by Lizzie Drury MSc Registered Nutritionist
It is common practice in most performance disciplines for horses to have a break in the off season for a well-deserved holiday after what has hopefully been a successful season. Resting has multiple physical as well as psychological benefits for the horse and they often return with increased energy and renewed enthusiasm for their work. Time off can also give any niggling injuries and digestive conditions such as gastric ulcers, hindgut acidosis and weight loss time to abate - therefore also improving physical health and soundness.
This time should also be regarded as precious time to help prepare the horse for the next season and prior preparation is key to the success and the longevity of a horse during the competition season. Trying to ‘make up’ for lost time once the season has started won’t work.
For the resting period to do its job properly feed management needs careful attention. If repair and recovery are going to be successful, then it is essential that a high quality and balanced ration is fed. Sometimes these periods are used to cut down on some feed and supplement costs, leading to lower quality concentrate feed rations being fed or none at all. While most horses may maintain perfectly good body condition on forage only rations, many will be lacking in quality protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, thus slowing the process of repair and recovery and replenishment of stores and reserves for the next season.
For horses that are resting where there is an abundance of pasture, grass can have magical powers, supplying plenty of energy and calories to help pick up the horse’s appetite and restore body condition, as well as supplying some vitamins and minerals and lots of natural vitamin E, an important antioxidant. For these horses, they would be unlikely to require any additional concentrate feed in the way of a coarse mix or a cube but would still require a source of additional vitamins, minerals, and quality protein sources to balance out what the pasture is unable to provide. This can easily be done using a low calorie and low intake feedbalancer, which will provide these nutrients e.g. Saracen Essential Balancer. Typical feeding rates would be 100 grams per 100 Kg bodyweight.
For those endurance horses that will be resting in the desert, obviously, grass cannot be relied upon to provide a source of fibre and energy and so these horses will require more in the way of supplementary feeding and maybe more high maintenance with regards to trying to restore appetite and overall condition.
The priority will be to ensure that these horses are eating optimum amounts of long forage and therefore fibre to help maintain normal digestive function. Horses that have access to pasture have the opportunity to browse and select their forage, which is a natural appetite stimulant mainly because it helps to satisfy their natural desire to trickle feed and browse. Horses in the desert don’t have this opportunity and may back off the hay rack and not consume enough fibre, exaggerating any underlying digestive issues that may have arisen during the season.
Browsing behaviour can be encouraged by offering these horses a variety of different fibre products to choose from; For example, continue to offer plenty of a Timothy Hay but also offer a couple of alternative fibre products, such as Saracen Super Fibre Mix or Dengie Hi Fi. The horse should start to browse between the different forages and this will increase their total fibre intake.
Horses that only have access to conserved forages may not gain enough body condition compared to those that also have access to pasture and so will require more in the way of supplementary feeding. Feeds that are specifically formulated to be low in energy but nutrient dense with regards to the variety of ‘super fibres’ (Soya Hulls, Alfalfa, Sugar Beet Pulp), quality protein (Alfalfa, Soya) and oil sources that they contain are suitable to be fed to support these horses during the resting period. Feeds such as SCM Maintenance Mix are formulated to provide a source of ‘safe and non-heating’ calories that will help to restore overall body condition and replenish glycogen stores, as well as providing essential amino acids for cell renewal, tissue, and muscle repair.
Providing these feeds are fed at the correct daily intakes they will also ensure that each horse receives a balanced ration with respect to optimum levels of vitamins and minerals. Typical daily feeding rates would be 4-6 Kg per day.
If individual horses are eating optimum amounts of forage and fibre and are being fed a balanced ration then little in the way of additional supplements should need to be fed, other than those supplements that are targeted and specific e.g. Joint supplements, electrolytes, and digestive enhancers etc. Supplementing with additional vitamins and minerals will not give you twice the result, three times as fast and is more likely to create imbalances, which in the long term could be detrimental to performance and wellbeing, let alone costing extra money! Many supplements are also marketed without adequate understanding of their function in the horse. Try and seek advice on suitable supplements and choose those that have are backed up and supported by research.
Supplements to support digestive function are often recommended, and some feeds will also contain these within their finished formulations. However, for some individual horses that are more digestively challenged additional supplementation may be of benefit. These supplements include live yeasts, pre-and probiotics. These help to support the function of the hindgut, replenishing and restoring the gut microfloral population, thus helping to maintain a stable pH environment to support optimum fibre digestion and utilization.
Gastric supplements such as KER Rite Trac™ and Equishure® can also help to restore a normal gastric environment to help support individual horses, however for these to be successful other feed management practices must also be correctly in place.
Ideally, when horses come back from their break they should have gained plenty of condition so that they are in the region of 4 (using the 0 to 5 condition scoring system) and some may even be a 4.5. This means that the start of their work will play an important role in decreasing body condition, but also means that if feed and work are managed hand in hand that these horses stand a better chance of maintaining optimum bodyweight through the competition season, without losing too much condition very early on.
It is important that any diet and training programme is altered depending on the individual horse and their training adaptations, and changes made to accommodate setbacks such as injuries or illnesses.