I am regularly asked to recommend supplements for horses, and there are many, many excellent supplements out there for a range, of preventative and curative functions, but it got me to thinking, if a horse could speak what would he tell us that he wants.
For me I have always felt, that horses need to be horses. cue the Rows over cut up paddocks in the winter, That need significant work to restore them in the spring. From a commercial point of view, I have always thought that a happy horse is much, much more likely to perform well. My example of this is, Valegro, - Goes out wins world cup , goes home, goes out the field, wins olympic medals, goes on a a hack with a veteran rider.... It clearly works for them, so I ask my self , why do we ignore the horses basic needs before we reach for that supplement or device to stop them in their bad habbit tracks.
So what is this need, this ultimate supplement, to make your horse happy and healthy ? Even the BHS exams as comprehensive didn't cover this ( as far as i can remember). We had lovely rules, like feeding , clean water, lovely clean banked beds but the best supplement and the biggest need your horse has , is just to be a horse. It may not always be possible, especially in livery yards but even trying to introduce even small amounts of the 3 items below will improve your horses life.
Years of research means we are aware that good nutrition makes a significant impact on the health and performance of our horses. Ensuring the horse has his nutrient requirements provided for is a key part of ensuring peak performance, but it’s only one part of the whole nourishment formula.
The no 1 missing ‘nutrient’ or supplement does not come in a box …its allowing the horse to be a horse.
Many equine behaviour and nutritional problems are largely man-made problems, brought about by altering natural behavior.
Millions of years of evolution has not removed some of the hard wired behaviours that horses posess, despite domestication.
When we prevent horses from acting on these behaviours in his every day life, largely thorugh traditional feeding and stabling, it causes stress. If this stress continues long term it can have a negative impatce on wellness, nutrition and prerformatce. - this cannot be balanced out by anything in a box or a bag.
So what do they really need ? Research has shown that horses primary behavioural needs to be eating, locomotion and social contact.
The horse is an herbivorous hind-gut-fermenting, eating machine dedicating about 60-70% of his daily time budget to grazing a diverse array of fresh green stuff. His drive to eat is his number one motivator.
As a trickle feeder the horse relies on a constant flow of forage through his gastrointestinal tact (GI) and researchers have identified they eat to maintain a high gut fill. This keeps his tummy and guts working well.
It’s important to remember that it’s not primarily the horse we are feeding. It’s the microbial population of bacteria, protozoa & fungi that in turn feed the horse. The healthier, happier we keep his resident micro-flora the healthier happier and nutritionally balanced our horses are.
The horse is an herbivore and when it comes to gut health and well-being, there is NOTHING that can replace good quality forage available 24/7
Stomach acid is constantly secreted in the horse, unlike us where it starts up in the presence of food. He relies on saliva to help him buffer the stomach acid, and saliva is only produced when the horse chews. Forages require a lot more chewing than concentrates resulting in more saliva production and is critical in ulser prebention.
Left without anything to munch on for even surprisingly short periods of time creates a stress response in the horse. Stress produces cortisol (as well as other stress hormones) which in turn raises insulin that can seriously derail hormone and metabolic processes. Insulin also tells the body to hold onto fat as the horse perceives a food shortage that puts him into starvation mode. This is why restricting forage for overweight horses actually makes the problem worse and we recommend grazing muzzles in preference.
Within about two hours of forage deprivation, the stomach becomes acidic enough to cause physical discomfort and sets the scene for health issues such as gastric ulceration, colic, unwanted behavior and impaired performance. This is further compounded when he’s required to exercise with this high acid buildup.
Constant access to high fibr forages is not only important for proper functioning and digestion of foods it’s also critical for nourishing his mind. Grazing with his head down for hours each day, helps the back muscles develop correctly.
2. FRIENDSHIP (Social contact)
As prey animals, horses get by with a lot of help from their friends! They form very strong bonds, often lasting a lifetime, and have quite the elaborate friends and family social network. Mares and stallions maintain long term relations and along with other siblings and peer groups, play an important role in the social and nutritional development of foals.
Gestural communications between horses is complex and subtle. They remain in constant visual contact with each other sending non-verbal messages back and forth. Having herd mates around has numerous benefits including safety from predators, sourcing and selecting food, play-mates, grooming, rest and REM sleep, thermoregulation
University studies cite social isolation as one of the greatest causes of stress to social animals. When we restrict the horse from being with other herd members, they are much more likely to become succumb to develop stereotypic coping behavior like box walking, crib biiting etc
3. FREEDOM (Movement or Locomotion)
The horse is a prey animal and with no other form of defense, he relies primarily on flight mechanism for survival. Every fibre of his body is primed to get-him-the-hell-out-of-here! His whole physiology and psychology is evolved to live in the open range and his innate intelligence is constantly telling him to put as much space between himself and any threat…perceived or real.
Horses are nomadic in nature, wandering on average 20-30 miles per day and have been recorded as roaming up to 100 miles when given the freedom on mooors or commonage. Compare this to horses in the domestic setting where an australian study recorded 4.5 miles of travel in 40 acre paddock and only 0.6 miles day for stalled horses turned out in an exercise paddock.
While movement is primarily motivated by protection and resources – food, water, mates, shelter etc., studies have shown it protects against lameness by improving bone, tendon and muscle structure as well as keeping joints lubed. Movement also keeps the digestive system flowing and metabolic issues at bay, the respiratory system clear and well-oxygenated mind and body that lives in a state of contentment.
FORAGE FRIENDSHIP FREEDOM FOR A HEALTHY HAPPY HORSE
Deepening our appreciation of the true nature of horses helps connect us to what they really need and how we can better provide for that in our world.
So while we have a huge array of supplements for every aspect of your horses life, and training aids for "bad habits" maybe its time to first ask our selves, is there something more basic that will make my horse the best he can be ?
Inspired and Adapted from an article on https://www.riderfitness.com with studies and references from
Hampson, B.A. and Pollitt, C.C. (2008) GPS tracking of domestic horses. Australian Equine Science Symposium. Gold Coast, Australia.
Getty JM (2010). Feed your horse like a horse. USA: Dog Ear Publishing
Mills, DS, McDonnell SM (2005). The Domestic Horse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.The Domestic Horse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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