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Notes that may help anyone going for their BHS Stage 1 exam or doing their NVQ level 1 or 2 in Horse Care and Riding
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Post by TracingEquines » 18 Nov 2011, 10:26 pm

Nutrition - The Facts Behind The Rules

A stabled horse is in an artificial environment, totally dependant on us for his food and water. In order to keep a horse's system working efficiently, the feeding regime must mimic nature as closely as possible, hence the first rule of good feeding: FEED LITTLE AND OFTEN. The key reason for this is that, for its size, the horse has a relatively small stomach about the size of a rugby ball. The stomach can stretch to accommodate about 13 to 23 litres (3 to 5 gallons) of food, but, due to the "J" shape of the stomach it is never more than two-thirds full, i.e. the stomach will hold about 9 to 13 litres (2 to 3 gallons) of food, about two-thirds of a standard water bucket.

Allowing for about one-third of the stomach's contents to be water and saliva (the horse produces large quantities of saliva), the amount of food most usefully consumed in one meal is limited to half a bucketful of hard feed fed to a greedy horse - will push partially digested food out of the stomach before the feed has been finished. Not only is this wasteful; it is potentially dangerous, too, since this partially treated food may ferment in the small intestine and cause colic.

A swollen, full stomach will also put pressure on the diaphragm (the muscular layer separating the lungs from the gust), preventing the horse from filling its lungs properly - hence the rule DO NOT WORK FAST IMMEDIATELY AFTER FEEDING. Nobody wants to run a cross-country after Sunday Lunch, the horse is just the same !

Another factor to be considered is that when the horse works some of the blood supply is diverted from the gut to the muscle. Digestion will slow down but food will still pass along the gut, resulting in the horse getting fewer nutrients out of the food before it is expelled as faeces. This is also the reason why horses and humans may suffer diarrhoea (scouring) after severe exertion.

When the stomach is full and the horse takes a long drink of water, food may be washed out of the stomach before it has been treated by the gastric juices in the process of digestion. As before, the leads to wastage and possibly colic. So the rule WATER BEFORE FEEDING is soundly based. However, the extent of this "washing out" is debatable and modern thinking is that the effect is not as serious as once believed. Due to the "J" shape of the stomach, it may be that water merely washes over the top of the food causing little harm. To avoid any problems the horse should ALWAYS HAVE ACCESS TO FRESH CLEAN WATER except when just about to compete at high speed.

The size and nature of the caecum and large intestine indicate the horse's need for fibre in the diet. There should never be less than 25 % roughage in the daily ration, so FEED PLENTY OF ROUGHAGE.

Problems can arise in competition horses which compete with a gut full, of roughage, as roughage is bulky and requires larger quantities of water in its digestion. Thus a high roughage diet gives the horse a big belly and will amount to it carrying an unnecessary burden. The extra weight and the pressure on the diaphragm will also impair heart and lung function, yet the horse must eat at least a quarter of its daily intake as roughage in order to keep the gut working properly. Sugar beet pulp is a useful source of highly digestible fibre.

The digestion of roughage takes place in the caecum and large intestine, making available to the horse nutrients available to carnivores, such as dogs, and omnivores, such as humans - we would not look very well on a diet of grass. The process that takes place in the caecum and colon is called "fermentation" and is carried out by a vast population of micro-organisms (bacteria and protazoa). These specialise in fermenting particular parts of the diet and so the number of each type of organism present in the gut will vary depending on what the horse is being fed - sudden changes in the diet will result in there not being sufficient numbers of the appropriate organism to deal with the food, and food will pass through the gut only partially digested. This is at best wasteful and at worst may cause diarrhoea: therefore MAKE ANY CHANGES IN THE DIET GRADUALLY. This is partly the reason for the laxative properties of a once-weekly bran mash.

The horse is susceptible to problems such as LAMINITIS AND AZOTURIA caused in part by overfeeding, so it is vital that the food level anticipates the WORKLOAD. Days when the horse is off work must be planned and the ration altered accordingly the day before. Horses laid off due to illness, lameness or bad weather should have their corn feed cut dramatically. If rest days cannot be anticipated, the feed on the day should be reduced in concentrate content and every effort made to either turn the horse out or lead it out in hand.

The horse must be fed on a diet which is BALANCED AND SUITABLE FOR THAT INDIVIDUAL AND THE WORK IT IS EXPECTED TO DO. This is, of course, easier said than done and will be discussed further. An overfed horse can be dangerous, to itself and to its rider.

The remaining "rules" are self-evident, and one of them is always use GOOD-QUALITY FEEDSTUFFS. There is an increasing awareness of the horse's susceptibility to dust allergy which can only be avoided by feeding clean, good-quality forage. The horse's appetite will be depressed by stale food or dirty mangers, and therefore SCRUPULOUS ATTENTION MUST BE PAID TO HYGIENE AND STORAGE FACILITIES. Certain food have a limited shelf life, beyond which they may lose palatability and nutritive value, and this must be considered when buying feeds or supplements in bulk.

The horse is a herd animal and a creature of habit, and benefits from having REGULAR FEEDING HOURS EVERY DAY. A horse may fret if its feed is not available at the expected time and thus lose condition, which will affect its performance.

The bacteria in the horse's gut are able to synthesise some vitamins but FEEDING SUCCULENTS is an excellent way of tempting appetite and providing a natural source of vitamins and minerals.

These "rules" have been adhered to for many years, since long before the anatomy and physiology of the horse's gut was understood. Our increased understanding of what takes in the horse's body has revealed that these rules are firmly based on scientific fact which is why they have stood the test of time so admirably.

The Nutrients Needed For A Healthy Horse

In order to remain in peak condition, the working horse requires a regular supply of about forty nutrients, and to obtain these nutrients the horse has to eat suitable food. Nutrients fall into seven broad categories: carbohydrate, fat, protein, fibre, water, minerals and vitamins.


Carbohydrates include substances such as sugar, starch and fibre, which make up the majority of the horse's diet and are the horse's major source of heat and energy.

SUGARS are the simplest form of carbohydrate, the basic building blocks being monosaccharides or simple sugars, e.g. glucose.

It is in the form of glucose that carbohydrates are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine. Glucose is then stored in the horse's bogy as GLYCOGEN and fat which can be converted back to glucose to be used by the muscles during exercise. In excess, carbohydrate can cause problems such as laminitis, lymphangitis and azoturia.

STARCH is the major energy store in plants. For example, roots and tubers contain 30 % starch and cereal grains about 10.5 % starch, making them both very useful sources of carbohydrate for the horse


This is a complex carbohydrate which is very important to the structure of plant cell walls. Cellulose is broken down by the horse in the caecum and large intestine, and is a very important source of energy in the grass fed horse. Lignin is a type of fibre which is resistant to breakdown. This is significant because the lignin content increases as the plant ages, and thus mature plants are less digestible (i.e. they are less nutritious). However, fibrous roughage is an essential part of the horse's diet - plenty of bulk food is needed to aid breakdown and digestion of other feeds and to maintain the health of the gut. At least 25 % of the total diet must be provided as a roughage.


Fat is a very concentrated form of energy, and provides more than twice the heat and energy per gram of carbohydrate. Fat can be stored at a greater concentration in the body cells to form more permanent stores of energy; it also provides insulation as subcutaneous fat. Until recently, fats have been something of an unknown quantity in horse's diets, most traditional rations containing about 2 to 3 % oil. It is possible that greater use of fat as an energy source may help reduce problems associated with feeding too much carbohydrate - for example azoturia and laminitis. Some feed manufacturers are including up to 6 % vegetable oil in their high-performance feeds, and some nutritionists are recommending the inclusion of fat in the diet of the endurance horses.

Oil provides a shiny coat as well as energy.


Protein is concerned with the replacement of muscle tissue lost through natural wastage and the building up of new body tissue. When there are excessive levels of protein in the diet, it can also be used as a source of energy.

Protein is absorbed across the small intestine wall as amino acids, which are the building blocks of body tissue. There are about 23 different amino acids, of which 10 are "essential" and must be included in the diet. The remainder can be synthesised by the micro-organisms already in the caecum. This means that the proteins in the diet must not only contain the right types of amino acid; the amino acids must also present in the correct balance, i.e. the horse needs high-quality protein. The quality is reflected by the "biological-value" of the protein, which shows the number of essential amino acids present. Animal protein (e.g. bone meal) has a high biological value, but plant protein (e.g. oats and barley) tends to have a low biological value. For example, the amino acids lysine and methionine may be lacking in horses fed a traditional diet of hay and oats, which is why our grandfathers used to include other ingredients such as beans.

The protein levels in the horse's diet must compliment the energy content in the ration since optimum feed utilisation depends on a correct diet protein to energy ratio. This means that although the hard work only requires a small increase in protein to make up for a slighter quicker muscle turnover, protein levels must increase as the energy content of the ration increases to maintain the protein to energy ratio. However, feeding very high protein levels to competition horses is wasteful and expensive, because excess protein is broken down and used as an alternative energy source. Overfeeding of protein has never been shown to be detrimental to performance.


Water is a vital component of the diet and plays an essential role in nutrition. Nutrients must pass into the horse's system as a solution. Water is needed for this, and is also necessary to produce the large amounts of saliva which helps swallowing. A horse can lose nearly all it's body fat without major ill effect, but a loss of only 8 % of the body water causes illness and a loss of 15 % can cause dehydration and heat stroke in competing horses.

Water intake will be affected by several factors including diet, environmental temperature and the amount and type of exercise the horse is undergoing. A lack of water will adversely affect the feed consumption, a fact which may be important when caring for the sick horse which is reluctant to drink.

Clean, wholesome water should be freely available for horses at all times. If this is not possible - for example, during work - and the horse has become excessively thirsty, it should be offered small amounts of tepid / slightly warmed water at intervals until its thirst is quenched.

Water make up 65 - 75 % of the horse's bodyweight. A resting horse needs 2 litres of water per 50 kg body weight.


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