level.

    Wt of horse (lb) Couch potato Average Active
    900 12.2 13.4 14.6
    1000 13.5 14.9 16.2
    1100 14.9 16.4 17.8
    1200 16.2 17.8 19.4
    1300 17.6 19.3 21.1

    The second major variable in the maintenance requirement for a horse is the weather. The calculated maintenance requirements are based on an environment that requires no energy by the horse to keep themselves warm. We call this the thermoneutral zone. Horses do quite well in cold temperatures if they have become accustomed to them. Cold adapted horses do well in temperatures as low as 5º Fahrenheit (F). However, horses will have trouble keeping warm if the weather suddenly changes and if the horse hasn’t grown the proper hair coat. But all horses, even fuzzy Wisconsin ones, will have trouble if they do not have protection from the wind or from rain, especially sleet. This chills a horse rapidly when the fluffy, protective insulation of their hair coat is slicked down to their body.

    How much energy does a horse need to stay warm? Below 5 º F, a horse needs to use energy to keep warm, and that temperature is referred to as the lower critical temperature. (Which is nothing for those of us living up here in the Northern Midwest – brrrr). So how much energy do they need to stay warm? On average, for every drop in temperature of 14 º F below the lower critical temperature, they will need 20% more energy. Let’s say the temperature drops to -10 F º and we are feeding our energetic girl. She will now need 21.4 Mcal/d for maintenance, an increase of 3.6 Mcal/d over her normal maintenance requirements.
    Gaining weight for insulation.

    There are additional strategies we can take to prepare our horses for winter weather, other than providing adequate shelter and letting them grow a hair coat. Adipose tissue, or fat, helps insulate horses against the chill of the winter weather, just like in polar bears. Now let’s say our higher strung mare is also thin, about a condition score 4. Well, clearly we would like to put some weight on her, especially before Old Man Winter arrives. To change body condition scores in horses by 1 value (ie a 4 to a 5), we have to really start feeding them, especially if you want to put that weight on more rapidly. If our goal is to put weight on the mare in as little as 60 days, we would have to increase her caloric intake by 5.3 Mcal/d, or 30% of what she was consuming. If our goal is a little more gradual, let’s say over 4 months, her diet would be increased by 2.7 Mcal/d or 16% of her current intake.

    Not sure how much your horse weights?

    Weight tapes are available at most feed stores at a fairly nominal price ($2-3). But for even more fun (great for kids and 4-H activities) you can do it yourself with a string and a measuring tape. Use one string to measure the distance around your horse’s heartgirth (HG). Make sure your horse is standing square and your string is around your horse perpendicular to the ground. Then measure the length of your horse’s body (BL) from the point of his shoulder to his buttock, just like you were measuring for blanket fit. Again, be sure your horse is square and that your string is held level to the ground. Measure your two strings in inches using your tape measure. Then use this simple formula
    Wt of your horse (lbs)= (HG)2 x BL
    330 Wallah! Now you know how much your horse weighs!
    Quick tip.While we haven’t discussed energy sources (coming soon), a great way to put weight on horses is to add fat to the diet. Fat has 2.25 x the amount of calories per lb compared to anything else we can feed our horses. Need to put weight on before winter? Check out some fat added feeds, or add safe fat sources made with stabilized ground flax seed and/or stabilized rice bran -- Omega Horseshine®, Omega Antioxidant, Omega Grande®, Omega Stabilized Rice Bran, or those famous Horse Journal™ recommended horse treats Omega Nibblers®. These supplements add calories quickly and safely and are better than just increasing how much your horse is eating.

  • Understanding Horse Nutrition, Part 1: Too Fat, Too Thin, or Just Right

     Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
    Horse nutrition can be a complex issue. We can feed horses to maximize stamina and power, prevent digestive disorders, avoid metabolic disorders, prevent attacks caused by genetic diseases, grow horses to be sound throughout life -- the list goes on and on. Trying to wrap one’s mind around all of these issues can be intimidating at best, even for equine nutritionists, let alone the average horse owner. However, we will begin with the basics, and then build to more complicated ideas.

    This month we begin our series on Understanding Horse Nutrition: How to Achieve Maximal Performance, with Part 1 -- TOO FAT, TOO THIN, OR JUST RIGHT? We will be discussing the proper weight or condition for your horse depending on its career. We will then put together these ideas to determine the amount of energy we should be providing to our horses. We will conclude our energy talk with the most optimal way to provide energy to your horse to gain that competitive edge. In future months, we will discuss common horse diseases and disorders that are impacted by our feeding strategies.

    One of the easiest nutrients to be fed to horses is not a nutrient at all – but energy. Ironically, energy is often the most commonly misunderstood. When horse nutritionists talk about energy, we simply mean calories. Energy to your horse can be supplied in many ways, from carbohydrates, fats or proteins. All of these can be utilized for your horse for fuel.However, when many horse owners refer to energy, what they really mean is how their horse feels. Does he seem lethargic, or does he come bouncing out of his stall or paddock? While how the horse feels can be impacted by how many calories it receives, there are many other factors that contribute to the overall health or attitude of the horse. But certainly improper management of the calories the horse is receiving can alter your horse’s demeanor.The idea seems simple enough, we feed horses enough so they are neither fat or skinny, right? Pretty much, but of course there has to be a little bit more to it. Exercising horses need more energy, sedentary horses need less. Some types of horses need more feed to put on weight, while the “easy keepers” could exist on air. We all know this, just from our own life experiences. So why do so many horse owner’s struggle with achieving that perfect weight in their horses? Is there a perfect weight? What’s good for one type of horse may not be good for others.

    Body Condition Scoring – from 1 to 9.To better define the energy needs of horses we will look at the idea of body condition scoring in horses. The body condition scoring system for horses is a numerical system used to assign a number to describe the fatness of a horse, or how much energy he has stored on his body. The system that is most often used today was created in the 80’s at Texas A&M University. Horses are assigned a number from 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely thin and 9 obese. This system of assigning numbers with the degree of fatness allows veterinarians, equine nutritionists, barn managers and trainers a common language to describe the best condition for horses to be for their optimal performance. The system is even used in court to prove cases of animal neglect and abuse. You may be familiar with similar types of systems, as they are frequently used in other livestock, and even with our in-house companions, cats and dogs.
    Fat - seeing and feeling.

    In horses, we examine eight parts of the animal’s body, both visually and manually, to come up with an overall body condition score (See Figure 1). The six main areas to examine are over the crest of the horse’s neck, their withers, behind their shoulder, over their ribs, the crease on their back, and their tailhead. Examining all areas of the horses’ body gives us the best idea of the condition of the animal, by taking the average value. Just like in people, some horses carry fat preferentially in different parts of their body. Sometimes where the fat is located can be an important indicator of potential metabolic problems (more on that in upcoming months!). Taking all parts of the horse into consideration is key in determining the condition score of the horse.

    A horse that is average in their amount of fat is given a value of 5. If your horse scores a 5, his back should be level, you can’t see his ribs, but you can easily feel them; the withers appear rounded over the spinous process, and his shoulders and neck blend smoothly together. A horse with a score of 4 has a negative crease down it’s back (essentially the upper portion of the vertebrae are not surrounded by fat and stick up), and the ribs are faintly seen. In these horses, the withers, shoulders and neck are not obviously thin. As we go lower in body condition score, the horses appear more and more emaciated. On the opposite side, horses that are above a five begin to have a crease down their back, the ribs begin to be harder to feel, and fat gets deposited along the withers, the sides of the neck and behind the shoulder. As horses increase in fatness, the crease down the back gets deeper, fat develops up and around the tailhead, and the horse essentially loses some of the contours of its body as fat fills in.

    So what body condition should you shoot for?It depends. For most exercising horses and healthy, mature horses, a score of 5 to 5 ½ is ideal. These horses will have sufficient energy reserves for work but not be impaired by excessive weight. Condition scores above 6 are generally not recommended due to the extra stress upon the bones and joints of the horse. Excess fat can also impair a horse’s ability to dissipate heat. Therefore, in horses that undergo longer periods of exercise (think three-day eventing horses, endurance horses etc.) and need a greater ability to thermoregulate, the most successful athletes range between a 4 and a 5.
    Aim a little higher for breeding horses.We encourage mare owners to allow the girls to enter the breeding season at a score of 6 or 7. Mares at a score of less than five have more reproductive challenges, with delayed time of their first successful heat cycle, needing more cycles to conceive and a reduction in pregnancy rates. The boys are also encouraged to enter the breeding season at a healthy weight, as the stress of breeding season in a heavily booked stallion can cause him to lose weight.
    Prepare older horses with sufficient weight for the season.

    If possible, owners of older horses are also encouraged to allow them to gain additional weight prior to winter. If older horses are housed outside without adequate shelter, the energy needed to keep themselves warm may cause a drastic loss in weight. By preparing them for the season with sufficient weight, these horses have more insulation, more energy reserves, and can go through the winter season more easily.

    “Hands on” time with your horse!So go out and take a look at your horses and try to give them a score. But don’t forget to get your hands on them, if you really want to know the answer!

     

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