Dennis H. Sigler, Ph.D.
F-R-M Horse Nutritionist and Consultant
Extension Horse Specialist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Texas A&M University
Basic Health Care
Proper health care and nutrition of the horse is vitally important. Whether considering a show horse or working ranch horse, in order for them to do their job and for overall well-being of the horse, they all must be healthy.
Horses should be on a routine deworming and vaccination schedule and a sound nutritional program. Owners should consult with their local veterinarian as to which vaccinations are currently recommended for the intended use and for their area of the state. Veterinarians also can provide important information about health requirements for hauling horses to events, sales or hauling out of state. Since other states’ requirements change quite frequently, it is recommended to consult your local veterinarian any time you anticipate hauling out of state. Helpful hints for health care management also are available from Texas AgriLife Extension Animal Science publications (Scott, 2008).
Above all else, horses should appear bright, alert and full of energy. Trying to starve down a young horse so that they are easier to manage or easier to ride, is a poor substitute for good horsemanship and training. Regardless of their intended use, horses should never be intentionally starved in order to alter their behavior. Feed them properly for the level of work they are asked to do and then spend the time to train them properly. Short cuts will only lead to lethargic, ill-mannered horses that resent all riding or work activity.
Teeth care also is vitally important. All horses require routine tooth care and maintenance to prevent sharp edges from causing irritations during eating and/or riding. Making certain that the horse is in good health before beginning a training or riding program will reap many benefits later on. Young horses should be checked for the presence of “wolf teeth”, which are the small, sharp teeth that erupt in front of the first premolar on the upper jaw. These teeth serve no purpose and they may cause the horse discomfort in carrying a bit. This may lead to behavioral problems during training. Wolf teeth are easily extracted by an equine veterinarian, and all yearlings and 2-year-olds should be examined before training begins.
The importance of a good, balanced nutritional program for the show horse, performance horse or ranch horse cannot be overlooked. Proper early development should start even before the foal is born. A complete, balanced nutrition program for the broodmare, especially during the last 90 days of gestation helps assure that the foal gets off to the right start. Mineral intake is critical. Mares which are on pasture and are not supplemented with adequate high-quality, balanced concentrate should be provided with a free-choice, loose mineral containing approximately 10 to 12% Ca and P at a 1:1 ratio. Adequate protein intake for the broodmare, likewise, helps assure adequate skeletal development in foals during the later stages of pregnancy. Do not assume that all winter pastures are going to provide all the nutrients needed for optimal fetal development during late pregnancy.
Once the foal is on the ground, nutrition becomes even more important. Skeletal growth is primarily comprised of three major components, protein, Ca and P. These nutrients should be provided in proper ratios to the caloric intake to assure that needed nutrients are available for the level of energy the horses are consuming. The energy level basically determines how fast the young horse is trying to grow. If adequate protein and minerals are not available as compared to the level of energy in the diet, horses will simply get fat, with a compromised skeletal structure. This can be disastrous as the horses become heavier and their skeleton is not equipped to handle the added weight, especially when they enter the training program. Protein intake will affect growth rate more than any other nutrient. Therefore, adequate attention needs to be paid to the daily amount and the quality of the protein intake. Young horses actually require specific amino acids, not intact proteins. Therefore, horsemen should pay particular attention to amino acid balance, especially lysine, threonine and methionine. Basically, if horses receive a high-quality protein source such as soybean meal to supply the daily protein needs, the horse will receive adequate levels of these essential amino acids. An 18 month-old growing horse needs about 1.8 lbs of crude protein per day to meet their growth requirements (NRC, 2007). A faster growing yearling may need more protein. If a long yearling is also in training, they need about 1.9 lbs per day.
Ca and P also are required in adequate quantities and in proper ratios for optimum skeletal growth to occur. The basic requirements for an 18 month-old yearling for Ca and P are 37 g and 20 g respectively. Ca:P ratio in the total ration (including hay) should be around a 1.5:1. Since grass hay normally contains about 0.4% Ca and 0.2% P, a concentrate formulated to be fed with grass hay would obviously require a higher level of both Ca and P, with a closer Ca:P ratio. If feeding alfalfa hay (which contains Ca levels as high as 1.5 to 2.0%), Ca and P levels in the concentrate should be adjusted so that the ratio in the total ration does not exceed 2:1. Some trace minerals such as Cu, Zn and Mn also are involved in skeletal growth. A complete and balanced feeding program which provides recommended levels of all trace minerals is crucial to healthy growth and development of the young horse.
As a horse begins a training program, bone remodeling is initiated and protein, Ca and P levels in the diet should be increased accordingly. Research has demonstrated that bone remodeling takes place in the young race horse at about 50 to 60 days of training. It has been suggested that by increasing the level of nutrition in the diet prior to this remodeling phase, the chance of injuries to the developing young performance horse may be reduced.
Nutritional status undoubtedly plays a major role in bone integrity during the early stages of training. Given the investments currently being made in young equine athletes, it is simply not advisable to skimp on the nutritional program. Not only will malnutrition compromise skeletal development, it may limit muscular development and repair. It also will compromise the immune system of the horse, which could further reduce the number of days the horse can stay in training, due to illness.
The primary nutritional concern for the mature riding horse is for total caloric intake, or energy. Anytime a horse does any type of physical work, they burn energy and that energy must be replaced in the diet. In comparison, a mature riding horse, which does one hour of hard exercise per day, requires about twice as much digestible energy in the diet as the mature horse at maintenance. This means that the diet of the exercising horse must contain some high energy feedstuffs such as grain or added fat. Supplementing the diet with additional fat is an excellent way to provide needed calories without the danger of carbohydrate overload and without creating the “sugar high” that some horsemen want to avoid. Even in the mature horse, it is important to feed a balanced diet and to be sure horses receive adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, including salt. The easiest way to assure that the diet of the horse is balanced is to select a concentrate mix which has been formulated for the exercising horse and the type of forage or hay being used in the diet. Owners should pay attention to the horse’s body condition score (BCS) to monitor their energy needs. Ideal BCS for a riding horse is about a 5 or 5.5. If BCS remains constant as the horse is being ridden, their energy needs are being met. Adjustments can then be made in the hay:concentrate ratio to meet the horse’s energy needs. Horses should always receive a minimum of 1% of body weight in hay or roughage and any adjustments to the diet need to be made gradually over a 2 to 3 week period. Total intake of hay and concentrate normally should be between 2 to 2 ½% of body weight, with at least half of that being hay or roughage.
Foot Care and Shoeing
Foot care cannot be overlooked in considering the overall care and management of the riding horse. Proper foot care not only reduces the chance of developing unsoundness, but better equips the horse to do his job. A good balanced nutritional program is paramount to good overall hoof health. Maintaining cleanliness, moisture balance and overall balance in the foot are also essential to maintaining a healthy hoof and proper hoof function. Spending a little extra time in daily foot care is well worth the time investment. If you don’t do your own trimming and shoeing, spend a little extra money and hire the best farrier you can find.
Saddle fit and comfort play a major role in allowing the horse to do his job to the best of his ability. A sore back created by an ill-fitted saddle will cause a horse to try to adjust their stride, how they stop, turn or otherwise move in order to try to get away from the pain. This will eventually lead to behavioral problems, soreness, lameness and other characteristics which will keep the horse from performing up to par. Saddles which may otherwise fit, but don’t allow the rider to get in balance with the horse or to help the horse better do his job, may also create some of the same problems. Be aware of how a saddle fits each horse, especially in the wither area and in the loin, and how the rider sits in that saddle, in relationship to the horse’s center of balance. It is also important to use good quality pads, keep them clean and keep all other tack such as cinches, clean and in good repair.
A healthy show horse has to feel good on the inside and outside. A good health care program, adequate and balanced nutrition, foot care, good saddle fit and proper conditioning of riding horses are all essential parts of complete show horse management. Short cutting any one of these areas will result in lost time in training and a poor performance in the show ring. With the cost of maintaining your horse and value of horses, it pays dividends to devote a little extra attention to the daily care and management of these horses. In those cases where these horses also may play an essential role in day-to-day ranch operations, having sound, healthy horses ready to go each and every day can affect the bottom line and improve the overall efficiency of the ranching operation.
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