Ask most people what they think of when you mention feeding a horse and that answer will be resounding - 'grass'! In the wild, horses browse; grazing constantly and eating only the best grass shoots. Their digestive systems have developed to perform best when full and working constantly, and domestication - in other words, stabling and work, has meant their diets have had to adapt to suit both their need for high-quality forage and the energy requirements of the work they are doing.
As with all animals, horses feed to maintain condition, repair damage and to give them energy for exercise. As the horse is a grazing animal and has evolved to manage a constant intake of food it comes as no surprise that they have physiological and psychological need to feed regularly.
With such a large and complex digestive system, maintaining the balance of bacteria in the gut and its overall performance it crucial. Horses cannot vomit or burp and any gas that builds up has to be expelled at the other end. If that end is full of compacted material because the bacteria has become imbalanced due a sudden change in diet or a lack of good forage, this can lead to complications such as a twisted gut or colic - both of which are deadly.
As herbivores, the basis of any horse's diet should be forage - this can be fresh grass, hay or haylage. Plenty of roughage ensures the gut is always filled, as would be the case in the wild. Digestion also produces heat which keeps the horse cosy from the inside out, so access to plenty of forage when temperatures plummet is also a good idea. Many owners feed forage on an 'ad lib' basis but any concentrate feed should be given little and often.
Most horses in work will require extra 'hard' or concentrate feeds, to boost their energy levels, and these should be offered as small meals two or three times a day, always at the same time. Horses are creatures of habit; they enjoy routine and have very, very good memories. If you forget a feed you will know about it!
It's vital, if your horse is in medium to hard work, that you know what to feed in addition to forage. Horses in light work will probably require nothing more than a vitamin and mineral supplement, however pony club; competition or hunting horses will require something more.
In the past, mixing feeds required skill and precision as they were made from scratch from a number of raw materials. However there is now a multitude of ready made products on the market designed for everything from a racehorse to a companion animal, and more besides.
Most feed companies offer free advice on nutrition and some will even visit your yard to meet both you and your horse, however do remember they are there to sell their feed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the advice would be to shop around and consult knowledgeable friends, instructors or your vet if you are unsure.
Please note - horses should not be worked hard until 2-3 hours have elapsed since their last hard feed.
To help you work out your particular horse's nutritional requirements it's advisable to fat score your equine friend. This involves performing an examination of the horse using a fat scoring chart (these can be found online). By following the guide and scoring your horse for each part of its body, you will end up with a number and this will tell you whether the animal needs to lose, gain or maintain weight. A weight tape will also give you an idea of your horse's weight.
Just like a human, if your horse needs to gain or lose weight, his intake of energy (calories) will need adjusting and your vet or feed supplier can advise on this. Similarly if the horse is about to start work or is having some time off, his diet will need revising to suit his new energy requirements.
It's also wise to consult your vet before any dietary changes are made and to introduce such changes gradually to allow the gut bacteria to adjust.
Sounds funny doesn't it? But it's a very serious problem. Overweight horses are more prone to bad behaviour and illnesses like colic and laminitis, which can end in death in serious cases. In fact, the Blue Cross deemed the problem so severe they launched the 'Fat Horse Slim' campaign to raise awareness of the issue with horse owners across the UK.
The charity states that last year approximately 40% of all of the horses it rescued were overweight or obese and now their website and helpline is the first port of call for worried owners who feel their horse might be overweight.
Horses are notoriously picky and will reject foods they don't like or feed offered in dirty buckets or nets. You will soon learn what your horse will and won't tolerate and their likes and dislikes. Some horses will do anything for a polo, while others will turn their noses up at a minty treat. Some will happily scoff from a mucky bucket, while another would rather starve!
It's also nice for your horse to eat something succulent every day - this could be apple, carrot - even fresh herbs, and will add moisture and variety to his diet, particularly in winter when good grass is scarce. Supplements can also be offered and popular dietary additions include oils (linseed and cod liver are common choices) for glossy coats and joint support, garlic for its antiseptic and fly repelling properties and seaweed as a general multivitamin and mineral supplement and to improve hoof quality.
Also, it's important to carefully monitor the energy foods offered to your horse - too many oats and you could find you have a fizzy horse on your hands, too little and his work will suffer.
Probably the most important element of your horse's diet is water. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times either in flexible buckets or automatic drinkers in the stable or in a trough in the paddock.
Water levels should be closely monitored, as should any automatic drinking equipment to ensure liquid is flowing freely. Water should be placed at an appropriate height for all horses needing to access the supply, including foals.
Horses in hard work or hot weather - or both - will require lots of water and in winter frozen surfaces should be broken and any ice shards removed. It's vital any pipes - hoses or those connecting automatic drinking systems - are checked in winter to ensure they aren't frozen.