Natural Feeding for HORSES & PONIES
by holistic vet Chris Day MRCVS
Healthy horses and ponies need a healthy diet to maintain health.
Sick, injured or ill horses or ponies need a healthy diet to optimise healing capability.
Performance horses and ponies need a healthy diet for optimum performance and stamina.
Young horses and ponies need a healthy diet for optimum growth and development.
Older horses and ponies need a healthy diet to preserve their faculties and energy levels.
Horses have evolved in the prairie-type environment. We cannot wholly recreate that situation at our homes or at a livery yard, so compromises are inevitable, but we must keep it in mind when devising a diet for horses.
Horses, ponies and other equines are definitive herbivores, making them totally dependent upon fibrous forage for a healthy digestive system and metabolism. Their dentition is specialised to grind fibrous food and their very large hind gut is a massive fermentation vat, utilising bacteria for fibre and herbage digestion.
They will also browse low branches and chew tree bark.
If mineral-deprived, they will make a hollow from which they will eat clay and soil.
In the wild, they live in open grassland (plains, steppes, prairies) and roam to graze over a wide area, in family groups and herds. They are social animals with a well-defined 'peck-order'.
In any confinement (e.g. by fencing), they will create a 'latrine area', where they go to defaecate and urinate, thus leaving their main pasture area unpolluted. They are the only large domesticated herbivore to do this.
They have a large daily requirement for water, which should be clean and fresh.
Suitable foods for horses, ponies and donkeys are:
They thrive on fibrous forage, such as species-rich mature grassland and forage plants such as lucerne (alfalfa). Ground from which grass, hay, grass products and other forage are taken should not be treated with artificial nitrogen fertilisers.
Hay is better fed on the ground (the horse's natural feeding position) rather than in a suspended hay net. This may not always be practical.
Sadly, much of today's modern pastureland has been rendered poor in herbage diversity (as opposed to traditional, species-rich and bio-diverse grassland) and near-toxic to horses by artificial nitrogen application. If it has already happened, this is something beyond our control but there are ways of minimising the harmful impact of these adverse factors, which we discuss with clients on request. Avoiding doing it is best. The adverse effects on bio-diversity, nutritional value of herbage and soil quality last for many years.
A hedge, tree break or fenced-off bank can make an excellent reservoir of seeding herbs and grasses and thereby enhances biodiversity, in addition to providing valuable service as shelter and wind break.
Cooked linseed (flax seed).
Vegetables - it is good to feed fresh vegetables, preferably organic. Carrots, if fed, must be organic.
Herbs - these a good source of minerals and vitamins. The distinction between medicine and food was never so blurred as with herbs for herbivores. We are happy to make up general herb mixes for those who wish to supplement modern (impoverished and species-poor) pastureland.
Oil - cold-pressed, not solvent-extracted (e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, flax oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil).
Supplementing the diet with a mineral and vitamin supplement can be a reasonable 'insurance' against imbalance but products should be checked very carefully for unsuitable or unhealthy ingredients and additives such as cereal filler, sugar or synthetic flavourings and colourings (colourants). Manufactured vitamins, included with many manufactured feeds, may be coated with animal by-products (e.g. gelatin), which can also be included in many manufactured feeds. This is not declared on the bag or pack. There should be no need for MSM, usually a by-product of the wood-pulping industry, if a horse is fed properly.
Unsuitable food ingredients are:
In general, a horse should not require cereal grain and it may be harmful. An exception would be in the case of extreme work demand. In such cases, oats are the best cereal to feed. Warning: ground cereal can even be included in some supplements, as a cheap filler.
Haylage, silage and oven-dried grass products do not encourage the correct bacterial digestion for a horse.
Refined and semi-refined sugar materials are not at all good for horses, causing undesirable changes in the bacterial flora of the hind gut, on which a horse is so dependent for health and immunity. This includes, glucose, syrups, molasses, sucrose, dextrose etc. Warning: such sugars are very common ingredients in manufactured feeds and supplements and are often added to high-fibre diets too.
Most oils added to horse diets are cheap, solvent-extracted oils. We are unable to recommend this process or foods which contain such oils.
Grass or grass products that have been fertilised with artificial nitrogen fertilisers are not good for horses or ponies.
We are unable to advise the use of any chemical herbicide or pesticide spray on pastureland, even if the label states 'livestock safe'.
Some supplements and feeds contain milk (cow's). Logic dictates that this is NOT a horse food.
There is no place for animal-derived material in a horse's diet. This applies as well to supplements as to the main food and diet. Glucosamine and chondroitin are examples, derived from shellfish, shark, cattle or pigs. Cod Liver Oil also seems wholly inappropriate. Similarly, they should not have milk, whey, cheese or other milk product.
Feeding manufactured sweets is common but not advised. They are refined sugar and some surprisingly contain animal by-products, such as gelatin.
See also: Holistic Horse - Holistic Pony
Christopher Day has now published an eBook on Feeding Horses:
click on images
N.B.: Mr Day offers lectures (with PowerPoint Presentation) on 'Pasture Management' and 'Natural Feeding'.
At the Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre, we advise on natural feeding for every patient, whatever the species, as part of our holistic veterinary service. We do this whatever therapy or integrated programme we may be using for a particular patient (i.e. homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine (herbs - phytotherapy), chiropractic manipulation or other therapy).
This advice is based on taking the nearest wild species as a prototype and modelling a diet on the natural diet of that species in its wild habitat. We do this as the most logical course, since man's selection of breeds of domestic animal has only occurred over a very short band of time, when compared with the time that the various species have evolved on Earth and established their niches.
We believe a wholesome diet to be the firm platform on which to build good health and longevity. We also believe that many health problems in all our domestic species stem from unhealthy or unsuitable feeding.
We advise to feed fresh food and to source it from organic suppliers whenever possible, since we believe that to be the healthiest way. Every part of the body and every system of the body functions better on a natural diet.
We advise against the feeding of manufactured foods and freeze-dried foods, which variably suffer from heavy processing, adulteration, denaturing, inclusion of undesirable (and sometimes harmful) additives and vigorous commercial marketing. Such foods do not serve health and well being so much as commercial interest and profit. Furthermore, manufactured and processed feeds have only been marketed over a few decades, which is but a blink in time, so the various species cannot possibly have had time enough to evolve to handle such artificial material. Processing cannot improve food and the addition of various artificial ingredients can only give the animal's immune system and metabolism an unwanted job, to rid the body of foreign and possibly noxious material.
We apply exactly the same principles to the feeding of supplements and treats.
Make no mistake, horse foods and pet foods are BIG BUSINESS - advertising hype is driven by the promise of huge profits.
Beware the word 'natural', as it may falsely be used in advertising. For instance, how can a freeze-dried food be 'natural'?
We also advise a healthy water supply, which would not always be local tap water.
We advise against supplying animals with softened water for drinking.
N.B.: This general feeding information is based on the advice given to clients who seek our services. It is opinion. We publish this information in good faith, with the motivation of sharing experiences and improving the health, longevity and well-being of our domestic animals. We make no profit from selling feeding products via this or any other web site and are independent from all manufacturers. Equally, we single out no manufacturers or products for particular criticism. We hope that this information is of value to you and your animal but please contact us if you require further help.
This general advice is not tailored to feeding for specific illnesses, for which we would need to give more individual advice (01367 710324).
N.B.: We do not offer specific feeding advice via e-mail or telephone to non-clients.
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Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre
Stanford in the Vale
SN7 8NQ [UK]
Tel.: 01367 710324 [International: +44 1367 710324]
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