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Advice on feeding horses

From: Tanya

Dear Jessica, my daughter loves to look at horse-related web sites online, which is how we discovered you and HORSE-SENSE about two years ago. Thank you SO much for providing good information for all of us in the horse world! Now I have a question about other sites related to horses.

There is a ton of online advice out there, and a lot of it doesn't seem to be very good or even true. Some of it would be very harmful if anyone followed it. My daughter is doing a school project on feeding horses, and she has been printing out some information from different web sites. Last night she brought home some printouts that she made when she was online at school. I don't want to give the name of this web site because I don't want anyone to go there and believe the crazy advice there, but here are just some of the things it said:

"A healthy adult horse should eat a "flake" of hay twice per day."

"We recommend that you give your horse bran at least once per week to help with their digestive system."

"During winter months, you can supplement your horse's diet with grain to help keep your horse warm."

Okay I'm not a big expert like you, but even I know better than this. Two flakes a day wouldn't even keep a horse alive for very long unless they were huge flakes and the horse was a miniature horse! Our vet says that bran doesn't do a thin for the digestive system, and I know you have written that a bran mash is really just another way to get water into the horse. And I thought everybody knew that you feed more HAY in winter to keep your horses warm. Of course Katie knows better than to follow any of this wrong so-called "advice", but she was shocked and upset to see this kind of information online. What would happen if somebody who didn't know anything about horses got a horse and tried to feed it like this?

Is there any way to stop people putting up web sites with bad information like this on them? Katie is turning her project into two parts, one about horse feeding and the other about not believing everything you read online. Is there anything else she can do to warn people who aren't in her class at school? She says that most people don't want to listen to a long lecture about feeding horses, but she thinks they'll listen to her if she just gives them a short list of things to think about. She knows that you don't believe in doing kids' homework for them but asked me to ask you if these would be good points for a short list:

1 weigh the feed 2 use hay for warmth not grain 3 don't feed too many supplements 4 don't try to use bran for a laxative because it doesn't work

Thank you, and the reason Katie isn't writing to you herself is that she is with her Dad's family for the holiday and doesn't have a computer there so she asked me on the phone if I would ask you these things. Tanya


Hi Tanya! Thanks for the kind words, and congratulations - you've obviously brought up a very clever and sensible daughter. She'll go far, since she obviously cares about horses, truth, and helping other people get good information and do what's best for their horses.

There really isn't much you or Katie or anyone else can do to eliminate or stop the dissemination of misinformation online.- If you are willing to take the time to write to publishers or e-mail the owners of web sites, and point out the errors and misinformation, it's possible that some of them will make some changes. Some may not be willing to make any changes, and others may not acknowledge or even read your letters or e-mail, and you'll have to be prepared for that. Instead of trying to correct egregious errors on other people's web sites, Katie might want to create a web site of her own, with links to the sites she considers to be the best and most useful sources of information on the subjects she cares about.

In the meantime, what you both CAN do is to direct your friends and fellow horse-owners to good sources of accurate information, not just online but in the form of books they can use for reference. In this case, there's an outstandingly good book on equine nutrition that Katie should probably own, and could certainly feel safe recommending:

FEEDING AND CARE OF THE HORSE, 2nd edition, by Lon D. Lewis (DVM, PhD) is easy to read and understand, and should be required reading for every horse-owner.

Another useful book on nutrition is STOREY'S GUIDE TO FEEDING HORSES, by equine nutritionist Melyni Worth.

Please tell Katie that when she gives advice to her classmates (or anyone else), she should remind them that they should also talk to their equine veterinarians! Many horse-owners forget that there's more to an equine veterinarian's job than treating illnesses and injuries. Good veterinarians welcome the chance to help horse-owners design feeding and exercise programs for their horses - they are very happy to help improve their clients' understanding of equine nutrition and management.

Now, as for Katie's list. It's perfectly reasonable, but it looks rather like a reaction to the misinformation she found on the objectionable web site. It's not a bad list, but I think it would be more useful if the emphasis were on things TO DO. Two out of her four points are telling people what NOT to do, and when you say "Don't do this", you can't ever be entirely certain about what people will now do instead!

She might like to compare her list with the four-point list I sometimes use when I'm giving a short talk on the same subject:

  1. give your horse access to clean water, salt, and clean, good-quality forage (pasture or hay) at all times; if you can't provide forage 24/7, at least feed the horses several times a day and be generous with the forage.
  2. learn to do condition scoring so that you can easily evaluate your horse's condition; it's also useful to know your horse's actual weight
  3. weigh ALL feed, so that you know exactly how much hay (and other feed) your horse is getting
  4. talk to your veterinarian about your horse's nutritional program, and ask him to recommend ONE supplement that can make up for actual deficiencies in your horse's daily diet
For people who are willing or able to make only ONE change to their horse management protocol, weighing the feed is probably the most important action they can take. Just as most people make wild guesses when asked to estimate their horses' weight, most people also make wild guesses when asked how much they feed their horses. Since horses require to be fed at least 1.5% of their own weight every day in forage alone, you'd think that every horse owner would make it a point to know (a) what each horse weighs, and (b) how much forage each horse needs at a minimum... but far too many people continue to guess.

At a barn where I taught recently, there were stall cards that showed each horse's name, owner's name and telephone number, what to feed in the morning and at night, and what the horse weighed. The horses' owners had filled out the cards, and oddly enough, almost all of the "horse's weight" lines had exactly the same number: 1,000 lbs. I could easily see that some of those horses actually weighed around 800 pounds; others would tip the scales at 1375 or 1400 pounds. If they're all being fed as if they weighed 1,000 pounds, some are being overfed - and some are being underfed. Not only that, but what happens when it's time to deworm them? Do their owners actually use appropriate amounts of deworming paste (that is, less than a full tube for the 800-pound horses, and more than a full tube for the 1,400-pound horses), or does each owner use one tube per horse and cross off "deworm today" on the calendar?

What happens when you're out of town? If you've ever left your horses in someone else's care for a week or two and returned to find them much thinner or much fatter, you have some idea of the big differences there can be in individual interpretations of "a flake" or "a scoop".

It's much easier just to go ahead and weigh all of your feed - not necessarily every time, but often enough that you KNOW that (for example) when you fill your blue scoop level with oats, it weighs two pounds, and when you fill it with pellets, it weighs three+ pounds, or (again, just as an example) that a 2" thick flake of your alfalfa weighs five pounds, but it takes TWO 4" flakes of your grass hay to add up to five pounds. Your grain may not weigh the same as your neighbour's grain; your hay flakes may be heavier and more dense than your neighbour's hay flakes (or they may be lighter and more loosely-baled); your scoop may not be the same size as the one your neighbour uses, and so on.

When it comes to your horses' nutrition, it's best not to make assumptions. Instead, weigh and measure, so that you KNOW. And when you change the brand of your pellets, or get in a new delivery of oats, or of hay, WEIGH EVERYTHING AGAIN, because it may not be the same. Even if your hay comes from the same field at the same farm, year after year, you can't assume that the flakes will always be of uniform size and weight. Weather conditions, the way the baler was adjusted, the date when the hay was cut, the length of time it was allowed to dry before being baled... EVERYTHING can affect hay weight (not to mention hay quality). So even if you don't routinely have your hay analyzed (although that's a good idea too), at least pull apart a couple of bales and measure/count and weigh the flakes before you begin using the new hay. If an 80-pound bale breaks easily into 8 ten-pound flakes, that's one thing - but it may break into twelve flakes, or six flakes, in which case you may need to make some adjustments to your feeding.

If you keep an eye on your horses, weigh and measure the hay and other feed, keep salt and water in front of the horses at all times, and if you understand and USES condition scoring on a regular basis (at least three times a week), you will never find yourself standing in the barn one morning, asking yourself "Oh, MY, when did those horses get so THIN?"

If Katie warns her classmates NOT to believe everything they find online, she'll be doing them a favour. Web sites are like books - some are good and offer solid information, and some aren't, and don't. If Katie can convinced her classmates to follow her good advice, and to read a reference book or two, and to talk to their vets, she'll have done all of them, AND all their horses, a big favour. In this case, even the really bad web site is helpful, because it inspired Katie to take on this very useful project. It apparently didn't offer any good information, but it DID provide her with a horrible example, and those can be useful too. ;-)

Jessica

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