Matching Feeding to Activity Level

Show season is winding down, vacations over, kids back in school, holidays on the horizon and many horses are getting less work as a result.   It’s important to scale back calories, and in some instances type of calories.  It’s equally important not to short change the horse on other nutrients that don’t have as wide a variation in requirements as calories do.

Squig 1

Arabians in endurance work burn tremendous amounts of calories but when let down can become overweight and insulin resistant in short order if diet is not adjusted.

A horse that was in medium work going to no regular work will need a 25 to 30% drop in calories to avoid weight gain. To figure out how to do this, convert the whole diet to “grass hay calorie equivalents”.

One pound high quality oats = 2 lbs grass hay.  One pound alfalfa = 1.25 lbs grass hay.  One pound no or low added fat (up to 6% fat) sweet feed = 2.5 lbs of grass hay.  One pound high fat added feed = up to 3 lbs of grass hay.  One pound of fat/oil = 3.5 lbs of grass hay.  These numbers are approximations but will work well as a starting point.

If your horse was getting 5 lbs of a no added fat feed and 15 lbs of hay/day that’s a total amount of calories equivalent to 27.5 lbs of grass hay.  To reduce for inactivity, you could for example either cut both components of the diet by 25% giving you 3.75 lbs of grain and 11.25 pounds of hay or you could drop grain entirely and feed 20.6 pounds of hay.  You might think your horse would really miss his grain but I can guarantee you the horse would rather have all that extra hay to munch on!

If your hay is 10% protein (not all of them are that high) and the grain 12% protein you will meet minimum maintenance protein requirements on the reduced grain and hay diet, but without much to spare.  If you go with the high hay only diet the protein will be met even if it contains just a little over 6% protein simply because you can feed so much more.

Protein quality (amino acids) is another issue.  Both diets should be supplemented with lysine, with exact amounts depending on protein in the hay and whether the grain was fortified with lysine, but the reduced hay and grain diet is probably going to need more lysine than the hay only diet.  Adding 4 to 6 oz of ground flax or ground flax and Chia will improve amino acid variety while supplying correct proportions of essential fatty acids.

What about vitamins and minerals?  B vitamins and vitamins C, D and K rarely need much supplementation but vitamin A may be needed as hay ages and vitamin E is always required on hay based diets (1 to 2 IU/lb of body weight daily).  This is best added separately at time of feeding to avoid interactions with other elements of the diet which can inactivate the vitamin E.

Minerals are another story. Hays are actually a good source of minerals but usually have  deficiencies and imbalances.  Feeding the full recommended amount of supplemented grains can help with deficiencies but does not fix imbalances and is a calorie-expensive way to supplement.  As you reduce the amount of grain, you also reduce the level of vitamin and mineral supplementation.  A better choice for an inactive horse is a protein/vitamin/mineral “balancer” or a multivitamin, amino acid and mineral pelleted supplement which will add minimal calories (the base of balancers does add calories to the diet).  The mineral profile should then be checked for imbalances by hay analysis or use of regional hay mineral profiles.

Horses getting no formal work benefit from reduced calories. The best way to do this is to remove high calorie concentrates and substitute the correct amount of hay. Protein/amino acids, vitamins and minerals can be added from a “balancer” or pelleted supplement. This will avoid undesirable weight gain without the horse having a sizeable reduction in the amount of food.

Photo: Omani Mr. Squiggles and Carol Layton of Australia

Eleanor Kellon, VMD







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Liniments Are Worth the Effort

With our often medication oriented mind set it’s easy to overlook the benefits of topical therapy but this has a tremendous amount to offer, especially for joints and muscles. You don’t have to look any further than your own experience to confirm this.


Is there anyone who hasn’t had to deal with temporary, activity related discomfort in a joint or muscle from either an acute episode or flare up of a chronic problem? You probably reach for ibuprofen or some other NSAID but more often than not the result isn’t what you hoped for.

Simple touch can provide relief. The instinct to rub/massage sore areas is a good one. Just providing another sensory input to the nervous system will decrease unpleasant perceptions. When done properly, massage can also relieve tension in connective tissues and muscles, improve blood delivery. If you are unsure of the correct way to massage your horse, you can’t go wrong by taking your cues from his reaction. If the horse objects, stop doing it. If he seems to enjoy the touch, keep it up!

Adding a liniment to the mix can enhance the results.  Different ingredients will have specific effects, e.g.:

  • Arnica and Capsaicin: Potent relief of temporary discomfort related to overuse and activity
  • Comfrey, Chamomile, Aloe: Support normal counterregulatory responses with inflammation
  • Rosemary extract: Antioxidant, supports normal muscle relaxation
  • Lavender essential oil: Antioxidant, gentle circulatory support.
  • Peppermint oil: Circulatory support, provides pleasant and warming sensory stimulation

When applying liniments, be sure the skin and coat are dry and free of residue from prior products, shampoos or sprays. Clip the overlying hair or apply liberally enough to ensure good penetration down to skin level. A few minutes of rubbing will enhance uptake by the skin and stimulate blood flow to the area.

To avoid over-drying of the skin choose a water or witch hazel base rather than alcohol or acetone. Some liniments can be used under cotton wraps or even Neoprene sweats while others should not. If the product doesn’t specify, use caution with heavily “minty” liniments, Capsaicin and anything including counter-irritants like iron, iodine, or cedar oil. If in doubt, or you know your horse has sensitive skin, do not wrap for the first day or two you use a new product.

Invest a little time in hands-on attention to your horse’s issues. You won’t be disappointed in the results.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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Is Your Horse Too Fat?

We’ve all seen at least one article claiming a high percentage of horses are overweight; even that it’s an epidemic.  While the numbers are true, 40+ years as a veterinarian and a lifetime of observing horses tells me it’s nothing new.


If you think this little girl is a good weight, you have a problem.

Many horses that are not in high performance activity (working Western, jumpers, combined training, endurance, racing) are overweight.   We don’t see extreme obesity very often but a large number of horses are carrying more weight than is beneficial for them.

The horse doesn’t have to be a dead fit athlete to be a healthy weight.  It’s simply a matter of less active horses needing fewer calories.  Since caretakers control the feeding, overeating shouldn’t be an issue.  A major problem is that too many people don’t recognize what a good body condition actually looks like.

Becoming familiar with the Henneke Body Condition Score is a good start;

This is a system for grading the horse based on evaluation of areas where fat typically accumulates.  Individual points may be skewed by things like the horse being heavily muscled (e.g. heavy muscling can lead to a trough in the back rather than it being flat) but if all areas are carefully considered it is a good tool.

Another feature that I find useful applies to the pony above on this page. The bulk of the forearm and gaskin should be proportional to the bulk of the rest of the body.  This will hold true across a wide range of muscling types and variations in things like the depth of the chest. For example, both of these horses are a  condition score of about 5.



There are any number of invalid excuses for having an overweight horse. “This is how the breed looks.” Many breeds gain too much weight when improperly fed. That doesn’t make it normal.  “She’s more content”.  Don’t confuse sluggish for content.  “He needs fat going into winter.” It’s the winter coat that keeps the horse warm and you can add calories for heat generation if and when they are needed.  “She needs more meat on her bones to be healthy.” It’s not meat.  It’s fat.  Excess fat is not a measure of health – only calories.

Being overweight makes the heart work harder, breathing more difficult.  It interferes with temperature regulation and puts tremendous unnecessary strain on the joints, tendons, ligaments and feet.  One of the best things you can do for your horse is to free him or her from the burden of excess body fat.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD






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Topical Hoof Treatments

The most important determinants of hoof health/quality are:

  • Genetics. You can’t change this but realize that genetically weaker hooves are far less tolerant of neglect.
  • Diet.  Protein and sulfur amino acids, fats, minerals, vitamins.
  • Exercise.  Promotes good growth and thick walls.
  • Trim.  Maintain balance and alignment with internal structures to prevent abnormal forces on the hoof wall.
  • Environment.  A healthy hoof tolerates both dryness and water quite well but not prolonged exposure to manure.

A healthy hoof wall is smooth, slick feeling and free of cracks or chips

If any of those factors are less than optimal it won’t make any difference what you put on the outside of the hoof.  That said, there are times when a topical treatment is indicated.

If using a hoof dressing only for shine, avoid those containing acetone or alcohol which will damage the protective fats and dry out the hoof.  Glycerin, lanolin and polyethylene glycol are OK in small amounts but high levels will oversoften the wall and sole.

It’s especially important to watch the ingredients if you are using a dressing because of problems with an overly dry hoof wall. Maximizing  nutrition and trim is the only fix but this takes time.  A good dressing can function like a healthy hoof’s moisture barrier which traps internal moisture while keeping environmental moisture out. It can also help protect cracks and chips from invasion by harmful organisms.  Moisture barrier ingredients to look for include plant based oils and beeswax.

The moisture barrier can use some additional help when attempting to assist the hoof tissues in maintaining defenses against microbial invasion and soothing temporary tenderness and irritation. Helpful ingredients include:

  • Microbial balance: Iodine, essential oils of Rosemary, Camphor, Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Oregano, Wintergreen
  • Mild astringent: White Willow, Goldenseal, Tea Tree
  • Cellular proliferation and moisture balance.  Coronary band and heel conditioning: Aloe vera, Calendula, Yucca, Comfrey, Goldenseal, Oregon Grape
  • Support local circulation: Iodine, Lavender, Eucalyptus, Wintergreen
  • Sensitive soles: Turpentine, Iodine, Aloe, Calendula

Avoid both extremely wet and dry conditions when hooves do not have healthy natural defenses.  Keep the environment free of urine or manure build up.  Trim frequently to avoid mechanical issues causing further damage. Pick out and brush the feet daily. Provide exercise as tolerated on surfaces the horse finds comfortable.  Apply topical support once daily or as instructed.

Being alert for and addressing early minor issues can prevent them from advancing to causing pain and problems that require stronger or more invasive treatments.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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“Natural is Better” Wars

There are so many labels available to describe the individual interests in this debate that it’s very difficult to even frame a simple sentence that describes it. A workable approximation for my purposes here is to define “natural” as substances that exist in a form that can be found in nature.

This blog topic was inspired by reading an article on the holistic treatment of Cushing’s disease – PPID, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction. I actually agreed with many of the approaches suggested but it was conspicuously lacking the one thing that prolongs, often saves, the lives of these horses – the medication pergolide.

Ironically, pergolide is derived from a natural substance, the fungus ergot. It’s core structure is based on the ergot alkaloid ergoline. Ergot in its natural form is highly toxic, causing potentially life-threatening gangrene, convulsions or hallucinations.  The development of pergolide took a chemical found in this naturally occurring fungus and refined it to produce something which is life-saving for a PPID horse.

Pergolide is a perfect example of where “natural” is not better.  The naturally occurring alkaloid is far too toxic but it can be modified to make a drug that is far safer and highly beneficial.  Many drugs are actually modifications of naturally occurring substances, some stronger and some weaker than the resulting pharmaceutical. Aspirin is another one, a modified form of the salicin found in White Willow Bark and Meadowsweet.

I use a LOT of natural substances instead of drugs. They can be just as effective, if not moreso. Examples are chondroitin sulfate and Spirulina with hyperreactive skin and airways, Jiaogulan for circulatory support in laminitis, acetyl-L-carnitine for muscle metabolism, L-leucine/HMB for building muscle bulk (instead of anabolic steroids).  Natural substances can even be more effective, or just as effective but without certain side effects.

The flip side, as above, is that phamaceuticals can also be far more effective, even safer, in some instances. This includes vaccinations, dewormers and antibiotics where there are no natural alternatives equivalent in effectiveness and safety.  In fact, advancements in those three areas are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the horse’s average lifespan over the last 50 to 100 years, human too for that matter.

Some natural remedies are not only totally ineffective but also toxic. The current craze of using cobalt instead of EPO to boost red counts in racehorses is a perfect example.

The bottom line here is that “natural” has a lot to offer but it is not always better or  effective and can be toxic.  The intelligent approach is to take advantage of the best of both worlds, weigh all your alternatives for every situation in terms of risk versus benefit. Your horse will benefit.  Be WHOLE-istic.

Eleanor  Kellon, VMD



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Little Recognized Early Signs of Cushing’s Disease

The classical signs of Cushing’s Disease in horses (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction/PPID) of poor topline, sagging belly and long curly coat that fails to shed are only evident fairly late in the condition.  If your horse is in his teens there are changes you need to know could be linked to early PPID.

The unexplained appearance of new issues in a teenage horse may be signs of early PPID

A sharp increase (doubling is common) in water consumption and urine production mid August or September is a common sign.  This correlates with the normal seasonal increase in ACTH hormone which is exaggerated in early PPID horses.  It is often mistakenly assumed to be related to hot weather.  There will also be a proportionate increase in urine production, which you would not see if the horse was drinking more because of fluid loss in sweat.

The development of regional fat accumulation in the hollows above the eyes, along the crest, withers, rump, tail base or chest wall is a marker of insulin resistance rather than PPID but if this appears for the first time when the horse is in his/her teens early PPID should be suspected as a cause.  If loss of topline definition or muscle bulk in general is also occurring this further increases the index of suspicion.

Tendon or suspensory “breakdowns” unexplained by a known accident or heavy exercise can also be a sign of early PPID.  Elevated levels of cortisol are catabolic, interfering with the building, maintenance and repair of all protein tissues, including the proteins of connective tissue like tendon and ligament. Hofberger et al 2015 examined suspensory ligaments from horses with PPID compared to non-PPID aged horses and found clear abnormalities similar to those seen with DSLD (degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis) in Peruvian Pasos.  Grubbs et al presenting at the 2017 Equine Endocrinology Group conference also found that 39% of sport horses over the age of 10 with suspensory desmitis tested positive for PPID.

An even more devastating manifestation of early PPID can be fall laminitis.  This often occurs with no dietary change or other obvious precipitation, in animals on pasture or not. The horse may or may not have a prior diagnosis of insulin resistance.  It is caused by the sudden and dramatic rise in ACTH which occurs seasonally and the IR it causes.  Levels actually start their rise after the Summer Solstice but show a sharper rise beginning late August and peaking end of September.

If you suspect your horse may have early PPID, testing is fairly simple. A baseline (endogenous) ACTH hormone is best tested during the seasonal rise as levels may be within normal other times of the year.  These horses are good candidates for a TRH stimulation test if done outside the time of the seasonal rise.  TRH causes a significantly greater rise in ACTH in PPID horses than normal horses. Blood will be drawn before giving TRH and 10 minutes after.

The sooner the disease is diagnosed the easier it is to treat. Pergolide mesylate is highly effective in most horses and hopefully soon even horses continuing to compete can be treated. In July of this year, the USEF Board of Directors approved a panel to study the controlled use of pergolide mesylate in horses competing in sanctioned events.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Minerals and the Insulin Resistant Horse

Minerals have direct and indirect involvement in virtually every action in the body, and have important effects on Insulin Resistance (IR) or its consequences. IR is different in the horse than in the human, but the same basic principals apply.  There is evidence of activated antioxidant defenses in the tissues of IR horses.

Building the horse’s own antioxidant basic defenses is most effective. This includes the SOD, catalase and glutathione peroxidase enzyme systems as well as the antioxidants glutathione, CoQ10, carotenoids and vitamin A, flavanoids, vitamin E and C. Glutathione is particularly widely distributed.

SOD absolutely requires copper and zinc. Catalase requires iron which is not an issue as the typical equine diet supplies plenty of iron.

Glutathione activity depends on Selenium, a very common deficiency.  Selenium is also essential for the generation of the active form of thyroid hormone, T3, from T4.  Selenoproteins, important to immune function, are just beginning to be looked at in depth. Both IR and PPID horses are prone to inflammatory and allergic-type immune reactions rather than using the more sophisticated arm of the immune system.

Zinc is a commonly deficient mineral. Low serum Zinc is associated with IR and type 2 diabetes in humans and rats. Supplementation of Zinc supports  defenses against type 2 diabetes in rat models. Exactly why has not been determined. It is known that Zinc is important on several levels, involved in insulin release and sensitivity as well as being an antioxidant in SOD.

Like Zinc, Copper is critical for SOD function. Copper deficiency causes IR and fatty liver in rats. Low liver Copper is found in human fatty livers. Deficiency is also linked to higher liver iron in IR, a known problem in IR horses too.

Magnesium has been associated with IR for forty years with hundreds of human papers dedicated to the subject. Magnesium is not a treatment, but by correcting a deficiency it makes the disease easier to control.

Magnesium dietary intake and magnesium status – whole body levels – are both associated with strong defenses against IR and they deteriorate when someone develops IR. It becomes a cycle you need to stay on top of to allow stabilization.

A 2013 study included almost 2000 non-diabetic subjects followed for 15.6 years. 1 Magnesium intake was a “significant protective factor” against type 2 diabetes, including progression from IR to diabetes. Researchers could predict who would most likely become IR by looking at their magnesium levels.

Magnesium increases insulin receptor number and sensitivity in experimental rodent IR. Magnesium deficiency interferes with insulin signaling. Deficiency has also been linked to activation of allergic and inflammatory reactions.

Iodine is essential to production of thyroid hormone. Low iodine status has been identified in human patients with type 2 diabetes. Normal thyroid function is required for insulin sensitivity.

IR horses may also have low thyroid hormone levels in some cases. This is probably euthyroid sick syndrome, meaning it is an effect rather than a cause. In most of these horses, with correct levels of Selenium and Iodine, and control of IR, the levels will rise again. Low thyroid is not a primary part of the syndrome but can make some horses very depressed and lethargic. Thyroid supplementation can be used but by addressing the above you will not need supplementation long term.

Chromium has been important for people probably due to processed foods being stripped of many essential minerals. It is required for a normal cellular response to insulin. The exact dietary requirement is unknown, but supplementation in IR horses is not helpful in most cases. Grass absorbs chromium very efficiently and soil levels are abundant in most areas. We have observed a problem only when horses are eating hay grown on alkaline soils where the plants may not absorb the chromium as readily. 

It’s not as fancy as a pricey magic bullet supplement but the best place to start supporting your IR horse on a low sugar and starch diet is with balanced intake of key minerals.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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What Can You Tell By Just Looking at Hay?

There’s a lot you can’t tell by looking but appearance does yield some useful information.  Just the type of hay is a helpful start.  Legumes (clover, peanut, alfalfa) are always high protein and calcium.  Bermuda will be low protein unless fertilized.  Ryegrass and grain hays tend toward high sugar, plus starch in the grain hays.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no type of grass hay guaranteed to be low sugar and starch.

Seed heads are the easiest way to identify a grass hay. Timothy’s fuzzy, long seed heads look like a green or beige caterpillar.  Bermudagrass seed heads resemble the spokes of an inside-out umbrella. Teff grass seed heads are a bouquet of long, graceful sprays with the multiple thin straight strands having a chain of individual seeds.  If you don’t know what to look for, take a sample of the hay, including seed heads, to your local agricultural extension office.

Orchardgrass seed heads have a tree-like branched shape with seeds clustered in a tuft    or fan configuration at the end of each branch

Ideally you want an obvious green color.  Color isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if you know why the hay is yellowed instead of green. It may be old, sun bleached or rained on after cutting.  All yellowed hay is low in the vitamin A precursor carotene.  If only sun-bleached, the inner layers will still be green and loss is minimal. If old and yellow throughout it will also be very dry and the leaf/blade portion more likely to crumble and be lost, greatly reducing nutritional value. Rained on hay will have lower sugar, thus lower calories, and lower (but likely still adequate) potassium.

Seed heads also yield clues to likely calorie and sugar/starch content.  If no seed heads or they are very green and firm, seed has not yet set (this is called “boot stage”) and sugar/starch will be higher. Seed heads that are tan but still contain seeds will contribute to the overall caloric value of the hay, while old empty seed heads belong to very mature grasses with likely lowest sugar/starch, calories and protein.  You also want to see a large proportion of leaf/blade  material compared to stiff stems.

Bales that feel unusually heavy for their size are often high moisture, moldy or contain stones/dirt. Always open a few bales even if you have to buy them first.  Never buy hay that feels moist or warm on the inside.  It’s going to mold.  It should have a fresh, “sweet” hay aroma.  No or off odor indicates molding or very old hay.  When you open a bale, there should be no puff of fine dust. This may be dirt or it may be molding. You don’t want either. Obvious molding, chunks of dirt, stones or other foreign material, and presence of weeds are all reasons not to purchase.

If a hay has passed the important visual assessment you will still need hay analysis to get in-depth nutritional information.  Calories (DE – digestible energy), crude protein and important mineral levels are all part of the analysis.  Sugar and starch levels can be obtained.  Hay (or pasture) is by far the major part of most equine diets.  The critical information you need to identify and correct deficiencies and/or imbalances can only be obtained from an analysis.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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Making Sense of Feeding Sulfur

You have probably read at least one article talking about sulfur in the body as indispensable for protein production, integrity of skin/hair/hooves and nails, enzyme action, some B vitamins, production of substances like chondroitin sulfate and elimination of toxins. All of that is true, and more, but confusion reigns about how you should supply it.

Elemental inorganic sulfur is a brilliant yellow mineral.

If you are from Australia or South Africa you may have been told horses should be supplemented with inorganic elemental sulfur.  Regardless of where you are from, you probably have read that MSM or DMSO are sources of organic sulfur that will be available to perform all the important roles of sulfur in the body. Both are incorrect.

Horses may utilize small amounts of the sulfate ion present in their diet and water but their main source of sulfur, and the only form utilized by proteins and insulin, is the sulfur containing amino acids, the most important of which is methionine which can also be converted to cysteine and from there to cystine – the other two structurally important sulfur amino acids. The horse cannot make methionine from sulfur or MSM/DMSO, it has to be present in the  diet.

Sulfur bonds/crosslinks maintain structural integrity in protein hormones like insulin as well as the keratin in skin, hair and hooves.  These bonds don’t come from sulfur being inserted into the structure.   They occur between the sulfur groups of two cystine amino acids.  The sulfur needed to make sulfated compounds like chondroitin sulfate comes from the desulfurization of sulfur amino acids.

As an aside, ruminants like cows or goats can benefit from elemental sulfur because the organisms in their forestomachs will use it to make methionine just like plants do. When the bacteria pass into the stomach and small intestine, the methionine will be absorbed.  Horses ferment their food in the hind gut, where absorption of amino acids is minimal – if it occurs at all.

The true equine requirement for methionine is unknown but is probably between 1/4 to 1/3 of the lysine requirement.  Forage is the major source of methionine.  The National Research Council has recommended a sulfur intake of approximately 0.15% of the diet dry matter, although there is evidence this may be inadequate.  (Note: About 90% of the sulfur in a hay analysis is incorporated into plant protein amino acids.) Good quality hay grown on soil with adequate sulfur should meet the requirements of at least maintenance and low level exercise if there are no special needs but there is a mounting problem with this.

Sulfur was routinely incorporated into plant fertilizers until increasing industrialization began sending large amounts of sulfur into the air. This “acid rain” provided an excellent source of free sulfur for plants but caused many other problems.  Sulfur emissions have been tightly regulated since the 1980s and 90s, with the result that soil sulfur is dropping.  A hay analysis crossed my desk this week that had only 0.04% sulfur.  These hays will have low protein, low methionine and the potential for high nitrate levels.

Taurine is another sulfur amino acid ultimately derived from methionine that plays many important roles in the nervous system, detoxification, liver function and metabolism.  Increased levels may be needed by horses with abnormal glucose metabolism to support the body in avoiding harmful interactions of glucose with body tissues, including nerve damage.  Taurine also helps maintain neurotransmitters responsible for a stable, happy mood.

When methionine intake is known to be low, or suspected from things like poor hoof quality, supplementation of 5000 to 10,000 mg (5 to 10 grams) per day for the average size horse is reasonable.  For situations that may benefit from taurine support, this can be supplemented directly in similar amounts.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


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What Is Restricted Feeding?

On one level, it’s exactly what it sounds like – restricting what you feed your horse. The devil is in the details though.  Exactly what is being restricted, why, how much?

Some people use restricted feeding and slow feeding synonymously.  In that case, the horse is restricted in how fast they can eat.  This may or may not end up also reducing how much they eat.  Some horses become very adept at eating from small hole nets or slow feeders. Others simply spend more time eating. Either way they can end up eating as much as they did before.

In most cases restricted feeding refers to limiting how much the horse is given to eat. That may mean just cutting back on grain or pasture time but usually means the horse’s daily calorie intake from all sources is controlled to maintain a healthy weight.  Situations where this is necessary include overweight horses needing to trim down, insulin resistant horses that will eat too much and horses on forced stall rest for an injury.

Contrary to what you may have heard, restricting caloric intake is not the most stressful thing you can do to your horse.  It is not cruel and will not cause health problems when done properly. While some advocate extreme calorie restriction, especially when trying to get weight off a horse, this really isn’t necessary.

A grass hay with under 10% sugar (ESC) and starch combined, protein 9+% can usually be fed at a rate of 1.5% of current body weight or 2% of ideal body weight, whichever is larger, to achieve the desired weight.  Use a slow feeding set up and break this up into multiple feedings. If the horse is able to be regularly exercised they can eat even more.

It’s worth mentioning here that these guidelines also work for insulin resistant horses most of the time.  It’s not so much that they gain weight easily but rather that they eat too much. When a horse is not losing weight at the above level of feeding a calorie count using the actual digestible energy from the hay analysis usually reveals the hay has higher than average calorie density. There are some individuals that need more stringent restrictions but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t worry about the gut being “empty” if the horse is not constantly eating.  It takes the stomach a bare minimum of 2 hours to empty, usually much longer.  Running out of hay for a couple hours also does not guarantee stomach pain, “stress” or ulcer formation.

As for feeding the organisms in the hind gut, food takes about 2 days to finish traversing the hind gut.  It is not true the horse’s cecum won’t empty without a constant flow of food to push the contents along.  Just like everywhere else in the intestinal tract, food is mixed and propelled along by muscular contractions which occur at set intervals.  The time food spends in the cecum depends on particle size and ranges from 2 to 48 hours (Argenzio 1974).

Whether it’s a human, a horse or the family dog or cat, weight control still boils down to calories in versus calories out.  Horses that are overweight or have sharply curtailed activity need to have their calories counted.  Horses which overeat for medical or temperament reasons also need to have calories restricted. Restricting calories to those needed to maintain a normal weight is not extreme. It’s really that simple.

Eleanor Kellon, V.M.D.

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