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Feeding the Show Horse in Winter

In very simple terms, a show horse is not born, it is created. That is, breeding does not give us the perfect shape but it is what we do, through feeding and exercise that dictates the correct contours, condition and overall wellbeing. Once the correct form is achieved effort then goes into keeping that condition.

Therefore seasonal changes are potentially far more damaging to the show horse than many other types. It is perfectly OK for horses to lose a little condition over winter – it actually helps in the hormonal rhythms that occur throughout the year – but for the show horse it can translate into a far greater decline, simply as “show condition” is a physical peak, and with the best will in the world, maintaining form through exercise and training is never as easy in winter. Not only is the weather against us but also the horse’s requirements for energy and nutrients during a period where feeding time is reduced – the horse is a mainly diurnal feeder, so the shorter the day, the less the feeding time.

British Horse Feeds has been at the forefront of promoting the concept with the strapline Forage, Fibre, Feed. That is we should optimise the nutrition of the majority of the feed – the forage as grass, hay or haylage – with quality fibre sources, such as Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet to supply most of the horse’s daily requirements. We then supply hard feed to provide targeted nutrition whether this is fast release energy, extra protein or essential micronutrients.

When feeding a show horse during the spring and summer, which is show time after all, there is probably a need to supply a good quality feed such as a Top-line Conditioner or All-Round Balancer that provides generous levels of protein. It may be believed that high levels of protein benefit muscular conformity but it is actually more down to exercise and glycogen stores, so a reasonable protein/starch combination is called for.

And when the ideal has been achieved and the days shorten through Autumn it is understandable that people think that a bit of extra feed, and a rug are probably enough – unless it gets really bad – to get the horse through winter. That is, in essence, broadly correct, as the feed you have been giving for exercise and other activities can be diverted to keeping the horse warm.

The problem isn’t supplying a little extra energy but it is the source of that energy. Mammals have a zone of thermo-neutrality and this means that there is a range of temperature – usually about 7 – 25oC in the equine – where the horse can maintain its body temperature by modifying its heat generation. Outside this range it needs to switch to physiological techniques, such as sweating or shivering (heat loss or generation). Even if we keep our horses rugged or stabled, for every oC drop in temperature a horse needs to eat an extra 2Mj of digestible energy, equivalent to 1/4kg of hay. At the same time horses will tend to eat less in the winter as they are mainly diurnal feeders and, of course, the days are very short.

A few years ago we would say cut the hard feed and give extra hay as our horses are warm and dry and not undergoing much in the way of exercise. Today we realise that cold, dark days are not a horse’s friends and a bit of extra food will keep winter at bay and maintain condition. Although it is perfectly acceptable for a horse to lose a bit of condition in winter it is not best practice for a show animal and so we need a technique to maintain both energy intake and condition without losing conformity and shape.

Back to Forage, Fibre, Feed!

Over winter we are relying on a dry forage to provide the bulk of the daily intake and, although its energy content may not be very high it does have a benefit over oil or starch. When the hindgut bacteria ferment the fibre it generates heat, and this maintains core body temperature.

What we need to do is to increase this energy intake/heat creation without relying too much on starch and oil, as these energy sources have the potential to alter conformity if stored. We just need enough to maintain the fat and glycogen stores, but the extra energy must come from fibre.

This is the role of super-fibres. A super-fibre, very basically, is a fibre source that is more quickly fermented than grass and so more of it is converted to energy in the time it travels through the lower gut. For example, the effective degradability of grass is 55% while soya hulls and alfalfa are about 70% and beet pulp 85%. By replacing some of the forage with these ingredients substantial changes in energy intake can be made. Importantly beet based products have a prebiotic effect and stimulate those bacteria that can ferment hemicellulose, increasing the overall degradability by a measurable amount.

Winter, however can be extremely variable and we’ve seen a range of types over the past few years, from months of sub- zero temperatures to a mild, wet, endless season. So it is very difficult to calculate how best to feed your horse when we’re not sure how cold it’s going to be.

But that is the joy of feeding a super-fibre. You can supply a free access base of hay and sufficient hard feed to give essential micronutrients and a reasonable amount of protein and carbohydrates, and vary the amount of fibre to match the conditions and maintain condition. You can either replace substantial amounts of hay with a product such as Fibre-Beet, to provide a high quality forage base, supplemented with a top-line conditioner, or partially replace the forage and reduce the hard feed, or use a balancer.

In either case by increasing and decreasing the fibre portion as the weather dictates you can modify energy intake without disrupting gut conditions. And, as these products hold water very well, can provide a hot mash that not only is comforting, but provides heat; and any supplemental heat in the gut is good.