The All-Important Diet
The idyllic picture of horses on lush green grass. It looks like they are grazing - but in reality, they are on a dirt track, that you're not able to see due to the tall grass.
To have healthy hooves I believe one of the most important things is to give the horse a healthy diet. Especially if you want barefoot hooves and/or self-maintaining hooves. In this blog post I will discuss my experience in creating a healthy diet and optimizing the horse's barefoot performance. Even if your horse is not barefoot he will still benefit from a healthy diet. And an added bonus of optimizing your horse's health is more hair! Even my very long and think haired Icelandics manage to grow more hair the more I optimize their diets.
Forage is the basic feed-stuff your horse should be receiving. Many horses live on grass during a big part of the year. For many owners this is convenient, but for many horses it upsets their metabolism due to the high sugar levels of the grass - and thus affects their overall health and the quality of the hooves. This is one of the main reasons for hooves chipping during the summer months, which all social media is swamped with at the moment (although not the only reason). If you have a horse whose hooves aren't functioning optimal or your horse has dangerous fatty depots then it could be a good call to cut all grass away from his diet - and in one of the next blogposts I will talk a little about track systems to keep horses moving even though they are living on dirt.
I am a fan of ad lib hay or haylage myself, and the horses here seem to thrive on this. Ad lib means that they can eat ALL that they want! They never run out and I don't restrict their intake through slowfeeders. Some of the more native horse breeds do have a few extra kilos on their sides, but they do not have any of the dangerous fat depots associated with PPID and EMS. In fact, when they move in here they often have these as many people choose track systems for boarding as a last resort, but within the first two weeks they are markedly less and within the first month they are usually gone.
My advice is to use mainly hay or haylage of good quality (low sugar and free of fungus etc - and preferably also free of pesticides) as the horse's main diet. Some are all right with native grasses, but very seldom fields of high-yielding rye grasses. The more weeds there is in the grass the better.
In their natural habitat horses also have access to a lot of trees, bushes, mosses, grass etc. and this can be very valuable for the horse's diet. Therefore, it can also be a good idea to add cut branches, twigs and maybe also fresh cut weeds to their pasture, so that they can supply themselves with many varied herbs. I believe Carol Hughes advises 35 different plants a day for optimum health - but let the horse choose himself what he wants and needs.
Minerals, vitamins & all those crazy supplements
Sometimes I meet people who have been advised that horses only need grass to survive. Well, they might survive, but if you want to optimize their performance you need to supplement their minerals and vitamins to counteract deficiencies. These deficiencies depend on where in the world you live, but for most areas the horses diet (whether it being grass or hay/haylage) will be deficient in copper, zinc and magnesium to meet your horse's requirements for optimal health. At the same time iron is often very high.
Therefore, you need to find a good mineral and vitamin supplement, that fills in your horse's needs. And when you find that you don't need all those other strange supplements that retailers are only too willing to sell. You need to find some that are high in zinc and copper and with no added iron! Don't just read on the label whether they brand it as high in zinc and copper, you need to look at the values and plot them into your feed calculations. Magnesium can always be added by the side and the best magnesium option is magnesium-oxide or magnesium-chloride. If you are interested in reading more about minerals and magnesium click here to go to Gravelproof Hoof's article about Magnesium.
There are a few all-year supplements my horses have access to and that's because I am a little fascinated by zoopharmacognozy. Therefore, they have seaweed, salt- and a few (very carefully chosen!!) mineral licks available in their shelter. On the above picture you can see my Icelandic mare self-selecting some seaweed.
AND one thing that I feel is super important to mention here is that don't feed as the label says! Get a mineral analysis done on your forage, so that you can supplement what is necessary in the necessary amount. I really life Forage Plus's balancers as you have the option of adding separate minerals to your mix and they will help you sort out your minerals. For my horses, when I calculate their feeds, the necessary amount is 20 g/day of their winter balancer, whereas Forage Plus advises 75 g as a standard. But it doesn't seem necessary with more for mine, so it's stupid to throw more money out the window. On the other hand, many times horses also do need more. So, you really need to start calculating your horse's feeds to see it they fulfill your horse's needs.
AND one second (my last on this topic!) thing that I also need to say: Get your minerals as pure as possible with no unnecessary fillers. Absolutely no molasses or sugar. The total sugar and starch content (for all feeds) should be below 10%.
Apparently, I lied, because there is a third thing as well. If your horse is living mainly of hay or haylage then you should choose winter balancers as they have added vitamin e - which usually is the only difference. In cut grass vitamin e disappears quite quickly so horses can easily become deficient if it is not added in another way.
How to get these minerals in your horse? And does he need anything else?
Our horses live outside 24/7/365 and we have found a very good system of bucket-feeding with buckets in a rope, that's put over their heads. Normally they stay on - contrary to the picture - so that they cannot steal from each other and take their food with them if they are herded by a group member. Ours get their bucket feed once a day.
In these buckets they get their minerals consisting of a balancer adjusted to their needs as well as extra magnesium. But this is all very dry powder, and some of their other feeds are also dry powder. So as a base they get soaked timothy-sainfoin-hay pellets, that makes it all stick together.
Besides these things they get brewer's yeast and linseed, and some also get alfa-alfa. Brewer's yeast is high in b vitamins (and biotin) as well as protein (which my forage has been a little deficient in). Linseed contains some very good oils as well as good proteins. And alfa-alfa is also good proteins.
I regard to proteins it is important that your horse gets enough proteins and of good quality. Good quality proteins are proteins which contains a variety of amino acids as there are many of these that the horse can't produce himself. That is also why I like to get proteins from different good sources like forage, brewer's yeast, linseed and alfalfa.
You will notice that my horses do not get grains or sugary feeds; these are usually working against good hooves. I try to use sources that they would live off in nature and prefer fibres and protein over sugar and starch. In some horses all the grains, sugars and starches will also cause ulcers, as the horse's body isn't made to cope with this type of feed.
To sum all this up
- Hay or haylage as primary forage, unrestricted ad lib access.
- No grass, especially if your horse is just a little sensitive.
- Minerals and vitamins high in copper, zinc and magnesium. With NO added iron or unnecessary fillers like molasses, grains or sugar.
- Sugar and starch content of the horses diet under 10%.
- NO sugars, grains, molasses or the like. Go for high fibre and quality proteins.
- Brewer's yeast and linseed are good supplements as well.
And remember that everything your horse eats or drinks counts! Consider treats carefully and maybe even look towards your water source - as this can very often be high in iron, upsetting the mineral balance (and yes, you can get iron filters, that can help here).