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Every year, people make resolutions: Eat healthier, more sport, less stress. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work with humans, as usually just a few weeks after the turn of the year, your weaker self catches up with you and throws you onto the sofa with a bag of crisps. But as our horses can’t open the fridge or go shopping in the supermarket, it’s much easier to put good feeding intentions into practice.

Hay ad libitum (until the horse is full)

Horses are naturally designed to digest roughage. If healthy horses are allowed to eat hay freely (“ad libitum”), they eat between 2 and 3 kg of hay per 100 kg of body weight.

A 500 kg horse therefore needs 10-15 kg of hay.

However, our hay today is much more nutritious than the hay 100 years ago. However, modern hay has become more nutritious than its counterpart from a century ago, thanks to widespread nitrogen fertilization and the cultivation of high-performance grasses that thrive in fertilized pastures. Furthermore, today’s horses naturally engage in less physical activity compared to their counterparts from a century ago and also exhibit fewer movements than wild horses.

On average, wild horses cover approximately 30 kilometers a day while foraging for food, and in arid regions, this distance can extend to 50-60 kilometers. However, in a carefully designed paddock trail setting, their movement is limited to a maximum of 12-15 kilometers. With normal open yard housing, you can expect them to cover 3-5 km a day, but if they are kept in stables, they won’t even traverse a single kilometer.

This often leads to obesity with a hay supply “until the horse is full”. But providing food in ‘rations’ is still the wrong approach because the horse’s digestive system is designed for a constant supply of roughage. Narrow-mesh hay nets (mesh size <3cm) offer a good alternative for providing horses with hay around the clock without leading to issues such as obesity, EMS, or laminitis. Consider installing some of these ‘hay net stations’ in the turnout area or stable. This encourages movement from one station to another and ensures a steady supply of hay without the risk of overfeeding.

Hay feeding from the hay net
Hay provided at will as a feeding resolution for the new year. © Adobe Stock / pholidito

If you alternate the hay nets with other “slow feeders” (methods to reduce feeding speed) such as hay boxes, hay bins, hay balls, etc., the horses also adopt various body postures while eating, promoting their overall health.

Avoid haylage

Even though harvesting and storing haylage is easier compared to hay, ensiled feed is generally not suitable for horses. This is due to the ensiling process itself, which is comparable to the fermentation process used in making sauerkraut. In the production of haylage, lactic acid bacteria are used to convert the sugars present in the grass into lactic acid, thereby acidifying the bale.

From a pH value of less than 5, “dormancy” sets in, meaning that no germs such as molds can multiply. This is important because a warm and humid environment prevails under the silage film. If the pH value fails to drop below 5, the outcome is akin to wrapping bread in a plastic bag and leaving it undisturbed: mold growth occurs. This phenomenon is frequently observed in haylage due to its lower sugar content compared to silage, and the presence of a dry, stalky structure tends to trap air, further promoting mold growth.

In numerous instances, dry haylage only achieves a pH of approximately 6, failing to reach the necessary dormancy level. The drier the haylage, the fewer harmful lactic acid bacteria it contains, but the higher the risk of harmful mold infestation.

However, even if the silage undergoes a perfect ensiling process, it is not better for the horse. In this case, lactic acid bacteria enter the intestine in large quantities with every meal. They are not intestinal symbionts but, rather, cause a drop in the pH value in the intestine and a significant disturbance of the horse’s sensitive intestinal flora.

Bales of haylage in a field
Haylage is generally not recommended for feeding horses due to its potential drawbacks. © Adobe Stock / Westwind

Regardless of the quality of haylage production, it is generally deemed unsuitable for feeding horses and may lead to long-term health issues, often emerging years later. Hence, during the upcoming summer, it is advisable to avoid the production or purchase of haylage and opt for hay. If this is not feasible, reconsidering the stable arrangement may be a prudent course of action. For the horse’s sake.

Ensure mineral supply

Many horse owners believe that by feeding muesli, their horse receives adequate mineral supplementation. However, this holds true only if the daily amounts specified by the manufacturer are followed diligently. Take a look at the declaration of your feed. Daily rations of 2-4 kg are often recommended. With such quantities, however, most horses are provided with excessive sugar, which is not adequately utilized through exercise.

This is why many owners only feed a small amount of muesli, as it is often more for the psychological well-being of the horse and rider than for energy. To ensure that the horse has a balanced diet, we recommend avoiding muesli and pellets. Instead, regularly offer a good mineral feed in addition to a performance- and species-appropriate (non-mineralized) concentrated feed. When selecting mineral feed, ensure that the composition listed on the label does not contain excessive sugar.

Glucose, dextrose, apple pomace, and similar sugary “treats” can lead horses to consume mineral feed as if it were sweets. It is advisable to select a mineral feed with a minimalist composition that may not be as palatable, avoiding the addition of ingredients like glucose, dextrose, apple pomace, and similar sugary treats.

Then horses are more likely to consume the mineral feed only when there is a genuine need for minerals, reducing the risk of overdoses. Pay special attention to mineral blocks and bowls. Do not provide licking bowls or blocks made of candy mass (pure sugar) mixed with minerals. Just try the licking bowl yourself: You can taste it immediately. It’s not surprising that horses eagerly and continuously lick such products. However, all that sugar does more harm than good, posing significant health risks from tooth decay to diabetes.

And, of course, it can lead to an oversupply if the horse consumes this mineral candy in a short time. There are also licking bowls or blocks that “don’t taste as good”, such as the Pure Minerals licking bowl from OKAPI. Such licking bowls are ideal for supplying minerals. You can place these licking bowls in the grooming area, for instance, allowing the horses to access the minerals they need once a day. Offer these bowls only under supervision as well until it’s clear they are consistently ignored by all horses to prevent oversupply.

OKAPI Pure Minerals Lick
Mineral supply through licking bowls as a suggestion for the new year. © OKAPI GmbH

Less is more

As we all know: The way to the heart is through the stomach. From strawberry-banana-flavored treats to pricey powdered supplements promising improved hoof growth, many feed rooms resemble a feed retailer’s warehouse, and the stable cupboard might as well be a pharmacy.

Advertisements lead us to believe that a perfect remedy exists for every ailment our beloved horses might face. The suggestion is that by feeding a particular super-special feed, our horses will effortlessly ascend to the highest performance levels. Now, just as we’ve learned from human advertising that expensive super yoghurt doesn’t hasten recovery from a cold and peculiar powders won’t miraculously sculpt a slim and athletic physique…

Despite this, many horse owners remain uncertain about how to correctly feed their horses and attempt to navigate the array of feeds with the intention of doing everything just right. However, feeding horses is fundamentally straightforward: providing enough good hay, access to pasture in the summer (adjusted to the horse’s condition and the pasture quality), a suitable mineral feed, a salt lick, and ample access to clean water.

And during your next walk in the woods together, let your horse nibble a little here and there. Not only do horses get the wood fiber they need for digestion, but they also receive various secondary plant substances from herbs that grow along the way rather than on pastures or high-performance hay meadows. After a particularly good training session, a carrot or a treat is a nice reward. But always remember that less is more.

Exercise, exercise, exercise

In the pursuit of the perfect weight and ideal muscling in horses, considerable effort is often invested in their feeding. The aspect of “training and exercise” is frequently somewhat neglected.

Simply taking the horse out of the stable once a day and putting it through its paces at a brisk pace is not sufficient. Horses are animals of movement. In the wild, horses spend approximately 14-16 hours a day moving in search of food. And at a calm pace.

The musculoskeletal system is designed for this calm movement with a lowered head and a constant supply of roughage, as is the digestive system. The trend towards open yards is a step in the right direction when it comes to making our housing conditions more species-appropriate. But you could also consider creating a paddock trail together with the stable owner to provide even more exercise incentives. Even if your horse is in the stable at night, there is nothing against providing a trail during the day.

But even the best and most entertaining trail is no substitute for training to enable the horse to carry the rider, because the load-bearing work has to be done by the muscles, not the skeleton. Only if the muscular system is well trained can the horse perform well when ridden without wearing out the musculoskeletal system and being sent to the retirement home early with injuries (tendon and fetlock injuries, fatigue fractures…) or joint damage (arthrosis, spavin, chips…).

The same principle that holds true for humans applies to horses: only varied training promotes all muscle groups equally. If you only work on piaffe and passage every day, you will ultimately damage their musculoskeletal system just as much as a rider who only ever roams through the countryside with a long rein. Even dressage horses are allowed to go out and really stretch their legs on the gallop track. And the trail horse should also understand concepts like shoulder-in and realize that it has two hind legs capable of carrying the rider effectively.

Two riders on a path between meadows
Suitable exercise for horse and rider as a tip for the new year. © Adobe Stock / Marc Aucouturier

There are now numerous books, instructional videos, and seminars covering a wide range of training options. Now is a great time to break away from your usual riding routine and explore something different. Of course, not every training system or exercise is suitable for every horse or rider. However, the greater the variety of tools in your riding toolbox, the more diverse your training can become, making the collaboration more enjoyable.