Helping our Horses Cope with Routine Changes

by Karen McGivena November 03, 2022 3 min read

Helping our Horses Cope with Routine Changes

Written by Briony Witherow MSc. RNutr.

Now the clocks have changed back, and the nights are drawing in, we and our horses may have to adapt to changes in management routines. This blog is all about how we can support our horses through routine changes and other common challenges that our horses may face in the coming months.

The biggest change our horses face at this time of year is typically a move from grass to hay or haylage. For the digestive system, this represents a big change, moving from high moisture and comparatively low fibre to something quite the opposite.

The impact here can be two-fold.  Firstly, if changes are made too quickly, the microbial population in the hindgut can be disrupted, increasing the risk of loose droppings and in the worst-case scenario, colic. Secondly, less moisture from forage, the potential for reduced water intake (in cold weather), and often less movement (more stable time), is a recipe for reduced gut movement (known as motility) again resulting in an increased risk of colic.

Proactive Management

So, what can we do to prepare and protect our horse when it comes to diet changes?

Avoid Sudden Dietary Changes

Remember the golden rule of feeding, make all changes gradually and try to only make one change at a time. This goes for forage and hard feed; in fact, the former has been shown to be even more important when it comes to making changes slowly. If you can make the change in routine (decreasing pasture time and increasing hay/haylage) over 2-4 weeks, that is ideal. This can include offering hay/haylage out in the field or bringing you horse in for hay/haylage in the stable before or after exercise. For hard feed, make changes over 10-14 days.

Maximise Water Intake

This can include dampening hay or soaking for short periods (20-30 minutes) to reduce dust content prior to feeding – both will make the change from grass to hay easier (essentially upping the moisture content of hay making it more like grass). The moisture content of bucket feed can also be increased by adding succulents and soakable feeds.

Ensure that your horse’s salt and electrolyte requirements are being met by providing a salt lick and/or electrolytes daily – this will stimulate thirst response; and ensure fresh clean water is always available and monitor intake. In cold weather, warming water up by adding hot water, can increase intake.  Research shows horses to have a preference to warm rather than near freezing water.

Provide Additional Digestive Support

Many horses will benefit from digestive support during a change in routine and management and having a tub of a digestive supplement in your feed room is always advisable.

Pre and probiotics – what are they and how can they help?

Digestive supplements are typically based around improving the environment or population of microbes that reside in the horse’s hindgut. The horse depends on this population of microbes to be able to digest and utilise nutrients from the forage portion of his diet. These microbes become accustomed to breaking down specific feedstuffs, as such, when the diet changes, the microbe population must shift to reflect this. Research suggests that this adaptation can take as long as 3 to 4 weeks (depending on how large the difference is between diets). If change occurs too quickly, microbes struggle to cope, resulting in digestive upsets. Where the microbe population is compromised, your horse’s ability to digest fibre is reduced.

Pre and probiotics are commonly referred to as digestive enhancers. Probiotics like Transvite Excel contain live yeast – these are best fed short term after or during any event which may disturb the hindgut’s bacterial population. Providing a probiotic will help to repopulate the hindgut with beneficial fibre digesting microbes.

Many products contain a combination of both pre and probiotics such as Transvite Digest. Prebiotics help to multiply existing useful bacteria and can help to support the microbial population during changes in feed and management. Where probiotic only products are generally recommended for shorter term use, prebiotics or combined pre and probiotic products can be fed for longer periods of time and are a useful addition to all feed rooms. 

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