A common technique with writers or advertisers is to connect with their audience by using something familiar and important to them. That’s why pet foods are gourmet, stew, dinner, etc. when the dog would actually be happier (and healthier) with a raw chicken neck. We also need to be careful about making assumptions for our horses based on our own feelings and preferences. Diet issues is a good example here too.
Horses have an instinctive drive to eat high starch items
If your horse is obese or has metabolic syndrome are you causing suffering and unhappiness if you don’t feed sweet feed or other grains? The horse has an instinctive drive to select foods with higher starch or sugar content because in pastures that correlates with grasses that have the most calories and better digestibility. Calories = survival.
However, that drive can shoot them, quite literally, in the foot. Given unlimited access to grain any horse will overeat resulting in laminitis, colic and potentially death. They won’t stop until it’s too late. Grains can have a place in the feeding of some hardworking horses but they are not part of the horse’s evolutionary diet and the horse does not naturally need, or crave, very high starch or sugar foods and treats.
What about grazing? Don’t horses need to constantly eat for their mental and physical health? No. Horses in their feral environment spend so much time grazing because grass is about 80% water and often poor nutritional quality. There are no calories in water. The horse has to eat that much just to get the calories needed.
By comparison, hay is a very concentrated source of calories since it is only about 10% water. The horse has to eat 4.5 times more grass than hay to get the same number of calories. Furthermore, hay is harvested at the peak of its nutritional value. If the horse is grazing grass that is overly mature and has already gone to seed the horse will need to eat even more.
Horses that do not have EMS can have free choice access to hay and they will limit their intake to what they need to maintain a normal body condition. Those horses are eating a lot less in terms of poundage than they would if they were on pasture. They don’t eat constantly just because it’s there.
The EMS horse on the other hand does not have a normal “Off” switch that tells him when to stop eating. It’s necessary to restrict his access to only provide what is needed to maintain a normal body condition. This isn’t a diet. It’s feeding a normal amount of food for their level of exercise. If overweight, the vast majority of even EMS horses will gradually reduce to a normal body condition with this approach. Think of it as normalizing, not depriving.
Many people have the most trouble with keeping an EMS horse off pasture or muzzling them. They think it’s cruel, unnatural, and the horse can’t possibly have a happy life without it. Food is not a substitute for companionship, grooming or exercise. It’s important to provide those things too. When there is a pressing medical need to adjust the horse’s eating, it’s irresponsible to ignore that.
Horses do not use food as a reward or to soothe themselves the way people may. Their instincts don’t always align with the domesticated environment they find themselves in but the horse can have a good life without giving in to providing food choices which can harm them.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD