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Diet Advice for a Horse with Multiple Health ProblemsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 18, 2016

The professionals at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) field many questions each day about the nutritional management of horses. Some of the queries can be answered quickly, while others require more analysis. This scenario recently landed in the inbox of a KER nutritionist.

I have an 11-year-old Appaloosa gelding named T.J. He stands 16.1 hands (165 cm) and weighs about 1,300 lb (590 kg). His current diet includes two large flakes of mixed grass hay and a scoop of oats each day. He is stalled for 8 hours a day and on low-quality pasture for 16 hours each day. He seems underweight, probably a 4 on the 1-9 body condition scale. He is ridden lightly a few times a week, mostly just flatwork, as an old injury prevents us from exercising him heavily. The problems we are having with him include anxiety (without spookiness), occasional mild colic (a couple times a month, usually impaction), dry and cracked hooves, and a tendency for skin irritations. Could the diet be the cause of his thinness and any of the other problems?

Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., an equine nutritionist with KER, breaks down this horse owner’s questions and provides valuable feedback.

First impression of the current diet. T.J.’s owner gave us a glimpse as to what her gelding consumes daily, but the ration is short on important details. The accuracy of ration evaluation depends on reliable reporting from the horse owners.

Nutritionists prefer owners to report forage and feed amounts as weights because volumes can be too vague. In this case, for instance, it is not possible to easily ascertain just how much hay T.J. receives each day. Because I’ve weighed different types of hays over the years, I would guess a typical flake weighs 2-3 lb (0.9-1.4 kg), but the owner describes the flakes as “large,” so that adds another layer of uncertainty as to just how much the gelding receives daily.

One of my first thoughts in reading this question involves total quantity of feed. A horse such as this, 1,300 lb (590 kg) with a minimal workload, should probably consume about 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage and feed daily; this equates to 20-26 lb (9-12 kg) of forage and feed. Assuming the total allotment of hay weighs 6 lb (2.7 kg) and the oats weigh 2 lb (0.9 kg), the weight of the complete diet (8 lb or 3.6 kg) would be less than half of what T.J. requires. Add to this whatever forage the horse can graze from the poor pasture offered, and very likely the gelding is not receiving enough to eat, and this is probably the reason for weight-gain problems.

Secondary to the issue of quantity, there is a question of quality. Horses on diets consisting of forage and straight grains, in this case plain oats, do not receive the vitamins and minerals they require for optimal nutrition.

Thoughts on ration revision. Beginning with the forage, I would offer T.J. free-choice forage until weight gain is achieved. Access to good-quality forage accomplishes several things: it provides a source of calories and essential nutrients; it keeps the stomach full, which can help keep gastric ulcers from forming and causing discomfort; it encourages gastrointestinal motility and health; and it occupies the horse so boredom, and consequently vices, do not set in.

Replacing the oats with a well-fortified concentrate fed at the manufacturer’s recommended level will ensure that protein, vitamin, and mineral needs are met and will provide T.J. with more calories to help achieve weight gain. Most feeds have a minimum intake of 5-6 lb (2.3-2.7 kg), and the amount can be increased to accommodate varying caloric requirements. Because T.J. needs to gain weight, he could be fed the upper limit of the recommendations. Keep in mind that concentrates should be increased gradually, and no single concentrate meal should exceed about 5 lb (2.3 kg).

If you prefer to keep T.J. on oats, you should steadily increase the amount to at least 6 lb (2.7) and perhaps more, split into two feedings.  Adding a ration balancer pellet to the oats will provide T.J. with appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals. Though recommended amounts vary based on the manufacturer, most ration balancers are formulated to be fed at 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) per day.

Finally, be sure T.J. has a salt block and plenty of fresh water whenever he chooses.

Tackling specific nutrition problems. T.J.’s owner identified three health concerns that might improve with targeted nutritional supplementation: low-level, chronic colic, poor hoof quality, and skin problems.

Colic. I assume the owner has been consulting with a veterinarian about T.J.’s recurrent colic. Horses with gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis will sometimes be more prone to colic than horses with healthy gastrointestinal tracts. A course of omeprazole will clear gastric ulcers if they are found during endoscopic examination, and T.J. can maintain stomach health on a product such as RiteTrac, which will keep the stomach healthy and address hindgut acidosis.

Hindgut acidosis, a condition characterized by shifting pH levels in the cecum and colon, can cause other problems, aside from colic, including irritability, reduced performance, and development of certain stable vices. RiteTrac contains a hindgut buffer than helps maintain a constant pH in the cecum and colon. When pH stabilizes, digestion of feedstuffs and absorption of nutrients becomes most efficient.

RiteTrac is available in the U.S. and other areas of the world. Australian horse owners should check out a complete range of products intended to foster gastrointestinal health.

If T.J. does not have gastric ulcers, he can be treated for hindgut acidosis through the provision of EquiShure, a time-released hindgut buffer available worldwide.

Hoof quality. T.J.’s current diet might not be providing sufficient nutrients for healthy hoof growth, or he might be genetically predisposed to poor-quality hooves. A dietary upgrade will most likely help with this problem. The new ration should be augmented with a high-quality hoof and coat supplement such as Bio•Bloom PS (Bio-Bloom in Australia), which contains not only biotin but also micronutrients necessary for hoof strength and growth.

Skin problems. Because of his Appaloosa heritage, and depending upon his coat pattern or markings, T.J. might have a natural inclination to skin irritation. The introduction of fat from a concentrate or hoof supplement will likely help T.J.’s skin irritation, but many horse owners choose to feed their horses fish oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. I would recommend EO•3 in this case because this marine-derived product will provide a direct source of important omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA. Fish oil should be introduced slowly to T.J., as some horses take longer to become accustomed to the taste than others.

Properly nourishing a horse requires a certain measure of flexibility. The preceding guidelines offer a sound leaping-off point. Barring any health problems, it is likely that T.J. will gain weight with these management changes, especially the increase in feed quantity. Once he is at an acceptable weight, his diet will likely need to be revisited, as he could become overweight if fed a surplus of calories for too long.

As always, horse owners should consult with a veterinarian about deworming and vaccination schedules as well as dental health.

Do you want the nutritionists at KER to take a closer look at your horse’s diet? Start here!