A horse's nutrition for the most part these days is largely dependent upon the experience, knowledge, but most importantly the "attitude" of its owner. Attitude plays a key factor in almost everything we do, and often determines our successes or failures in our relationships, our work and, in this case, the horses we love and care for.
As I continue to work with horse owners in helping them with balanced nutrition plans for their horses, I find that it is not so much the costs, labour or time commitment but the attitude that will often stop a good nutrition program from working successfully. Much the same as person starting a weight loss diet, people often go back to their old habits and ways of thinking because it simply is psychologically "easier" for them, but not necessarily better. Sticking with a "new way of doing things" takes a little effort and may even be a little stressful. But once "onboard", the results are amazing and you wonder why you ever did things the "old" way in the first place!
If I was to categorize horse owners in terms of their influences on their horses' nutrition, I would likely distinguish them as such: The "Under-Active" Horse Owner, The "Pro-Active" Horse Owner and The "Over-Active" Horse Owner. Let's take a look at each one and see where you fit in...
The "Under-Active" Horse Owner: Comments that I hear from horse owners in this group include: "I have been feeding cows for years, I think I know how to feed a horse!"; "My horse looks good, so I know I'm feeding him right.; "I go to the feed store and they tell me what to buy because they are the experts"; "My neighbour feeds their horses this product so I know it's good for my horse"; "My veterinarian didn't mention anything about my horse's diet so I must be doing something right"; "I know my hay is good because the producer said it was good and my horse eats it right up"; "My horse will tell me if I am not feeding him right"; "I don't need to know anything more about nutrition - the bag of feed says it is nutritionally complete"; I was told that all I have to give my horse is water, hay and oats. So that's what I do."; "There are so many feeds and supplements on the market, I find it confusing. I will just pick something and it will be just fine."; "Hay and pasture are all the same - the horse eats it anyways so there is no need to know what's in it"; "Hay analysis? What for... just a waste of money!" ; "When my horse gets laminitis or gets colic, then maybe I will take a look at things more closely", "I know everything there is to know about nutrition, my horse looks good to me."
This type of owner has a "bury-my-head-in-the-sand" approach to equine nutrition. He/she skips over the most important aspects of horse nutrition and is willing to live with the unfortunate consequences of an unhealthy horse and pay the vet bills accordingly. The owner relies on individuals who lack the expertise in equine nutrition. Did you know that approximately one third of veterinarians do not have the knowledge to give nutritional advice to clients? (1)
The "Pro-Active" Horse Owner: Comments I hear from this group of horse owners include: "I didn't know that, tell me more"; "I don't understand what that means, can you explain that again?"; "I just got back my hay analysis but I am not understanding why the iron levels are so high."; "My horse is going into training. What do you suggest for his diet?"; "How do I get my hay analyzed?"; "I am moving my horses cross country and I am concerned how their new hay and pastures may affect them in another region?"; "What measures do you suggest for spring and fall pasturing?"; "I feed my horse this feed and this supplement because I know my hay is lacking in these nutrients."; "I discuss my horse's nutritional plan with my vet because she is very knowledgeable."; "I speak to my farrier about my horse's poor hoof quality and what minerals may be beneficial"; "When is your next seminar on nutrition - I want to attend."
This type of owner is willing to learn and to listen, and engage in discussions about their horse's nutrition plan. They are keen to ask questions and will look to or even research reliable sources. They don't underestimate the importance of a good diet and the effects on their horse's health and performance. The owner is thinking ahead as they know seasonal or physical changes can disrupt a horse's sensitive digestive system. Their attitude is not related to how much they know or don't know... they are always willing to learn more and have the interest of the horse at best.
They are the decision makers, not the horse or other people that may lack the knowledge. They are not quick to make decisions but prefer to evaluate or research more before taking action. They always get their hay analyzed and know what they are feeding their horse and why, using a science based approach. Equine Nutrition is a field of "continuing education"- no one knows everything there is to know about it; this group is open to hearing about the latest research.
The "Over-Active" Horse Owner: This horse owner is opposite to the "Under-Active" horse owner and amped more than the "Pro-Active" owner. He/she is always looking for new supplements or new feeds to give to the horse - looking for that quick solution or fix. The person is reacting to marketing hype or what other's may say. This horse owner is more often than not over-supplementing their horse and not getting a true picture of their hay's nutrient profile. Their philosophy is "more is better" which can lead to mineral imbalances in the horse, and possible illness or excess amounts of nutrients in the diet. Their feed budget is excessive and they believe they are "helping" their horses. They are emotionally driven to make nutrition decisions and shy away from science/vet based information. Their horses may even be obese. Comments from this group include: "Oh I don't have to weigh the feed - I just give him a coffee can full"; "The instructions say to give only one scoop but sometimes I give him more"; "I give him as much hay as he wants"; "She looks hungry - I think I will feed her again"; "She is going to the show next week so I better give her this supplement - it says it enhances performance"; "I feed him this product because it says it is made for athletes"; "My vet said to feed him only this much hay but it's hardly anything! Poor thing, it's like starving him!"
What Your Attitude Means To The Horse and Your Budget:
For both the Under and Over-Active Horse Owners, horses often have diets that are incomplete in some way: either excess or deficient in nutrients like energy, protein, minerals and vitamins essential to good health. In fact, a mineral imbalance can further affect a horse's health. Minerals that need to stay in balance include Calcium and Phosphorous; Iron, Manganese, Zinc and Copper. Horses in these two groups may have behavioral issues, be prone to laminitis, ulcers, colic, obesity and metabolic issues, as well as be either over or under weight. Horses also may be poor performers and may have digestive issues. Outward appearances may include: poor coat and hoof condition, lackluster coat, dull appearance, low energy, thinness or obesity. Horses may have already developed certain stereotypies such as cribbing. If the horses are in good health, it may be short lived and other issues surface. Owners can expect higher than usual veterinarian costs and if Over-Active, then much higher feed costs than necessary. Feed or supplement choices are "guessed" at and owners are often left uncertain and confused.
For the owner who has the Pro-Active Attitude, horses tend to be in good weight, which is monitored regularly. The horse has a "natural" glow - bright eyed, interested, good coat and hoof quality. The horse has no stereotypies, is energetic and overall healthy. If any major health issues are found, owners tend to deal with the issue right away with veterinary advice, seeking the root of the problem so that it can be dealt with effectively. As a result horses will bounce back quickly to good health. Good health remains stable in this type of horse. The owner can expect good to excellent performance consistently from this horse as well. The horse is healthy from the inside out and can deal more effectively with stresses and seasonal changes than the other two. Being pro-active "pays off" with minimal vet calls and a reasonable feed budget to meet the nutritional needs of the horse - feeding only what the horse requires. The owner pays a minimal amount (less than $50.00) to get a hay analysis done to verify if the hay is of good quality and that it is the right hay for their horse's activity level and health. By doing this the owner saves money in the long term - cost of good quality hay is usually always less than the cost of feed + supplements. A low-nutrient hay requires more feed and supplements to balance it to the horse's nutritional needs. The owner uses a ration balancing software (such as Feed My Horse Equine Nutrition Software) to maximize benefits and ensure a balanced diet. He/she may choose to discuss the final diet plan with their veterinarian for approval. In this group there is very little confusion, frustration or uncertainty when it comes to their horse's nutrition.
Well there you go.... some food for thought! Regardless of where you are at with your horse nutrition attitude, feel free to ask questions ... and keep on learning!
Superior Equine Health and Nutrition, Inc.
The articles contained in this column are for the purpose of education and are not intended to take the place of proper veterinary care. They may be used in conjunction with such care to facilitate healing and maintain health of the horse.