Good Sense and Good Nutrition - A Natural
"Hay, oats and water" is what the
old timers often say when the subject of nutrition comes
up, and the younger generation tends to snicker, "Maybe
in your time, gramps." But there is a wisdom there
that won't go out of date. Regardless of the particular
ingredients you choose for your basic program, the quality
of those ingredients is especially important. Do not depend
upon supplements or concentrates to "make up"
for poor quality feedstuffs. A successful nutrition program
begins with careful, consistent monitoring of pastures,
hay and grains for signs of rust, smut, molds and spoilage.
The toxic by-products of molds and bacteria, or the organisms
themselves, can cause a host of problems ranging from
reduced growth to unexplained abortions to death. Feeds
in which mold, spoilage or dust are present are simply
unacceptable. Reject them without compromise. Make sure
that grain bins are cleaned out before refilling and keep
all stored feedstuffs as dry as possible. Some types of
mold and bacteria are impossible to detect by eye. Ask
your extension agent or feed consultant about local conditions
and testing programs.
Another safeguard against contamination, and the first
step in preventing dehydration, is to make sure the water
you offer your horse is truly fresh and clean. Scrub the
tubs clean every day and remember, if you wouldn't drink
it, don't expect your horse to. (Don't confuse fresh with
very cold, though, as cold water in liberal amounts can
cause a recently exercised horse to colic.) Make sure
that plenty of clean, fresh water is available at all
Assuring the quality of the basic feed is the first priority
in a successful nutrition program. It will give you a
solid foundation to build on, and make further improvements
much more effective. To better understand the building
of this foundation, we will take a quick look at the major
nutrient groups in the feed. These are energy, protein
The energy requirements of horses are affected by so
many variables that it is impossible to make specific
recommendations without observing the individual animal.
Energy, sometimes called fuel, is derived mostly from
carbohydrates and fats. Until recently, the focus was
on carbohydrates, the dominant fuel provided by grains.
Since hay yields a much lower amount of energy per pound,
horsemen seeking extra energy reserves assumed they had
to increase the proportion of grains in the diet. Other
attempted "fixes" have included the addition
of molasses, corn syrup and honey, all concentrated sources
of sugars. Research is beginning to confirm the suspicions
of many horsemen about this approach; high levels of quick
burning sugars tend to put the horse into a cycle of energy
highs and lows that results in reduced stamina and performance.
But excessive feeding of grain poses a host of problems,
too, some of which we will consider in a moment.
A new tool for energy management is added fat. A conventional
mix of grains and hay will usually be under 5% fat. A
number of studies have shown that horses can readily digest
added vegetable oils or animal fats. The maximum amount
seems to be about 15% of the total ration by weight. This
approach overcomes several problems that can arise in
the quest for extra energy.
Without fat supplementation, trying to keep weight on
a "hard keeper" or attempting to boost energy
stores during training, racing or endurance riding can
tempt the horseman to tip the grain/hay balance into the
Why do we say danger zone? First, too little hay or forage
deprives the horse of the roughage he needs for efficient
digestion and a healthy hind gut. (An exception to this
is the use of special concentrates formulated with high
levels of roughage from beets or other sources.) Second,
a good deal of energy is used in the digestion of grains,
and quite a bit of heat is released. Thus, excess grain
can significantly raise the "thermal load" the
horse has to contend with, an especially big drawback
during hot weather. Fats generate significantly less heat
during digestion. And third, extra grain means extra protein,
which can lead to tying up and other problems. The increased
risk of colic with a high grain diet is all too familiar
to any experienced horsemen. Fats are a "pure"
energy source. When you add them to the diet for energy,
that's exactly what you get.
Grains are the major protein source in most feeding programs.
The optimum protein intake is still a subject of fierce
debate. Individual horses can have very different needs
for daily protein. This variety is compounded by the dozens
of different events we use them in. In short, the debate
is not likely to end soon. But knowing some of the facts
about protein metabolism can help you to design the right
programs for the individuals you work with.
The standard way to evaluate protein intake is to look
at the percentage of crude protein in the diet. This is
generally a measurement of the nitrogen content of the
feed. That's because, for the most part, only proteins
in the feed contain nitrogen. A conversion factor is then
used to estimate the amount of overall protein present.
But what is protein? Proteins are groups of amino acids
linked together to form large molecules. These molecules
are too large for the horse to absorb. So, after the teeth,
saliva and stomach acids have done their part to break
down the feed, enzymes released in the small intestine
split apart the protein molecules into much smaller units.
These are amino acids and peptides, which are very small
groups of amino acids. Amino acids and peptides easily
pass through the intestinal wall and into circulation.
Once inside the body, they are reassembled to form proteins
the horse's body can use to make blood, muscle, bone,
skin, hooves, nervous system tissues and much more. They
are even used to make more enzymes so more amino acids
and peptides can be absorbed in the future!
When the horse's body makes proteins, it must follow
an exact blueprint - no substitutions allowed. Each amino
acid must be available to occupy its special place in
the protein molecule. There are eight amino acids which
are considered "essential" in the horse's diet.
These are amino acids the horse's body cannot manufacture
from other amino acids. If the body runs out of a specific
essential amino acid, no more proteins can be made which
require that amino acid. Say you're building a fence.
You've got plenty of posts but you run out of rails. Fence
building stops until you buy more rails. In nutrition,
this is called the "limiting amino acid principle."
Unfortunately, the grains we feed to horses are poor
sources of at least two of the essentials; lysine and
methionine. In fact, oats and corn are so low in these
amino acids that the percentage of available protein may
be only half the crude protein percentage. Available protein
is, roughly, the amount that can be used until the body
runs out of one of the essential amino acids. Try roasted
soy beans (45% protein and a great source of lysine) as
a supplement to improve protein quality.
Take care in managing your feeding program and you will
reap the rewards for years to come. And if you should
come across a tough nutritional problem, the folks here
at Vita-Flex (toll free 1-800-848-2359) will always be
glad to help.