Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I hate to sound silly, but what does my pony eat?

It may sound silly to some people but honestly, if we hadn't left our first barn and joined pony club, I don't think I would have any idea how to answer this question.  The day we changed barns, the owner of our old barn gave me a great list of everything the new barn would need to know and that was when I realized how little I knew about our pony.  I had no clue what any of it meant.  I'm pleased to say I now know exactly what our pony eats and I am the one who decides what to feed him (with lots of help from people who know what they're doing).  It isn't that difficult once you get your head around the basics.

The most important component to a horse's diet is forage or roughage - grass or hay.  Some horses in some climates live outside in grassy pastures all the time and graze.  That is often their only form of sustenance.  Lucky horses!  

Because we have developed an artificial lifestyle for our horse athletes, we usually need to supplement their forage with concentrates - usually grain.

Succulents are the fun, "healthy" treats we like to give horses such as apples, carrots and fresh grass.  They are a treat and should be given to reward good behavior and not given in excess.

And lastly, just like humans, our modern, artificially kept horses often take supplements - think of them as vitamins.  Technically, supplements fall under concentrates but I order them separately and for beginners like us, they are easier to comprehend on their own.

So those are the basics.  Now for the nitty gritty.

Horses have enormously long intestines and food takes about 3 days to make it's way through their bodies.  It is important that they eat very little, very frequently.  Horses need more food than ponies.  Concentrates can be high in sugar and make ponies very excited - just like a child gets hyped up on cupcakes and ice cream at a birthday party.  

According to my pony club daughter, roughage feed includes hay (varieties include timothy, clover, bermuda, alfalfa), grass, hay pellets, range cubes and sugar beet pulp.  Hay pellets, range cubes and sugar beet pulp must be soaked before feeding.  They expand in water so if you feed them dry, they will expand in the horse's stomach and can cause their stomach to explode.  Which leads me to inform you of the fact that horses cannot vomit.  Therefore, what goes in stays in unless removed surgically. 

Horses eat hay all day and all night.  They need this to keep their digestion moving.  How much they eat depends on size.  Hay is given at our barn first thing in the morning (6am?), they are then turned out with hay after their grain (if they get grain), given hay again around noon, 2:00, 5:00 and 9:00pm.

Horses have very sensitive systems.  When there is a change in hay, they can react badly.  Therefore, when any change is made, it should be made slowly.  When we go away for a couple of days we travel with our own hay.  If we are away for a week we may bring 2 bales and mix it with the new hay for a few days before changing over completely.  Then we have to do the same thing in reverse upon our return home.

Concentrates are the means we use to control our horses weight and nutrition.  Depending on your hay, your horse may not be getting all the nutrients he needs.  There are a million different products out there to combat this problem.  Many brands have comparable grain products and most barn managers know a reasonable amount about the grains they feed.  Grain is usually fed twice a day, morning and late afternoon at our barn.  Our pony didn't get any grain or supplements prior to living with us but we now feed him a tiny amount of MVP in the morning.  MVP is a pellet form vitamin.  It gives him some nutrition and something fun to eat in the morning.  It also gives us something to mix with his supplements which come in powder form.  We give him supplements for his digestion because he's kind of gassy.  There are so many products and it is all incredibly confusing.  Find someone who really knows what they are doing to help you figure out what your pony needs.  He likely doesn't need anything!

On the topic of supplements, for people like us who have one pony and embrace convenience,
SmartPaks are a great thing.  You can choose whatever supplements you feel your horse needs, determine the quantity (they are very helpful with this, professional vitamin salespeople) and whether you want them in the am or pm feed.  The company then packages the supplements and ships them, usually free of charge, to your barn so whoever is doing the feeding at your barn just opens a pack each morning or evening and adds it in.  If you instead choose to buy supplements in bulk you can make up your own packs using ziploc baggies.  This is what we did with our first two ponies.  It takes quite a bit of time and was tedious.  SmarPaks are just easier for us.  That said, not every supplement is available.  Again, this is whatever works for you and your horse!

Another extremely important component of your equine diet is salt and water.  Your horse should always have a salt lick in his stall.  Take note of whether or not your horse is consuming the salt.  And horses always need an ample supply of fresh water.  This is something your barn should be providing throughout the day, especially in winter when the water buckets freeze over and need to be broken open with a hammer every few hours.

I'm sure you've heard the terms colic and founder but may not really know what they mean.  Colic refers to a twisting of the intestines.  With so much intestine floating around in their big horse bodies, horses are prone to this issue.  How you feed them can contribute to or reduce the risk of colic.  Horses should not eat concentrates just prior to or just after hard work.  A little hay is OK but if you plan to ride around grain feeding time, ask the barn to hold the grain until after you ride.  You should not ride for at least 30 minutes after grain is fed and should not give it to your horse after work until they are fully cooled down and have first consumed a little hay to get their digestive system going again.  If the weather is good and you have time to graze your horse after riding, make sure that he is fully cooled down first.  And be careful about how much grass you let him eat.  Especially in the spring time the sugar content of the grass can be very high and too much sugar can cause him to founder.

What is founder?  It is a condition of the hoof in which the coffin bone pulls away from the hoof.  I don't fully understand it but this is a pretty good article if you would like to learn more.  The thing you need to know is that too much sugar can seriously damage a horse's delicate system.  It seems strange that sugar can cause huge issues in the hooves but that is exactly what happens.  Horses' hooves are complicated and connected to their nervous systems.  Unfortunately, once a horse has these hoof issues caused by founder, or laminitis, a different but equally horrifying hoof issue, there is little that can be done for them.

We have cared for three ponies.  All three had significantly different diets and all three stayed nutritionally healthy.  All three taught me something about feed.  Our second pony had to have her hay soaked to remove dust - she had allergies.  She also had monthly allergy shots.  And she loved to eat.  She is a prime example of ponies who just love to eat eat eat and it is up to us to help control that tendency.  Our first pony on the other hand tended to be rather slim, unusual for a pony.  Our current pony is super easy.  I think he's pretty psyched to have morning grain.  We don't give him afternoon grain and unlike the horses who know it's feeding time and start making noise around 3:00pm, he is happy to eat a little hay and do some work in exchange for a yummy treat.  We've given different supplements to each pony as well.  I'm not sure if any of them do anything but it makes me feel like a good caregiver.  There are supplements out there for marsh behavior, for old age, to make their coat shiny and for anything else you can think of.  They can be very expensive and some probably are worth giving.

As with everything, make sure you have someone who can help you with knowing what to feed your pony and when.  That's the most important thing.  If you can, spend a day helping out with feeding at your barn and learn from the people who work there.  With 40 some horses at our barn it's fascinating to see all the different feed.  Some people bring in their own hay because they like feeding alfalfa or timothy.  Some horses have serious issues and need really special feed regiments.  Some guys like ours just eat what they're given and seem to thrive on anything.  Once again, horses are a lot like people.

If you care to read further on the topic, the pony club manuals have great information.  The D Level Manual is a little shorter and more simplistic and starts on page 199.  The C Level Manual is longer and goes into great detail starting on page 167.  I highly recommend reading these books if you can find the time.

Happy eating!

1 comment:

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