Understanding the basics of equine nutrition - GulfToday

Understanding the basics of equine nutrition

Horse

The first step in deciding a horse’s diet is to determine its health.

Manjula Ramakrishnan

Horses have always been a part of the fabric of Arab culture. With horse racing in the UAE being the cynosure of global horse lovers, the sport is not just about the races, but also about breeds of horses and loving care of these fine beasts. Besides, with more races round the bend, it is paramount for horse owners and caretakers to provide a properly balanced diet for the equine friends.

“The first step in deciding a horse’s diet is to determine how healthy he is. Horse owners must be able to look at their horse and assess whether it is at a healthy weight or too fat or too thin. This initial ‘eye’ of the feeder fattens or thins the horse,’’ says Stephane Jothy, equine nutritionist and corporate marketing manager at Royal Horse.

Stephane has been providing nutrition advice for horses for several years. With the endurance community growing fast, it is important for newcomers to the sport to understand these horses’ nutritional needs.

“Horses have very specific dietary needs because they are herbivores and have a unique digestive tract quite different from ours. Their long digestive system requires a high-fibre diet that is consumed in small amounts over a long time period. As such it is important to have the right feed given to them at the right time,’’ Stephane tells Panorama.

What is the primary nutrient for a horse?

Water is the number one equine nutrient. Horses can drink 10 to 15 litres a day during winter and around 50-70 litres during very hot weather combined with sustained work. Horses that do not drink enough water will be at greater risk of gastrointestinal disorders. Endurance horses, for instance, need a nutrition strategy that will allow them to travel all day, at moderate to high speeds without getting dehydrated. They need adequate energy in a form that will not produce excess body heat but will provide enough fluid and electrolytes to maintain hydration.

Stephane Jothy

Stephane Jothy, equine nutritionist and corporate marketing manager at Royal Horse.

What else would you categorise as a good equine diet?

Cereal-rich feeds have imbalanced mineral content. As for supplements, it is vital to give your horse only those that have been specifically designed for its needs. Different species have specific needs and unsuitable feed can harm the horse’s health. Most horses also need a sufficient and balanced intake of phosphorus and calcium. More importantly, the ratio between these two nutrients should be maintained. A surplus of one nutrient over the other can have some serious negative consequences. For instance, too much phosphorus can weaken bones by preventing calcium from getting absorbed into the system. Hence the daily food ration should be decided based on the horse’s physiologic status and workload. A balanced feed in itself could be wholesome and mineral supplements may not be required on a daily basis.

What are the advantages of a premium feed?

A premium feed not only increases the energy conversion of fats and helps fight fatigue, but also improves muscle strength and reduces recovery time of horses. It also enhances the performance of reproduction by its action on the spermatogenesis which is beneficial for foetus development, helping the formation of muscular fibres, maturation of lungs and healthy immune systems.

How often should horses be fed?

While giving quality feed is important for its welfare and performance, it is equally essential to adjust the ration to its weight and workload; just as important is the number of feeds to be given and how regularly this is to be done. Most horses have a small stomach requiring regular gastric drainage. Frequent drainage can overwhelm the enzymatic digestion capabilities of the small intestine, increasing the risk of diarrhoea and pain from gut stasis.

Is there a difference in feeds between endurance horses and regular ones?

For racehorses which start work at a much younger age, specific diet support should be set up with programmes that are different from other recreational or sports activities. When feeding an endurance horse, we think about two programmes – feeding the horse on a daily basis as we get the horse into fitness, and then a plan for what we will feed the horse on competition day. One is as important as the other. The quantities of forage and feeds should be adapted according to the horse’s breed, weight and daily exercise. It is best to verify the energy content in your daily ration with the assistance of a specialist technician or veterinary surgeon.