Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Nutrition is key to keeping horses in prime condition

Sabrina Barnwell looks at the problems of obesity in show horses and has advice on how to avoid it

Fine fettle: Correct nutrition is crucial for foals and youngsters
Fine fettle: Correct nutrition is crucial for foals and youngsters

The production of show horses involves getting the horse to look well, move well and behave well on the day of the show. During the busy show season they are often in action every week.The body condition of show horses has attracted a lot of negative attention in recent years with the worrying trend of obesity.

Having horses in good showing condition rather than overweight is very important for the health of the individual, but also to the industry in general.

The Irish breeder has been successful for many generations due to the production of good-looking, athletic and remarkably sound horses that can look forward to a long and successful career in their chosen sphere after their showing days. However, keeping the right weight on a horse can often be difficult.

Regardless of the discipline for which the horse is required, obesity is a limiting factor on performance and general well-being of the horse. The obvious risks include developmental diseases, laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome.

With regard to performance, obesity can have a direct negative effect with the deposits of fat, particularly in front of the shoulder, impeding on the horse's movement.

Excess weight and reduced fitness will also reduce the horse's ability to move in trot and canter and will limit the acceleration in gallop that is required to 'wow' the judges in ridden hunter classes.

Feeding show hunters

Movement is a key factor in achieving success in the show ring. Fluidity of the paces, having a 'good step', ease of transitions and, of course, soundness is very important.

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Nutrition can have a dramatic impact on all of a horse's movement.

Feeding a concentrate with a low starch content and high proportion of digestible super fibres and a high oil content will improve the general suppleness of the muscles, thus creating greater ease of movement.

These types of feed are designed to release energy slowly which has the added bonus of helping to keep the temperament of the horse cool and controlled, while still providing the energy and stamina for performance.

Cereal feeds such as oats are often blamed for causing fizzy or hot behaviour in horses.

This is due to the fact that they release energy quickly in peaks. Show horses with a highly-strung temperament are best managed on a reduced oat or oat-free diet.

One of the common concerns when feeding a horse for the show ring is how to create a beautiful topline. The 'topline' is when the horse's neck, back and quarters are well muscled.

Exercise is essential in the creation of topline and horses must be fit and well-schooled in an appropriate outline.

Feeding is often increased to try to achieve maximum topline for the show ring; using balancers is very effective for this purpose.

Balancers are designed to be low-intake, concentrated source of essential protein, vitamins, and minerals, which is designed for all classes of horses when additional calories are not required.

The high protein content targets the creation of muscle, while the small volume keeps the calorie content down, thus reducing the chances of the animal getting overweight.

Feeding broodmares

The primary function of the mare is to produce foals, but obesity in broodmares is also a worrying trend. It is well accepted that obesity in broodmares causes a dramatic decrease in fertility rates and so reduces the productivity of the mare. Obesity also predisposes the mares to problems such as laminitis should there be any complications at foaling time.

Whether in foal, rearing a foal, or both, the nutrition of the mare directly impacts on the growth and development of the foetus or the nursing foal.

The mineral and vitamin quality in feed for these animals is particularly important.

Research studies have shown direct links with fertility with vitamin E, selenium and copper, amongst others.

These also impact the soundness of the foals born and their development into adulthood.

Some mares tend towards a naturally tubby state and these can be easily maintained on good quality hay and grass, but will generally need some added vitamins and minerals.

Adding supplements or feeding a balancer with an excellent vitamin/mineral profile instead of the concentrate feed should address the balance of micronutrients.

Mares with a slimmer frame may need more careful feeding in order to be show ring ready. It is preferable to feed a well-balanced stud cube or mix in order to maximise fertility and milk quality, while also adding condition.

Balancers may also be used with these mares as a high-quality top up with the existing feed. This is especially important in mares that are being fed bulky fillers that may lead to imbalances such as inverted calcium phosphorus ratios that can have a long term negative impact.

Foals and youngstock

Correct nutrition is probably most crucial for foals and youngsters that are at a stage of growth and development. It is at this age that small deficiencies can lead to potentially career-ending problems.

Obesity in growing horses is likely to have a profoundly negative effect on the horse's usefulness as an adult.

Unfortunately overweight youngsters are becoming increasingly common in the show ring.

Poor nutritional balance at the developing stages of a horse's life can lead to developmental orthopaedic disorders.

Overfeeding can lead to forced growth spurts and cause conditions such as Wobbler syndrome as a result of pushing the animal beyond the normal rate of growth.

Overweight animals often suffer from issues arising from sheer pressure of the excess weight on their susceptible growing bones and joints.

This leads, in time, to considerable problems with soundness and conformation.

Foals and yearlings require good quality protein in the diet to support growth and development, but do not need to be fed very large quantities of feed.

The calcium to phosphorus ratio, vitamin E, selenium and copper have been repeatedly shown to have huge impact on growth and soundness. Exercise is very important also in creating strong and healthy joints and bones.

Young foals often feed from the dam's feed bowl and may be creep fed separately from their mother's as they get older.

Sabrina Barnwell is a veterinary nutritionist with Connolly's Red Mills See for information


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