Reading time 4 minutes

Depending on whether the preceding summer was extremely hot or moderately warm, the pastures can either be highly stressed, resulting in a brown appearance, or retain some vitality. As heatwaves have become more frequent in recent years, many pastures now have areas where fresh grass is scarce, resembling more or less ‘hay on a stick’.

After the summer, most grasses and many herbaceous plants have completed their flowering. As the plants go through the process of seed formation, nutrients are directed towards the development of the seeds themselves. Consequently, the plants lose a substantial amount of their nutritional value since they have fulfilled their purpose of ensuring reproduction for the following year.

Heavy feeders

Therefore, even if the horses manage to find sufficient grazing, the nutritional value is rather limited in many areas. This situation particularly concerns owners of ponies that are prone to carrying too much weight, as they need to monitor their calorie intake diligently to prevent excessive weight gain. However, there are also heavy feeders, thoroughbred types, and old horses that struggle to maintain weight, often losing kilos faster than you can provide nourishment.

Normally, healthy horses follow a natural cycle where they accumulate some reserves during the summer’s growing period and then exit the grazing period with a few extra kilos. During winter, healthy horses naturally shed this excess weight due to increased energy consumption triggered by colder temperatures and the less nutrient-rich quality of hay when compared to fresh pasture grass.

While the winter weight loss is a welcome occurrence for owners of light feeders, it remains a significant concern for those with heavy feeders. Therefore, it is advisable to initiate feeding these horses extra in a timely manner. Waiting until the horse becomes too thin is counterproductive as it takes longer to regain the lost weight.

Supporting measures

For heavy feeders, a successful strategy involves increasing the protein content in their diet when they can no longer rely on green and lush pastures to maintain their weight. This does not mean that you should provide them with huge quantities of concentrated feed. Concentrated feed typically consists of a high starch and/or sugar content. This fast-release form of energy needs to be utilised through physical activity.

If the horse does not receive sufficient exercise on a diet high in sugar/starch, it can result in disruptions to the blood sugar balance and/or the storage of impure degradation products in the connective tissue, leading to lymph retention. Not all horses with insulin resistance are overweight; there are also instances where horses affected by insulin resistance may appear thin.

This visual roundness is primarily due to lymph retention. However, once the feed is discontinued, the horses often reveal a leaner physique beneath the accumulated lymph pads than before.

Protein is not primarily utilised by horses as an energy source (unlike sugar and starch), but it plays a crucial role in maintaining or gaining a healthy weight.

Various proteins

Protein can be derived from various sources, each with varying degrees of quality. For instance, the protein composition in soy is unbalanced for horses and mainly contributes to kidney strain and lymph accumulation.

Conversely, legumes like alfalfa or sainfoin have a much more suitable protein composition for horses due to their high content of essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and threonine.

Unlike lucerne, sainfoin has the added benefit of containing tannins, which help stabilize the intestinal environment, leading to improved utilization of the entire feed ration. Hence, supplementing the diet with sainfoin has proven to be highly effective for heavy feeders (such as horses with dental problems, thoroughbreds, horses experiencing high internal stress levels, or elderly horses) towards the end of the grazing season.

The higher protein content compensates for what is no longer present in the dried grass. Additionally, the tannins facilitate the transition from pasture back to hay feeding in autumn and winter, ensuring that the horse can optimally obtain its nutrients throughout the season.

Lucerne also boasts a high protein content and a favorable amino acid pattern. However, it lacks the tannins found in sainfoin, which means it does not possess the intestinal stabilizing effect. There is also suspicion that it may increase photosensitivity, thereby elevating the risk of sunburn. Therefore, in strong sunlight, especially for horses with a lot of white on the face, such as a blaze or bald face, Perlinos, Cremellos, Paints, Appaloosas, Tinkers, Pintos, and Tiger Pintos – i.e., all horses with pink skin around the nostrils or eyes – it is better to refrain from feeding lucerne and give sainfoin instead. That’s better than risking sunburn on your horse’s nose.