When To Change Your Horse’s Nutrition Program
If you've been feeding your horse the same thing for years, you might be wondering if it's time to change things up.
Maybe your horse is growing older and needs different nutrients than they did when they were younger. Or maybe you have a pregnant or lactating mare and you aren’t sure of their nutrient requirements.
If you're wondering whether or not your horse's nutritional needs have changed—and what those changes might mean—read on!
Signs that your horse's nutritional needs have changed
It's important to monitor your horse's body weight and body condition to ensure that he or she is receiving enough carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Feeds like grain and alfalfa or grass hay often provide an adequate source of digestible energy and amino acids (the building blocks of protein), but sometimes your horse may require a change in feed or supplements.
If you're not sure whether your horse's nutritional needs have changed, there are several clues to look for. A trained eye can recognize changes in coat quality, skin color or texture, and general health. These give you a glimpse into their digestive system health.
However, it helps to be aware of some of the more common signs that a diet change may be in order:
- Changes in weight (for example, if your horse is losing weight)
- Poor performance (less energy)
- Digestive upsets (diarrhea or colic)
While these symptoms may indicate poor nutrition or lack of adequate amounts of nutrients, they can also be caused by other factors such as illness or stress. Therefore it is important to rule out these possibilities before assuming that your horse's diet needs changing.
If you are concerned about any of these symptoms but unsure what might be causing them then consult with a veterinarian who will be able to help determine whether your adult horse’s diet is meeting his nutrient requirements.
How do I know if my horse is too fat?
Weight problems are some of the most common nutritional problems in adult horses. Many owners have no idea what their horse's ideal weight is, but with a little bit of knowledge, you can make an educated guess.
Body condition scoring (BCS) is the most widely used method for estimating your horse's body condition score and its associated health risks. BCS uses an objective system to determine if your horse is too fat or too thin based on how much fat covers each part of his body and how much muscle is underneath it all. This can help you identify potential issues with your horse's nutrition long before they become serious health concerns.
To use BCS as a diagnostic tool, determine which category best fits your horse's current condition using the following list:
- 0 = emaciated (not eating) or extremely thin; ribs easily visible; hip bones prominent; backbone may be visible from behind
- 1 = very thin; ribs showing; hip bones just beginning to show from behind
- 2 = thin across midsection but not like number one or three yet
- 3 = average condition with no obvious fat covering ribs and hipbones
- 4 = well-filled out but not over-conditioned either way - moderate fleshy neck muscles but still good bone definition
- 5 = noticeably overweight with excess weight carried around neck/shoulders area only
How do I know if my horse is too skinny?
If you suspect your horse is underweight, there are a few signs to look for. One of the most obvious is weight loss.
If your horse’s body condition score has dropped below 4, he's probably losing too much body weight and is not getting adequate amounts of digestible energy.
Poor muscle tone can also indicate that a horse isn't getting enough carbohydrates and proteins. To determine this, feel around his neck, shoulders and tail head—areas where fat deposits would be if he was gaining weight normally.
If you can't feel any fat tissue anywhere on him but he's still losing body weight rapidly, it could be a sign that something else is going on with his digestive tract or metabolism (for example: stress).
Another easy way to tell if your horse needs more calories is by looking at how much hay he's eating per day: if he consumes less than 1% of his body weight in dry matter daily then it's likely time to increase his food intake!
Why do horses need different nutrients at different stages of life?
As your horse ages, his nutritional requirements will change. Foals need more carbohydrates and have an overall higher nutrient requirement than adult horses; seniors require protein, calcium, and other nutrients that are less of a priority for younger horses.
It may seem like you should be able to tell when your horse is hungry or thirsty—but how do you know that he's getting enough of the right kinds of nutrients? Here are some signs to watch out for:
Horses who are working or competing
While those who are working or competing need different nutrients than horses who aren't, they also require different amounts of each nutrient.
For example, the energy and protein requirements of a horse that works regularly will be higher than those of a horse who doesn't perform athletically.
Your veterinarian can help you determine how much food your horse needs based on his level of activity.
Some horses need more vitamins and minerals than others in order to recover from injuries or illness. If that's the case with your horse, talk to your veterinarian about how best to provide him with extra nutrition so he can heal faster and stronger.
Foals and pregnant/lactating mares
When a horse is young and growing, he will need to eat more than when he is older and not growing. The same is true during pregnancy (when the mare is pregnant), lactation (when she is nursing), or if you live in a hot climate where there isn't enough water available for your horse to drink.
You may also see changes if your horse gets sick and loses weight or energy levels drop due to illness or metabolic issues such as Cushings disease or insulin resistance.
Keeping track of small changes in behavior will give you an idea of when your horse has outgrown his current food source before it becomes a bigger issue!
Having a flexible, adaptable approach to your horse's diet can be the difference between a happy horse and one that's not so healthy. This means being open to trying new things and paying attention to what works best for them, as well as being willing to adjust if something doesn't seem right over time.
If you notice any changes in your horse's health or behavior, then it's time to talk with your vet about adjusting your horse’s feed accordingly.