Stalling, Performance Horses, and a Healthy Gut: What you need to know
By: Mannsville Ag
What you need to know.
Picture this: it’s the middle of summer. It’s been a long, hot but productive day. You and your riding partner got some good work done horseback, but now you’re done. You pull the saddle off Ol’ Bay and kick him out on pasture for the night for some well-deserved rest. Tomorrow you will haul him into town and enter the big ropin’, but for tonight he rests. He trots out to meet his buddies, whinnies on his way, and a beautiful assortment of horses pick up their heads to greet him: some palominos, a couple grays, an honest-as-the-day-is-long-sorrel, and a black gelding that catches everybody’s eye. The warm red sun sets over the grassy hills as you gaze with pride, joy, and a sigh of deep fulfillment over the sight before you.
Isn’t this the dream for so many horse owners? But the reality is, very few horse owners have access to year-round pasture that can provide enough forage for their four-legged partners. Especially in the performance horse industry, most horses have to be stalled for part of, if not all, of their day. While stalling might look a lot different than the picturesque scene painted above, there are many things that a horse owner can do to help their horses cope with the added stress of stalling and still ensure the best horse care possible.
4 Horse Care Tips To Reduce Stress and Negative Effects of Stalling
- Feed your horses in alignment with their original design
- Horses are made to eat small meals all day long. As natural grazers, God designed their stomachs or foreguts to produce digestive acids all day long so that they can break down the forage that they would be eating all day long. Except now, in our modern-day horse care practices, convenience and the lack of pasture available mean that not all horses have access to long-stem forage 24/7. Unfortunately, even when the foregut is empty, it is still producing acid, and the foregut will get acidic if there is not constant forage available to the horse. Long stem forage keeps a fiber mat on top of that acidic liquid and is a major component of preventing ulcers. (Read more about ulcers and equine ulcer prevention here)
- Many horse owners in the performance industry see even more problems caused by the typical model of stalling and feeding twice a day. When you ride your horse on an empty stomach, the acidic liquid solution in their stomach gets essentially splashed around and up the walls of their stomach. This almost always leads to the beginning stages of ulcers or at least the equivalent heartburn.
Bonus tip: Is your horse cinchy? Being cinchy is often a massive indicator of gastric acidity. Think about how YOU would feel if you’ve had heartburn or a stomach ache all day and then someone goes poking on your belly or squeezing your ribs.
- Sometimes, free-feeding a large bale of hay is just not possible with your stalling setup. Slow bale feeders or slow feeder hay bags are a relatively inexpensive and easy fix if you cannot have a large bale of grass hay in front of your horses all the time.
For a more in-depth explanation of equine ulcers, what causes them, and how to prevent them read this blog.
- Give your horse access to plenty of fresh, clean water
- Every part of your horse’s digestive system needs your horse to be adequately hydrated to function properly.
- To some degree, it seems like it should go without saying that any horse care program would provide constant access to fresh, clean water. However, throughout the years, we’ve seen many problems that could have been easily prevented with proper hydration.
*Bonus Horse Care Tip: If your horse’s water bucket is ever empty or close to empty when you go to refill it, give them an additional water bucket to ensure they are drinking enough.
- Things like colic and choke can all be lessened or avoided altogether by having proper hydration.
- When your horse is eating a dry forage throughout the day as it should be, their mouth needs to create plenty of saliva to begin the breakdown process of the forage and act as a buffer in the naturally acidic environment of their stomach or foregut. If a horse doesn’t have enough water, then it cannot produce enough saliva. Just think about how you feel trying to eat a Saltine cracker with a dry mouth! That’s about how a horse feels trying to eat the forage that their gut desperately needs without enough water!
- Use feeds/ grains to balance your horse’s specific nutrient requirements
Most performance horses require additional nutrients to maintain peak fitness for the task at hand
- Long stem forage and whatever additional hay you feed should meet the bulk of your horse’s nutrient requirements.
Read more about grazing and hay feeding and and balance here
- How much feed your horse should get per day is based entirely on the individual animal, their metabolism, whether they are a hard keeper vs. an easy keeper, their age, and how hard they are working.
- Focus less on making your horse’s feed program convenient for you and more on designing it to fit their needs.
- By nature, stalling is more convenient for us as horse owners but is less ideal for the horse.
- Yes, it may be much less convenient to set your horse up to free-feed grass hay or to stuff a slow feeder bag full of hay, but in the long run, their gut and attitude will thank you.
Though we all dream of the picturesque pasture scene with horses knee-deep in grass, the reality is that it’s not possible for most horse owners. In fact, it’s even less likely for most performance horses that need to be ridden and practiced on every day. Many people may blame stalling and forced exercise for their horse’s gut issues/ulcers/ or general gastric upset. Still, the truth is most of the gut issues that stalled performance horses deal with could be solved by following the recommendations we discussed here.