Seems like an odd heading for someone who despairs at seeing overweight animals struggle to do their jobs, however, bear with me on this one!
As some of you may know there have been many challenges getting Fox back to health, one of those have been his inability to keep weight on and to keep him warm, I’ve never known such a cold horse.
When he first arrived he would burn through calories due to being on a heightened state of alert, with his adrenalin levels through the roof (read about that here). He also had stomach issues, he would chew wood, show clear signs of stomach pain if hungry (our field at the time had very poor grass, especially in winter), wind suck, grind his teeth, act “wild” and would refuse to be caught or became difficult to handle. These are all clear signs of a horse being driven mad by pain, most probably, stomach ulcers.
His digestive system seemed to be in a state of stress (because he himself was stressed) and it was difficult to keep weight on him because of this. Last summer we moved to a much better field, and along with lowering his stress levels and feeding to keep his system free from pain, his digestive system has actually become more efficient. He now comes in some nights during the summer to have hay, this really settles his stomach down, as too many days out on grass can cause some inflammation. He has a handful (literally) of Timothy Chop (very low calorie grass based, molasses free, chop made from a low sugar grass variety.) with vitamin and mineral supplement, and grass in the day time.
So how did we achieve this? First, I should say that if you are experiencing any of these problems with your horse then you should speak to your vet about it, we decided not to go down the scoping and antibiotics route for the ulcers as we could see that simple management made him more comfortable and was not necessary.
First he got ad lib hay in winter, being hungry would cause a flare up of his signs, so it was imperative to keep something fibrous in his system at all times. In spring and autumn when the grass is rich and growing quickly, this can also cause issues with horses that have ulcers, so we offered him hay or meadow grass blocks to help line his stomach.
If you are riding your horse make sure you give some hay (half a section would be fine) or some non molassed chaff of some type BEFORE you ride and never ride on completely empty stomach. Although new research has immerged that chaff with “sharp” ends may cause mechanical damage (scratching) to the stomach wall, if the horse already has ulcers or inflammation of the stomach lining, this may exacerbate the problem.
Fibre forms a matt over the acid layer and prevents it from damaging the sensitive tissues that surround the top third of the horses stomach. Doing this will prevent your horse from getting crabby when ridden and prevent the ulcers or inflamed stomach lining from getting worse. NEVER feed pony nuts or any type of mix before riding, even if they say they are high fibre, in fact if your horse has stomach issues you should avoid feeding these at all. If your horse competes, there are other ways to get a higher energy fibre based food or balancing these with small amounts of cereal, speak to an equine nutritionist.
I also used liquorice powder as a supplement, this has mucilage properties, coating and soothing the digestive tract, it also has been shown in laboratory tests to kill some of the bacteria that are responsible for the continuation of stomach ulcers (in humans).
A word of warning when using liquorice, or slippery elm, or marshmallow root, that they are very high in sugar, which is what gives them their mucilage properties so only feed a teaspoon full twice a day for five days or a week, and don’t ride during this time as your horse may become a hyped up monster, don’t worry, stopping the supplement will reverse this. We found that Fox was particularly susceptible to its effects so I prefer to warn people who may try it. Horses with intolerance to sugar due to laminitis, cushings or metabolic disorder should use these webs with caution.
When he needed higher energy food in the winter, to keep weight on, we found that feeding non molassed sugar beet (thoroughly soaked of course) and Alf Alfa chop or Alfa and straw mix (all non molassed) to be a great conditioning feed which prevented inflammation in his gut, we ended up swapping the Alfa for the Timothy Chop because his field mate was allergic to the Alfa. Grass nuts were given instead, if the timothy chop wasn’t keeping enough weight on him with the addition of micronised linseed meal if the weather was really nasty. Although this last winter he kept his weight great being fed only adlib hay in the stable, non molassed sugar beet, linseed meal and the occasional meadow grass block on very cold days.
This consistent regime over the course of 3 years has turned a skinny, wind sucking, lunatic into a fat, content, calm and happy horse. This spring/summer will be the job of keeping the weight off!