Many years ago, when I was a kid, my Uncle Bob took an ailing barn cat to the vet. Several days later after receiving a call that the cat was well and ready to go home, he drove back to town to pick the cat up. When Uncle Bob saw the bill, he said to the vet, "Mister, you just bought yourself a cat" and turned to leave. A compromise was quickly reached, and Uncle Bob took the cat home after all. In his mind all was good.
As horse owners, none of us are likely to take this stance with our horses. The best way to be able to meet the financial burden of a horse that is not well is not to let him get unwell to begin with. This is where a management plan for your horse's overall health comes into play. While some horse owners are fairly diligent about this, many fail to understand how interrelated management practices can be and how a few simple things can affect the cost of owning that horse in the long term.
As a person who has been in the equine nutrition industry for three decades, I guess it should be expected that I am always focusing on the horse's diet as it relates to overall well-being and the horse's ability to thrive.
Nutrition for today's equine athlete has evolved greatly over the past 25 years. The move toward lower starch, higher fat concentrates, efficient digestive support, ulcer and parasite control, and a better understanding of how each can contribute to a healthier horse has resulted in diets that are far improved over typical diets of the past. We know today, that the answer to a proper diet for your horse is one that safely and properly fits the entire digestive system.
To accomplish this, the diet should provide roughage as the base source of energy, and supplement any additional needs in a way that allows and encourages efficient roughage digestion without interference or disruption. Additional nutritional needs, beyond that provided by the roughage, should be met with concentrates that have the least amount of impact on the normal function of the digestive system. This allows the entire digestive system to remain fully functional and eliminates road blocks to the more complete digestion of the diet that the horse consumes.
Lower starch, higher fat feed concentrates can provide additional digestible energy at inclusions of less than two pounds per day. These energy dense concentrates fit better in the digestive system and are less disruptive than the typical higher feeding rates of their "traditional" higher starch counterparts. Keeping excess undigested starches and sugars from concentrate feeds out of the hind gut allows a more consistent environment for digestion and efficient hind gut function. The result is more complete digestion of the roughage, a better balanced hind gut environment and, as a result, a better functioning immune system. This more holistic approach reduces colic risk and behavioral issues and their corresponding vet bills.
Let's assume that you are feeding a diet that fits the digestive system properly. There are still several important considerations needed to achieve a positive result.
First, we have to start at the start. That is at your horse's teeth. A horse needs to be able to properly chew for any component in the diet to be digested efficiently. Horses that have teeth issues that prevent it from comfortably chewing any of its diet completely will be at a great disadvantage when it comes to making the nutrition from that part of the diet available.
Properly chewed food, of whatever type, has more surface area for the digestive process to work on, thereby increasing digestive efficiency by releasing more nutrition to be absorbed. In working with horse owners every day, I find poor teeth condition to be the single most often neglected road block to utilizing an otherwise effective diet.
Having a proper diet that fits the horse, along with properly cared for teeth to chew that diet, is an important start to the overall management of your horse's health. Next month part II of this series will cover parasite control, vaccinations and sand colic prevention as we continue outlining a management program for a healthier horse and a healthier wallet.
Author Win Wolcott is president of the Phoenix Company, LLC.