Taking a Deep Dive What You Feed Horses

Here is more detailed discussion from Dr. Anderson of several of the items summarized in the previous section:

  • The evolution of feeding horses.
    In the early 60’s, the most common pet food was table scraps. One day the cat or dog would get steak bones, the next day they would get vegetables. On occasion the kids would feed unknown treats or food that they did not want. There was no science to what the dog or cat was getting except what people were eating or did not want to eat. Pet food companies hired well-qualified nutritional scientists to put together a science based, nutritionally balanced diet. Today we have excellent science based complete diets Total Mixed Ration (TMR) for our pets. Every mouthful consumed by the cat or dog is exactly the same. The pet is not able to sort out what they like or do not like in the nugget. We no longer see nutritional diseases in our cat and dog population where the owners are feeding a TMR product from a major pet food manufacturing company. Many of the diseases that were related to poor nutrition are not talked about anymore except in the stray pet population. Square Meal has the same goal in the equine population with the introduction of the TMR biscuit for horses. The forages are blended with the rest of the nutrients needed to properly balance the horse’s diet and is combined into a consistent form – in this case a biscuit. The TMR biscuits are designed to be more convenient for the horse owner as well as healthier for horses of all types.
  • Listen to your horse. 
    By staying close to your horse, the horse will tell you how he or she is feeling. There are many ways horses try to send a message to the horse owner. They may include actions like weaving, stall walking, bad temperament or bucking off riders. Horses try to communicate their concerns and pains in whatever means they have available. Too many times the horse owner does not get the message and the horse suffers. Remember, the horse did not evolve by living in a square stall under roof with limited sources of food and water. The horse is a very muscular animal and loves to run. Confining a horse to a small stall and not caring for it properly will produce many unfavorable behaviors. I would add that many people say that some horses are very difficult to train. My answer to those thoughts is that horses have found ways to tell me that horse owners are even harder to train. The changes that can occur to a horse that is not fed a proper diet will come on very slowly to the visual eye. The first changes will probably be in the way they look to the eye of the neighbor. The owner who sees the horse continually may be the last to see these subtle changes. Bad habits and bad actions by the horse will become visible when the problem reaches an acute stage and the horse is now desperate to tell you their concerns.
  • Ulcers. 
    Gastric ulcers are often a result of meal feeding (multiple feedings per day) rather than free choice feeding or grazing. Gastric juices being secreted into an empty stomach between feedings cause problems because the horse does not have a gall bladder to store gastric digestive juices when the stomach is not in need of them. Free choice feeding, along with calcium (the ingredient found in human antacids) commonly found in alfalfa will control gastric juices and keep the horse’s stomach healthy.
  • Colic. 
    Colic is a condition that has been heavily researched. It is not uncommon for veterinarians and researchers to say they are not sure what causes colic. I believe that this is true because of the grain companies’ efforts to encourage meal feeding of horses. Colic can also occur when horse owners change the source of their forages too quickly. Even subtle changes will upset the digestive bacteria and will result in excessive gas production or hyperactivity of the gastro-intestinal system – mild or severe colic. Many times severe colic leads to expensive veterinary costs or even death of the horse. It is the goal of Square Meal to put most causes of colic into the history books.
  • Foundering. 
    Foundering or laminitis is the inflammation of the lamina that attaches the hoof wall to the rest of the horse’s foot. The disruption of consistent food supply to the horse, and particularly the over-feeding of certain cereal grains, will upset the digestive tract. This metabolic disorder will cause the release of elements that will cause a swelling or inflammation of the lamina just under the hoof wall. The inflammation can put on so much pressure that it will cause the bone (Coffin Bone) to be pushed away, or deviated, from the hoof wall. In humans, it would be like someone hitting the fingernail with a hammer and blood building up under the fingernail. Another human example would be similar to shoving toothpicks between the fingernail and the underlining bone. Laminitis or foundering can be very painful and may even cause the horse not to walk even to get to feed or water.
  • Wood Chewing. 
    My research has indicated that Wood Chewing is a result of the horse diet being extremely low in fiber for an extended length of time. The horse digestive system is very different from the dog, cat or even people. Horses need forages. Dogs, cats and people cannot digest these forage type foods. The horse has a hindgut (Cecum and Large Intestine) that acts like a large, fermenting vat to digest forages. This large vat is populated with millions of digestive bacteria that break down the cellulose in the forages into nutrients that are then absorbed and made available for the benefit of the horse. When the horse does not have sufficient forages to keep this population of bacteria fed, the bacteria start to die and are not available for future digestive use. Somehow this message of fiber starvation is sent to the brain and the horse will look for almost anything to chew on – including the fiber and cellulose in wood.
  • Cereal grain overfeeding. 
    Another potential problem for the hindgut is when large quantities of cereal grains are fed to the horse in a short period of time. The horse has a very small stomach and anything the horse eats will not spend more than an hour in the stomach. The stomach, if overloaded, will not have sufficient time to digest certain food products and will send unprocessed food down the digestive system. The small intestine is the next part in the horse’s GI system. It is very long but the food moves very quickly through the small intestine. It will be there for about three hours. During this time it must further digest and absorb what has been presented. If large meal quantities are offered, the small intestine may not have sufficient time to process this large quantity. Because of the crucial time and space factor to get sufficient food to the large hindgut it must pass undigested food on to the next part. The hindgut (Cecum and Large Intestine) is the next part in the GI System. When there are not adequate forages for the bacteria and excess undigested cereal grains are presented to the hindgut, the pH drops and the hindgut becomes more acid. This will cause the death of the very sensitive fibrous digesting bacteria. The drop in pH, I believe, will also send a message to the brain to find some kind of fiber to send to the hindgut to relieve the now acid-feeling hindgut. The result could be an increase in the wood chewing activity.
  • Cribbing. 
    Cribbing (arching the neck and sucking air) is a habit that may develop early in the life of a horse when wood chewing is not addressed. Keeping sufficient forages available and minimizing or eliminating the amount of cereal grains will reduce the amount of cribbing. But it is hard for horses to stop some learned habits just like we see many times in people — perhaps like the bad habit of horse owners feeding grain to their horses.
  • Boredom and Frustration. 
    I do not believe that boredom symptoms in horses are really boredom, but rather the lack of forage to feed the horse’s small stomach and large hind gut. A better term might be horse frustration, perhaps because of a confining stall or a poor diet. There is no doubt that the best preventive medicine is good nutrition. Many of the horse diseases we are hearing about today really are man-made conditions resulting from poor nutrition. Most of my calls as an equine veterinarian have been related to some sort of nutritional mistake or miscalculation on the part of the owner – all with the best intentions.
  • Sorting. 
    Sorting of feed can be a huge problem. It is amplified if the horses are being fed in a herd setting where there are aggressive, dominating horses. They will go after the best feed offered, as well as the most. The result will be the larger and more aggressive horses will get the very nutritious forage leaves and the more timid horses will end up with just the stems. This results in the big getting bigger and the small getting smaller. If grain is offered in a herd setting, the same dilemma will result. The competitive nature of a herd setting will result in the larger horses eating much more than they will need because they are not interested in sharing. In both cases the smaller, more timid horses will actually need more of the nutritious leaves and may need extra feed. (Because a dominating horse or horses will go after the leaves in a bale of alfalfa hay, some people seem to believe it is better to feed grass hay, Note; more information needed.) In the stall setting, a lone horse will have time to sort out the grain mix particles he doesn’t want to eat. If hay is also offered, he will first eat the leaves and when there are no other leaves, reluctantly eat some of the stems. What happens in the GI System is that for the first hour the stomach will be fed just leaves. For the rest of the day, the GI system must change its digestive bacteria back to the ones that digest the cellulose that is in the stems. In both of the above described cases, it is the intention of Square Meal to combine all the proper nutrients into a biscuit form so no sorting can occur. Every mouthful will be the same, whether being fed in a herd or alone in a stall. The first horse and the last horse will get the same mix of nutrients. In the stall setting, the horse will be able to play with the biscuits but will not be able to sort nutrients, no matter the size of the part of the biscuit he consumes. This eliminates abrupt, disruptive changes in the digestive bacteria population during the day.
  • Feed analysis. 
    It may seem obvious, but another point to remember when feeding horses is that the nutrients that actually get to the stomach are what will benefit the horse. Many times you have heard that you need to test your hay. Keep in mind that the testing laboratory is only testing what you sent them in the sample. Taking a good sample is the first step in determining the nutritional value of your hay or other feed. The results should be only a guide. Ask yourself if you got an accurate sample. The next question is whether the hay you tested found its way into the horse’s stomach. A proper sample will include leaves and stems. Did the horse get all the leaves from the alfalfa or did they fall off into the sawdust or the mud or waste hay around the feeder? Did the first horse get a bigger portion of the leaves and leave just stems for the rest of the group? If any of these events happened, the horse may not have gotten what the laboratory told you in its analysis. The same can be true of sweet feeds. Did your horse actually get what you thought they were getting?
  • Controlling feed quantities. 
    Horse owners often misjudge the quantities of feed their animals receive. Accurate weighing is difficult. In the case of hay, slices of a small square bale can vary significantly. The weight of a slice of hay – or a bale – depends on the farmer that baled the hay. I am a firm believer that “a pound is a pound but a bale is not always a bale.” Hay in small, square bales can weigh from 25 to 100 pounds per bale. All feed is calculated nutritionally in terms of weight so it is a necessity to have a scale available to check what is actually being presented to your horse to eat. Square Meal allows horse owners to make a specific, easily measurable ration of nutrients available to the horse.
  • Feed waste.
    There are two waste concerns that horse owners need to keep in mind. How much of the feed is wasted due to lost leaves or mold before the horse has a chance to consume what is being offered to them? A second, more difficult-to-visualize concern is how much of what you are feeding your horse actually goes through the horse as undigested and ends up in the manure. If you ever see your dog eating horse manure, that is a sign that a significant amount of what you are feeding your horse is passing through undigested and is of interest and value to your dog. This unfortunate course of events means something is wrong with the balance in your horse’s nutritional diet. It is the intention of Square Meal to offer your horse a balanced diet that will allow your horse’s GI System to efficiently extract all the valuable nutrients from the feed you purchase and your horse consumed.
  • Digestive microorganisms.
    The best way to make sure that the horse’s digestive system is working at peak performance is to keep a healthy population of digestive microorganisms. Beyond the actual feed, it is important the diet is consistent and the best organisms are there to do their work. Whenever you change the horse’s diet, you will need some time for the horse to change the population of digestive organisms to properly work on the new feed being made available. The bacterial population can mutate quickly to adjust to the changes, but it is best to allow 10 days to two weeks of slowly changing the diet to avoid a possible upset stomach or system that could easily result in colic or laminitis. This imbalance occurs in a small way when your horse is fed a meal of cereal grain in the morning and then nothing until the evening feeding. It is the intention of Square Meal to eliminate these subtle and absolute changes in the horse’s diet. When Square Meal is offered free choice and is eaten regularly all day long, the microorganisms that populate the GI System can function at maximum efficiency. The horse is healthier, and you spend money only for feed the horse uses.
  • Research and the horse owner. 
    Nutritional research should be the basis of your feeding program. The horse owner is at a big disadvantage to farmers who are feeding production animals. The dairy farmer can see changes or mistakes by the amount of milk the cow is producing daily. The chicken farmer can easily count the number of eggs the chickens are producing. And the beef or hog farmer can run their animals across a scale to see if they are gaining the right amount per day. The horse owner is interested in a maintenance program. They have nothing available to measure daily performance. Even a horse’s performance in competition is subjective and difficult to measure. The horse owner must rely on research to give them some direction as to a proper feeding program. Square Meal has undergone extensive research at equine specialty universities for many years. It is this research that has led Square Meal to the formulas we are using today. Good nutritional research will help the horse owner to avoid many of the diseases and metabolic disorders related to incorrect feeding programs. Square Meal has ongoing research programs that will help Square Meal to continue to improve the formulas and to develop new ones when the need arises. See more in Check out the Research.
  • It’s not easy, even for the professional. 
    It is difficult even for the animal health professional to sort out what is true and research-based information about equine nutrition. So it’s not easy for the horse owner to know what to do. My example of this frustration is my own profession of veterinary medicine. A recent survey indicated that the great majority of horse owners rely on their veterinarian for nutritional information. But I often say that veterinarians are very well-trained to treat sick animals but are not well-trained as to what to do with healthy animals. I know this is also true in human medicine. Many horse owners in the past have relied on local County Extension Agents for guidance – for many years an excellent source because of their ties to university experts as well as knowledge of local best practices. But the Extension Service as we once knew it is gone. Resources have been diminished over the last 20 years. My own education on horse nutrition started at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, but I most certainly have had to study extensively on my own and with researchers at other universities to acquire the knowledge I needed to create Square Meal Feeds.
  • Bringing science to feeding horses. 
    When the Ralston Purina Company introduced Dog Chow, a Total Mixed Ration for dogs, it was an overnight success. Before that, table scraps were the most common form of dog food. The horse industry is today in the “table scrap” time frame. There are lots of sweet feeds to feed your horse. The people that are making the sweet feeds do not know what type of hay you’re feeding or how you’re feeding it. The traditional horse feed companies have no idea what or how much of the hay is really getting into the horse’s system. Forages or hay should be the major part of the horse’s diet. How can you have a balanced diet if you do not have any control over almost 90% of the horse’s diet? The cat and dog owners had exactly the same concern and that is why we now have excellent Total Mixed Rations for cats and dogs. It is the intention of Square Meal to accomplish the same service for the horse owner today. A free choice complete diet, in a convenient form, is the goal of Square Meal.