Fibre for veterans
By Joanna Palmer BSc (Hons) equine nutritionist at Allen & Page
Horses need to ‘trickle feed‘ and should ideally have fibre in the form of grass, hay or haylage available at all times.
Aside from water, fibre is the most important component of every horse’s diet. And for the majority, their fibre needs are easily met through grazing and supplementary forages such as hay and haylage.
There is, however, a growing need for alternative sources of fibre, most notably for the increasing population of veteran horses and ponies who can have difficulty chewing long stem fibre, due to poor teeth.
Why is fibre important?
Horses have evolved to eat a diet that is predominately fibrous forage and in the wild they would graze for up to 18 hours a day. To mimic their need to ‘trickle feed‘, our domesticated horses should ideally have fibre in the form of grass, hay or haylage available at all times.
Fibre is not only essential for good digestive health, its digestion also provides a good source of calories and body heat as it is fermented in the gut. This means that the horse has to use fewer calories to keep warm and is more likely to maintain condition.
If a horse is not getting enough fibre in his diet, he will lose weight, almost in spite of how much high calorie 'bucket' feed he may also be given.
Fibre is made up of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. Lignin is indigestible but cellulose and hemicellulose are readily digested in the hind gut by microbial fermentation. The hind gut makes up 62% of the horse’s entire digestive system and is populated by billions of bacteria which break down fibre into volatile fatty acids (VFAs). These VFAs are an important source of slow release energy which are absorbed from the hind gut into the horse’s bloodstream and transported around the body.
Horses that do not eat enough fibre are more likely to develop serious problems, including colic and gastric ulcers. Horse’s saliva contains bicarbonate which is important for neutralising stomach acid; but saliva is only produced when the horse is actively chewing.
If a horse spends a reduced amount of time chewing he will produce less saliva and the acidity of his stomach contents will rise. This more acidic environment can result in damage to the stomach lining and increases the risk of gastric ulcers occurring.
A diet that is low in fibre can also cause horses to develop behavioural issues such as aggression, grumpiness and crib biting due to their inability to fulfil their natural feeding and chewing behaviours.
Hay replacers for veteran horses
Continued advances in veterinary medicine, together with an increase in our own understanding and management of our horses and ponies, have led to a significant increase in their lifespans, with many horses now healthy and active well into their twenties and thirties.
Unfortunately, even with the best possible care and regular attention from a qualified equine dental technician, there is little we can do to prevent the deterioration in dental condition that occurs naturally with age. Loose, worn or missing teeth and pain from sore gums will all affect a horse’s ability to chew efficiently.
Balls of partially chewed food form in the horse’s mouth and are then dropped on the floor. This is known as quidding and is a tell-tale sign that a horse is suffering from problems with their teeth and would benefit from a hay replacer.
The choice and availability of these hay replacers has grown significantly over the last few years and includes short-chopped chaffs, sugar beet, grass nuts, alfalfa pellets and specially prepared, soaking feeds which combine all the necessary ingredients and vitamins and minerals to provide a balanced diet.
It is important to be aware that products such as sugar beet and some of the grass and alfalfa chaffs are high in calories and so not suitable to be fed in large quantities to good doers already at ideal bodyweight. A hay replacer should provide similar nutrition to that of good quality hay. If necessary, additional higher energy fibre sources or a conditioning feed can then be added to the horse’s diet, to provide a calorie boost.
A hay replacer can be fed to replace all or part of the horse’s normal daily fibre intake, depending on their individual needs. As well as veteran horses and ponies, other equines that may benefit from a hay replacer include:
• Fussy feeders who simply do not eat sufficient fibre to meet their nutritional needs.
• A horse or pony that has sustained an injury or undergone an operation that affects their ability to chew - a soaked fibre feed that is easy to eat can be particularly beneficial during recovery.
• Horses and ponies who are prone to colic or recovering from abdominal surgery - again the provision of a soaked fibre feed ensures the horse receives the fibre they need for digestive health and the additional water content helps to keep the gut hydrated and able to function efficiently.
• Those with access to only poor quality grass, hay and haylage.
Feeding a soaked hay replacer
Many people enjoy the convenience and peace of mind of feeding a specially made fibre feed that is balanced with all the essential nutrition a horse requires. One of the most important qualities of a hay replacer is that it is easy to eat, particularly as the main reason for a horse needing an alternative fibre source is poor dental condition. An affected horse is more at risk of choke, simply because he is not able to chew properly.
For this reason a soaked fibre feed is popular with horses and their owners alike, not only for ease of eating and preparation, but with the added benefit of increasing water consumption. Veteran horses can be reluctant to drink enough water, particularly in the winter and by feeding a soaked hay replacer their water intake can be significantly increased.
As a soaked fibre feed takes considerably less effort and time to eat than the equivalent amount of hay, it is important to try to maximise the amount of time a horse spends eating to avoid long periods when no fibre is passing through the gut. A horse’s feeding time can be extended by:
• Dividing the horse’s daily feed into as many meals as possible.
• Feeding from a long trough or straight on the floor to spread the feed out and prevent the horse from taking large mouthfuls.
• Placing obstacles such as large, flat stones in the trough so the horse has to eat around them.
• Splitting each meal into several containers around the stable or field to encourage foraging behaviour.
• Mixing in a chaff if the horse is capable of chewing one.