A summer full of fun-filled adventures and competitions with your horse is what we as horse owners crave. Warm evenings shared with our equine counterparts are why we have such a passion for our sport. In order to perform at their highest levels, our horses must have optimal body conditions and be in excellent shape.
However, we must ask ourselves a couple of questions: Has all of the practice and hauling taken a toll on our horses’ body conditions? Have our horses dropped a little weight with the stresses of being top athletes, essentially making them hard-keepers? Some horses need a little extra help in order to stay in their best fighting shape.
With an increased work level, the first thing to do is to make sure that your horse is receiving high-quality forage and a concentrate that provides enough energy to keep it in a proper body condition. It seems that hard-keepers are typically more nervous than easy-keepers are. In these horses, it is important that you provide a concentrate that is high in protein and fat rather than carbohydrates. Protein and fat are considered “cool” energy and thus will help to avoid making a high-energy horse “hot” in the way that grain-based products that are high in carbohydrates would. Extruded soybeans are an excellent source of high protein and fat. Some horses benefit from being given a supplement aimed at weight gain, which simply involves adding protein and fat to the horse’s diet. However, in many horses, energy is not the only reason why they cannot remain at an ideal body condition.
Nutrition is the basis of health in all living organisms. Horses with less-than-ideal body conditions have a tendency to be deficient in one or more vitamins and/or minerals, making them susceptible to disease and stress. A vitamin that is particularly sensitive to the body condition is vitamin E. Vitamin E works synergistically with selenium to serve as antioxidants in the body, aid in muscle function and recovery, and increase immune function. It is a fat-soluble vitamin and can only be stored in fat in the body. If your horse does not have adequate fat stores, he, in turn, cannot store adequate amounts of vitamin E. In addition, as hay is stored, vitamin E is oxidized, thus becoming unavailable to the horse. After six months of storage, up to 80% of the vitamin E in hay is lost. If your horse is consuming hay that has been stored for a while and is on the thin side, your horse will most likely become vitamin E-deficient. Therefore, it is very important that your horse receives a vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure that all of his nutritional requirements are being met.
Another reason horses cannot keep weight on is digestive issues. You may notice that your horse has a great appetite and is consuming more energy than any other horse at your barn but is still not putting on weight. The reasoning for this could be that his gastrointestinal flora is not optimal. With less-than-ideal gut flora, he can consume a lot of energy but not be receiving the benefits. This is because he is unable to digest the feedstuffs and put the energy to use in his body. Providing probiotics, prebiotics, and live yeast cultures will help to optimize your horse’s gastrointestinal flora. Probiotics are an inoculation of live bacteria that help to stabilize the gastrointestinal tract and help to fend off disease-causing microorganisms. Prebiotics are nutrients that beneficially nourish and promote the growth of “good” microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract. Human research has shown that people who consume prebiotics have fewer issues with anxiety, depression, and stress. In a horse, live yeast cultures help to stabilize the cecum’s pH levels, which further stabilizes the gastrointestinal tract. Research has shown that horses that are fed live yeast cultures have increased the digestibility of feedstuffs consumed and have improved nutritional status as compared to horses not consuming live yeast cultures.
Not only do we want our hard-keepers to hold weight during the competitive season but also many times we need to ensure that they are in their optimal body conditions before winter hits. As the weather gets colder, thinner horses do not have the fat stores in their bodies to insulate themselves from the cold. Horses are much like humans. The skinny person is always colder than the hefty person because the skinny person does not have the fat stores to keep himself warm like the hefty person does. However, humans can easily temperature-regulate by putting on a warm jacket to combat the cold and then removing the jacket if they get too warm. Horses do not have that luxury. This can create a vicious cycle because if your horse does not have adequate stores of fat to protect himself from the cold, he will shiver which burns more energy and thus can make him even skinnier. It is very important that we do all we can so that our horses have adequate fat stores before winter to ensure that this does not occur.
Whether you are trying to keep weight on your performance horse during the competitive season or are trying to put weight on one before winter hits, consider your feeding program. Do not merely put a high-protein and high-fat product into your horse and expect results. Address all issues associated with horses that struggle to maintain their weight. Make sure that your hard-keeper is receiving a complete vitamin and mineral supplement, prebiotics, probiotics, and live yeast cultures in addition to a high-protein and high-fat diet. Taking care of all of these issues in your thin horse should help to ensure that your horse can reach and maintain an optimal body condition year-round.
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