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Feeding bran; feeding grass

From: Lesley

Hi again Jessica,

As always, still enjoying the mailouts and boy did I miss them during your vacation!

My questions are multiple:

can you safely feed bran daily without upsetting mineral balances when introducing a horse to grass, how fast can you increase the daily amounts how much salt lick should they be eating anyway? how can we safely reduce the mares weight?

Some info behind the questions:

I have just bought a 15 year old Arab mare, who was owned for 13-14 years by her previous owner, who I think was a little too fussy re this mare's diet. She has a history of "nearly foundering" twice although x-rays were done and showed no damage. For this reason alone the horse has been deprived of ANY grass at all, no apples or carrots, no treats of any kind. I have asked a vet re starting her on grass and giving treats and were told to go ahead cautiously. The previous owner fed her bran daily so we have continued to do so to reduce her moving stress - simply so her diet and hay and water and stall aren't all changed at once. She is adjusting very nicely to her new home. Her diet includes twice daily feeding of the following: 2 cups COB; 1 cup pellets; 4 cups bran fed wet as a mash, a pinch of minerals and about a 1/4 cup of corn oil. The corn oil is a new additive. (so are apples and carrots- half an apple and 1 1/2 carrots in each feed. ) She also gets 2- 3 flakes of good quality local grass hay morning and night. Her coat although a little thin is shiny and healthy looking, and she is actually overweight. She has a good amount of energy, and appears content. Her stools are firm and healthy looking.

I am concerned re a comment made to me that you are not supposed to feed bran on a daily basis, as it upsets their mineral balance and drops their levels of calcium and phosphorus. Is this founded in any kind of research or another "old wives tale"? I don't want to take her off it as her bowels are working well and if they are used to the additional roughage, she may impact without it - or with another bulky filler such as beet pulp.

She had previously been denied any grass at all in fear of founder. We have started her on grass at this time of the year, at about one hour a day for the last two weeks. She has remained sound and healthy. How fast can we increase her grass time? ie how much time can we safely add per day/week? I would like her to eventually be able to be turned out for 8 hours a day in a field with the other horses. At present she is in the riding ring when it is not being used - so at least she can run and stretch, but she is becoming bored.

She has a brick sized cobalt/salt lick in her stall, that she is massacring! I have only had her for two weeks and already she has licked about 1/5 of it away! is this normal? Does it indicate an imbalance? My last horse never seemed to touch his lick. She has lots of fresh water by the way.

The previous owner had not worked this horse for three years and she is very out of shape. We are gently working her every day either on the longe line or under saddle for about 30-45 mins under saddle or about 20 mins on the lunge on alternate days, mostly at a trot. Already we have noticed an improvement in her stamina and the length of time it takes her to "vein out". She is carrying a bit of extra weight however, (actually she looks in foal - but she's not:) ). I am hoping that we can work the weight off her as her fitness is also worked on. If this dosen't work how long before we should start reducing her diet? How much should we reduce it by - it seems pretty meager pickings already. She has by the way been regularly wormed every two months.

Thanks Jessica. I hope I have included enough info for you to understand, but not too much to bog you down in details.

Also any suggestions you have re how to retrain her to go English instead of Western pleasure would also be appreciated. We have started trying to get her to come under herself and be collected and also to step out instead of shuffle. She seems very smart as we have been able to change her gaits pretty well in this two weeks of work.

Anxiously awaiting your advice,


Hi Lesley -- thanks for the kind words! Let me take these questions one at a time, and I'll try to answer generally (for everyone on the list) and also specifically (for your mare).

can you safely feed bran daily without upsetting mineral balances

It's better not to. The problem of creating a calcium/phosphorous imbalance is very real. And eight cups of bran a day is a LOT of bran! Start to cut it back, maybe by a cup per feeding, per week, so that this week she'll get THREE cups per feeding, and next week TWO, and the next week ONE, and then. . . . half a cup, and then NONE. If she's getting a lot of hay, she's getting enough roughage, with a much better mineral balance. Talk to your vet about the dangers of overfeeding bran in the long term! An occasional bran mash makes a nice treat and won't hurt your horse, but the bran itself isn't especially relevant except as a good way to get several gallons of water into a tired horse that doesn't feel like drinking or eating much. It's usually the molasses and salt in the mash that appeal to the horse.

And bran is NOT a laxative -- THAT truly IS a myth. If you are worried about sand colic, you can add psyllium to her diet, usually two or three cups a day for five consecutive days, once each month. Unlike bran, psyllium actually carries the sand out WITH it.

If you are worried about her intestinal flora and fauna, you can add probiotics to her diet for a while.

HAY is good roughage, and although she may like the taste of bran, it won't do the job that hay will do in terms of roughage and warmth, and it won't do the job that psyllium will do in terms of laxative effect or sand removal.

N. B. : I assume that you're feeding WHEAT bran? Rice bran is very high in fat, and if she's getting this much RICE bran, no wonder she looks like a barrel!

when introducing a horse to grass, how fast can you increase the daily amounts

Again, you'll want to talk to your vet about this mare -- a lot will depend on the quality and type of your grass, the quantity of it, and the time of year. In most of the US right now, the grass should be low enough in nutrients that you could safely start her with fifteen minutes of grazing the first day, then add another fifteen minutes each day until she's up to a couple of hours, then add an hour a day until she's up to six or eight hours. Then, if the grass is getting brown and dry, she should be able to handle full- time turnout. And -- your vet will confirm this -- horses on pasture will put in a LOT of walking time, and walk around 20 miles a day. It's very healthy for them.

how much salt lick should they be eating anyway?

As much as they want/need. Some horses want a LOT of salt, some don't want much at all. Some horses want a lot of salt at certain times of year, and aren't interested at other times. Most horses will eat large chunks of their salt-block if they've been without salt for a while. If your mare has been deprived of salt, she may eat her way through a saltblock in next to no time, but the worst effect is likely to be a LOT of drinking and a a very wet stall (another reason for turnout!). It's temporary. She'll calm down and drop back on her salt consumption when she's had enough, and when she realizes that the salt block is a permanent installation. Don't worry, she won't get high blood pressure. ;-)

how can we safely reduce the mares weight?

Well, NOT adding corn oil would help. ;-) Fat is a wonderful additive to a thin horse's diet, as it adds calories in a form that is very easy for a horse to assimilate. But if this mare is fat and shiny right now, there is no reason on earth to add fat to her diet! I would suggest cutting out the corn oil -- in fact, if you have good hay, it's not clear to me why she would need anything else as long as she is in light work.

Talk to your veterinarian about simplifying the mare's diet. If you can feed her good hay, and just enough grain (a handful) to mix with her minerals and vitamins (and here again, ask your vet if he/she can recommend a vitamin-mineral supplement formulated for your area of the country), and she has full-time access to clean, fresh water and a mineralized salt block, she should do very well. And you'll be watching her carefully anyway, right? Diets can be changed at any time, and at the point where you can SEE her ribs instead of just FEEL them, or at the point where her workload is two or more hours of INTENSE work, you'll probably want to add grain to her diet.

If your grass is dry, turnout will help her too -- exercise always helps, and turnout is good no-impact, free-choice exercise. It won't substitute for a planned exercise program, but it will supplement it very well indeed, and keep the mare's circulation and digestive system working efficiently.

If the mare hasn't been worked in three years, take it easy with her. Twenty minutes of longeing every other day, walk and trot, on the LARGEST possible circle -- certainly no smaller than twenty meters! -- should be plenty of exercise. I wouldn't even ride her until she's a bit more legged-up. Excess weight is a strain on joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and she is carrying enough excess weight of her own, without adding a rider to the load. When she's dropped a hundred and fifty pounds, say, you can add the rider and she won't even notice.

Not all of a horse's structures are developed or conditioned at the same rate. She will lose weight and get muscles FIRST (and show visible veins), and that can happen in a matter of months. But no matter how lovely she looks, it will take a year for her tendons and ligaments to strengthen, and between a year and a year and a half for her bones to remodel and become strong as a result of systematic exercising.

As for the training question -- that's easy. Once the mare has adjusted to her new stable, her new diet, and her new owners, just begin training her for her new job. Work with her just exactly the way you would work with a completely green, untrained animal -- which, for your purposes, she IS. Start her from the ground up, teach her leading and halting and backing and turning, longeing and long- lining, and how to carry a rider. She needs to learn to move in a different way, carry different tack, and understand different signals. Since she has had many years off, and is quite unfit, you have the perfect opportunity to start her again. Take your time, and do everything from the very beginning, so that as she learns to do what you ask, she will be developing her muscles and her neuromuscular reflexes in ways that will make it easy for her to do her new job.

Good luck!


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