Should I reduce my horse's feed ration during a lay-up?

If your horse's activity level drops, you'll want to reduce his caloric intake—and consider making other management adjustments as well.

Q: I normally ride my horse three or four times a week, but due to work and family commitments, I’m not going to be able to continue that schedule for the next few months. So, my horse will have no work at all for a while. Do I need to cut back on his feed to ensure he doesn’t get overweight or develop colic during this time? How do I do reduce his feed without withholding nutrients that he needs to stay healthy?

A: I commend you for looking ahead to try to prevent the problems that might be caused by this change in your horse’s schedule. Diet plays a critical role in a horse’s behavior and  gastrointestinal health. Any change to his routine can cause stress, but reduced physical activity is a particular concern because it can lead to decreased gut motility, which in turn increases the risk of colic, particularly impaction colic.

If your horse’s activity level is reduced, you’ll want to reduce his caloric intake. But be sure to make any changes in his feed ration gradually. Photo credit: Getty Images

For sure, you will need to reduce your horse’s total calorie intake. The two main calorie sources in a horse’s diet are carbohydrates and fats. The potential effects of carbohydrates on a horse’s health depend on where they are derived—from fiber or starch. Microbial fermentation enables horses to digest fiber (grass, hay, etc.) in the large intestine, while starch is subject to enzymatic digestion in the small intestine.

If a horse ingests more starch than can be digested in the small in-testine, there’s a chance that it may reach the hindgut undigested, which can lead to colic.

In addition to protecting your horse’s digestive and overall health, you’ll want to keep your horse at a healthy weight. If he eats too much of any type of feed, he may become obese, which can make him susceptible to many problems. The basic cause of obesity is the consumption of more calories than are expended. So you’ll want to provide the nutrients he needs without excess calories.

With all of this in mind, here are my recommendations for adjusting your horse’s diet for a lay-up:

• Provide as much turnout as possible and constant access to forage. This will not only be beneficial for your horse’s digestive system but will keep him happier and reduce his risk for ulcers and other stress-related problems.

• Provide forage at regular intervals to try to mimic the natural grazing pattern of horses. Ideally, a horse’s forage ration will be a minimum 1.5 percent of his body weight on a dry- matter basis.

• Decrease the amount of concentrate feed in his ration, particularly feeds that are high in starch.

• Divide the concentrate portion of his ration into several small meals per day.

• Add a feed balancer to his ration. For idle or inactive horses, feed balancers are an ideal way of ensuring that the ration includes all the proteins, vitamins and minerals needed. In fact, I’d recommend feeding a balancer rather than a concentrate feed. This would be fed at 100-200g/100kg of body weight per day. 

• Consider feeding supplements containing prebiotics or probiotics that will help protect digestive health and increase digestive efficiency by supporting the delicate microflora of the hindgut.

• Provide access to clean water 24 hours a day.

Of course, any change to a horse’s feed ration needs to be done gradually —over a minimum of 14 days—to prevent digestive disturbances. I suggest that you consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to map  out the transition to this new feed  regimen. Also, as the season pro- gresses, weigh your horse regularly  or use a weight tape to monitor his  body weight.

Gulsah Kaya Karasu, Dr.Vet.Med. 
AGG Equine Nutrition Consulting
Van Hall Larenstein University
of Applied Sci
ences, The Netherlands