Partly we got the timing wrong because of the holidays. However, we also have started getting all our horse feeds from the same supplier and I didn’t realise they were selling us 25kg bags of oats and barley instead of the 20kg bags.
We make our horse feeds up in massive metal bins by mixing 100kg of oats and 100kg of barley and 25kg of soya, 25kg of maize and 25kg of peas. So normally we order 5 bags of oats and 5 bags of barley for every 1 bag of soya, maize and peas. But now we only need 4 bags of the oats and 4 bags of barley to make one of these..
The use by date on the oats and barley is the end of February so we should get to feed them to our horses before they lose their calorific value. We are quite excited about using these feeds because in the past we have used bruised oats. These are oats that have been rolled to break the outer husk. They can only be digested to the extent that the husk has been broken.
These new oats are cooked though and so the whole of the oats is digestible and therefore the ponies will get more energy from them.
However, a word of warning. Feeding horses concentrates like these cereals or a mix is an intervention. And just like we said in the last blog, all human interventions come with risks.
So what are the risks of our cereal based feeding regimen.
Well according to the animal charity Blue Cross, a killer disease is quietly spreading through the horse population of the United Kingdom and the disease is obesity.
Obesity has fatal consequences and causes severe, debilitating and painful symptoms. Next to colic it causes the most equine fatalities of any equine disease in the UK – yet it is 100% preventable.
Before domestication horses lived on extensive areas as opportunistic grazers, much as zebras still do today (not in Scotland obviously). Unlike most domesticated horses, in a wild herd a horse is either growing, pregnant and/or has a foal at foot, while stallions work very hard to mate with mares and protect the herd.
Their main protection from predators is keeping on the move and rapid flight from danger – all needing a lot of energy. As such, they evolved to become efficient converters of low energy foods; we still see this in our native breeds which survive very well in barren, desolate landscapes.
The wild horse is designed to eat large amounts of grass during the summer when forage is plentiful and convert this to fat. This is in order to survive the lean period during the winter when there is no grass growth. Normally a wild horse would start the winter fat but by the spring will have lost weight and may be quite thin, ready to start putting weight back on. The whole metabolism of the horse is designed around this annual fluctuation in weight.
Today, most horses don’t lose much weight in the winter because of our human interventions, yet the metabolic mechanisms that have developed over millions of years of evolution still operate.
Today we have fat horses entering the winter whose bodies are preparing for starvation yet the ‘lean’ period never arrives – indeed winter feeding and rugging means that in many cases horses continue putting on weight at a time when their bodies are designed to be losing it.
The confusion that results contributes to an unfortunate trilogy of undesirable events often called equine metabolic syndrome: obesity, insulin resistance and increased circulating cortisol which can, in many cases, spark off a serious bout of laminitis.
So whilst we are feeding high energy feeds to horses, their bodies are geared to breaking down fat stores and becoming lean. This means we have to carefully monitor our horses and ideally see them put on weight in spring and summer which they then lose over winter.
Our riding school horses and ponies need to have sufficient energy to be ridden in lessons and none of our clients like to see a horse that’s very skinny let alone ride one and so we have to balance a horse workload with the feed that they get and the way they look. This means we have to be very careful because we also need to make sure they don’t get overweight or at least lose some weight before Spring.
Maybe part of the problem is that we all need to change our perception of what a healthy horse actually looks like, especially depending upon the time of year. We need to learn that a horse losing weight over winter is a positive and not a negative and we need to learn to not respond by feeding it increased amounts of cereals.
Unfortunately this is a very difficult thing to do as we all want our horses to look healthy and well cared for. As long as we equate healthy and well cared for with well rounded and slightly plump then we will continue to promote the problems of equine obesity. We are all victims of the casual comments of observers worriedly asking “is your horse alright, it looks a bit skinny”.
Finally it is important to remember that if your horse is losing weight but also losing energy and looking a bit flat then this weight loss is probably not a positive natural thing and will require the attention of a vet. This is not the same thing as a natural seasonal related weight loss in a healthy horse with bags of energy and go.