Feed by weight, not by volume

Juan Valdez method of feeding.

The coffee can is one of the most common measurement tools for scooping out grain. However the “Juan Valdez” method needs to be supported by a knowledge of density and calories.

Most of the time when you ask someone how much they feed their horse, they answer in terms of quarts — or coffee cans. It’s an easy way to measure when scooping it out of a bin, but unless you take feed density into account, it’s a highly variable strategy. You will always end up using a volume measurement (it’s easy) but you also need to understand what that volume contains. After all the reason for feeding grain is to 1) ensure your horse’s nutritional requirements are covered and 2) add additional calories if forage isn’t enough.

Years ago I had a thoroughbred mare who always looked a bit too thin to my eye. Finally I brought in a nutritionist to evaluate my regime and explained that I was feeding her six quarts/day of Vintage Victory. What, I asked, should I add to her diet to keep her round and shiny.

I give the guy credit for not rolling his eyes. “Feed her more of it,” was his answer. He went on to explain that while this was a good feed, it was low density. A coffee can/quart weighted less than a pound (0.95). A pound of it contained 1550 calories. In comparison, the Purina Strategy I fed my other horse, weighted 1.25 lbs per quart. and although it contained a similar number of calories per pound, I was feeding my mare fewer calories by serving up the same volume. I thought I was feeding my horse plenty of food but in fact, I was short changing her.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend about her horse, who looked a bit skinny. Now, he was skinny when she bought him, but going into a New England winter, he still looked like he needed groceries. She told me the barn was feeding him six quarts/day of Sentinel LS. Now, this is a very good feed but has the same issue as the Vintage Victory. A quart of it weighs only .85 lbs and contains 1635 calories. That means that six quarts of feed is 5.1 lbs and 8, 338.5 calories.

In comparison, she had been feeding her other horse six quarts/day of Purina Ultium. A quart of Ultium weighs 1.3 lbs and contains 1900 calories. Six quarts is 7.8 pounds and contains 14,820 calories. Quite a difference!

While she thought the first horse was getting plenty of feed, there’s actually a difference of almost 6,500 calories/day from what she’s feeding the second horse.

For many horses, six quarts of Sentinel LS or Vintage Victory would be enough — the 5.1 lbs is at the low range of the recommended feeding level for nutritional content, so if a horse can hold its weight on that amount, it’s fine. Zelda, for example, is an air fern. She gets 2 quarts/day of Triple Crown Lite (1.42 lbs/quart and 1,150 calories/pound) and  1 quart of Enrich 32 (1.25 lbs/quart and 1,500 calories/lb). That’s a grand total of 5,410 calories in grain but since she doesn’t need the calories, it’s an efficient way to meet her nutritional needs (she gets free choice grass hay).

Thoroughbreds often need more calories to keep their ribs covered but at the same time, you don’t want to fill them with rocket fuel. Freedom currently gets 6 quarts/day of Triple Crown Senior (1.08 lbs/quart and 1,546 calories/pound) for 10, 018 calories of grain. In addition to that he gets 2 quarts of Alfalfa pellets (1,940 calories) and 1.5 cups of cocosoya oil (2,910 calories). So before he starts eating his free choice hay, he’s getting 14,868. While that’s almost exactly the same number of calories as feeding 6 quarts of Ultium, he does better with a lower starch feed.

You can read about the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content of feeds and see more comparisons of feed density and calories in this post: Calories, densities and NSC content: understanding different feeds.

Most of the time you can find the weight of a feed per quart and the calories per pound on line. If they are not posted, you can weigh a baggie containing a quart of feed on a food or postal scale, or email the feed company. Remember that not all horses need the same number of calories and that not all calories are created equal. Some horses do not do well on feeds that are high in starch/sugar and some horses do better on more densely caloric feeds (they don’t eat large volumes or they need a lot of calories/day).

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What supplements does your horse need?

Open any tack store catalog or website today and you will find a plethora of supplement options. Is your horse a bit creaky? There are joint supplments for every stage of life and almost every budget. Horse need to gain weight? There are fat supplements promising “cool calories”. Horse a bit exciteable? Not to worry, there are calming supplements.

Hope in a bottle (or a bag) is a very appealing concept. And the price for that hope is commensorate with the intended results. It’s easy to end up spending many dollars/day on products that are meant to supplement your horse’s regime. In fact, this is an industry that has perfected the marketing guilt message. Your horse would feel/look/behave so much better if you just fed him this product.

Case in point. Smartpak (don’t get me wrong, I love Smartpak for many reasons and shop there all the time, but they are the masters of marketing)  has a supplement selection guide. If you answer their questions, they recommend what might work for your horse.

In the spirit of curiosity, I tried it. There are enough questions involved that it feels thorough and you feel invested in the process. The survey asks you about your horse’s age, breed, work load, turnout schedule, type of forage fed, overall stiffness, tendency toward ulccers, etc. Some of the questions don’t have the answers you want to give. There’s not enough nuance.  But I filled it out to reflect Freedom as a healthy 14  year old TB with a moderately heavy workload who is turned out 24/7, has good hooves, no skin problems and is a bit of a hard keeper and suffers from some anxiety. As a horse that raced until he was six, with 28 starts, I also worry about wear and tear on his joints.

The program gave me three recommendations:  basic support ($3.10/day), enhanced support ($4.53/day) and comprehensive support ($3.85/day).

The comprehensive package included

Joint supplement
Weight supplement
Calming supplement
Insect control supplement
Digestion aid
Vitamin E for immune support

Let’s think about this. That’s six supplements in addition to a balanced diet (I feed 7 quarts/day of Triple Crown Senior). I think that’s where you do a sanity check and remember that in this case, SmartPak is in the business of selling supplements.

I’m not anti supplements, I just have a limited budget — $197/month is more than I can spend and the low end package, which comes in at $86.90/month, is just for Smartflex III Resiliance and Weight Gain.

I prefer to look at the whole feeding regime and make sure that everything is balanced before I add anything specific. For example, feeding more grain or more forage may be the best way to add weight to your horse. I also like to feed flax seed as it helps add calories and good omegas — which in turn helps hoof and hair growth and may even help with joint mobility. I like to look at blood analysis to see if there are deficiencies before adding a vitamin or a mineral — it’s too easy to end up feeding too much of one thing and not enough of another.

I actually do feed Freedom vitamin E but only after my vet did a blood panel on him (when I was testing him for Lyme). I’m not sure it makes sense to feed the additional Vitamin E unless there is a deficiency.

For joints, my preference is to start with straight MSM, which is less than $0.35/day. I don’t have a problem with going to a more expensive solution if that doesn’t work, but the jury is still out on feed through supplements. I feed CortaFlx to Freedom because Chemphar has published some research that shows improvements to horses and because it’s pretty inexpensive — only a bit more than $0.50/day.

I do like SmartDigest. I had Freedom on SmartDigest Ultra while I was treating him for Lyme and I definitely think it helped him hold his weight better.

I’m on the fence about calming supplements. I believe that magnesium can help if, and it’s a big if, your horse is deficient in it. Otherwise, I think there’s not much evidence that they help. For my own horse, calmness is a direct result of wet blanket therapy. The more I ride him, the better he goes.

I may try a feed through insect control supplement this summer. Freedom is really bothered by bugs. I’m still weighing the pros of minimizing bugs with feeding a chemical to my horse. I may try fly predators instead.

To be worth the investment ($6.85/day is $2300/year) I need to either see a clear benefit or have a lot of faith. I’m encouraged that SmartPak offers a money back guarantee of you don’t see results from their SmartPak line, but wonder how many people just want to believe that the magic powder really makes a difference.

What are your thoughts on supplements? What do you feed? Or why do you choose not to feed them?

 

A study of one on the benefits of probiotics

SmartDigest Ultra

One scoop a day of SmartDigest Ultra has helped Freedom gain weight.

Until Freedom was diagnosed with Lyme I hadn’t given much thought to probiotics as a supplement. But dosing him with Doxycyline for six weeks had the potential of causing ulcers . . . or colic. Antibiotics kill off the good bacteria in a horse’s gut and it’s important to replace them.

So, off I went to SmartPak to check the clearance section. It’s my favorite place to purchase any kind of supplement since I don’t care about damaged packaging or other small defects.

Sure enough, they had a large container of SmartDigest Ultra at 50% off. This was a supplement that normally costs $212 for 7.5 pounds! I read the description:

SmartDigest Ultra provides support for the entire gastrointestinal tract, from stomach to hindgut! Its unique formula includes probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, targeted herbs, L-Glutamine, soluble fiber, and Oat Beta Glucan. This innovative combination of ingredients was specially designed to support the health and function of the digestive tract. SmartDigest Ultra is an outstanding choice for any horse prone to digestive upset and those under stress from training, travel and competition.

It had to be the best way to protect Freedom’s delicate digestive system, so I bought it.

He came through his course of antibiotics without any problems and I still had a huge amount of the probiotic in the tub. So I’ve kept feeding it. You actually use only one small scoop per day, so 7.5 pounds lasts a long time.

A few weeks ago, I noticed an unexpected — and positive — side effect. Freedom has gained weight. In the late summer/early fall he had been looking ribby. Now, looking past his furry winter coat, he’s a really good weight! I’m feeding him a bit less that I usually do and he’s holding his weight very nicely, something that’s not always a given during the winter.

So, I guess the probiotics are actually helping his digestive system to get more nutrition from his rations. He’s looking really good too — shiny and healthy.

I wasn’t planning to purchase more when I used up the bucket, but I’m reconsidering. After all, if I find it on sale again, it’s not quite so expensive and I after all, I’m saving money on the rest of his feed.

Leading your horse to water and making sure he drinks!

Horses need access to water throughout the year.

Hydration is critical to a horse’s health. If they don’t drink enough water one of the results can be colic — water is extremely important to their digestive system. In the winter horses keeping horses hydrated can be a problem because they just don’t drink as much when it’s cold.

Luckily there are several tricks you can use to encourage water consumption. Since horses are all different you might need to try a few before you find the one that works for your horse.
  • Try adding salt to their food. While it’s good to have salt blocks available, if your horse doesn’t lick them, they don’t work. I add a tablespoon of salt to my horse’s grain every meal to encourage him to drink more.
  • Cover your salt lick with molasses. Some people do this to encourage their horses to use their salt lick. However, some horses treat these like candy so you need to limit access to them.
  • Serve the water at a warmer temperature. Some horses just don’t like really cold water.  Heated water buckets are great if your horses are stalled. Since our horses are out 24/7 we just put tank heaters in the outside troughs. Some horses like water that’s noticeably warm to the touch.
  • Add water to everything they eat. I like to feed soupy beet pulp in the winter which I top dress with grain. It encourages additional water consumption and simultaneously reduces the chance of choke. Soaked hay cubes also work really well but the advantage to beet pulp is that (at least with the shreds) they absorb water quickly, especially if you add warm water. You can also wet hay or simply pour water over the horse’s grain. Be careful about adding water to feed that will be exposed to freezing temps, such as hay, because it can freeze and leave ice behind.
  • Make a flavored “tea” out of grain or hay cubes. Add just enough of each to flavor the water. You can also add peppermints, Kool Aid, apple juice, Gatorade, apple cider vinegar or molasses. There’s even a product made for horses called HorseQuencher.
  • Clean your buckets or buy new ones. Be careful about using bleach because it can leave a residual taste. I prefer to clean my water buckets either with Listerine or baking soda. It keeps me from bleaching my clothes inadvertently, too.
  • Float apples or apple slices in their bucket. Lots of horses like to bob for apples and they drink while they do it.
  • Move the bucket to another location. Sounds silly, but some horses don’t like to drink when they are in certain places.
  • Dip your horse’s bit in the water with his saliva still on it.

EquineProductsReview.com goes live (again)!

Several years ago I had the idea to build a product review web site for equestrian products. I noticed that equine bulletin boards were full of requests for comments on saddles, different feeds, bit choices and more. I thought it would be helpful to have all that information on one site, organized in a way that made it easy find information.

In today’s tight economy every purchase that I make for my horse undergoes extra scrutiny. If I want to buy a saddle, or try a supplement or medication, or buy a helmet, I find it very helpful to read about others’ experiences. When I looked for a site that offered this type of information, I couldn’t find anything that was like I envisioned.

Research shows that user reviews have the greatest influence in a buying decision. People value the opinions of their peers even more than single reviews by ‘experts.’ That makes quite a bit of sense because with items such a saddles, personal preference plays a large role in someone’s satisfaction. I’m usually leery of testimonials on manufacturers’ websites, too.

I spent a year researching review sites and thinking about how I could make a site that offered a unique perspective (if you like make up and perfume, check out my favorite: www.makeupalley.com). I looked at review sites across many different industries and cherry picked the features that I thought were most compelling.

  • Rated user reviews that provide both individual comments and an overall ranking. It was important to me that you could see an aggregate “score” that spans multiple reviews.
  • A format that combines multiple reviews in a single location. I didn’t want people to have to keep “clicking” to read more reviews.
  • A broad scope of products. Rather than just focus on tack, I wanted to create a single source for the full range of products that equestrians use and need. The site addresses feeds, supplements, stable supplies, blankets, tack, equestrian clothing and even provides a place to rank on-line suppliers.
  • Articles on related topics. EquineProductsReview.com will be the new home of Equine Ink. I started Equine Ink while I was waiting for EPR to be built (which took far longer than I expected). I have found that blogging is far more fun than I had ever imagined and I actually am making it a bigger part of Equine Products Review than I had originally intended.
  • Videos. Linked into EquineProductsReview.com is a YouTube Channel that offers video reviews, information about products and extensive play lists of amazing, funny and educational equine videos.

The beta version of EquineProductsReview.com went live last September. I got a lot of good feedback and I spent time working with the site and making changes. In fact, I’m still making changes but I figured that the best strategy was to put it out and let it evolve as people use it.

I hope that my readers here will share some of their knowledge and experience on EPR. As they used to say in Chicago, vote early and vote often!

Flax Seed: How and why to feed it

These beautiful blue flowers are the signature of the flax plant.

These beautiful blue flowers are the signature of the flax plant.

I’ve been feeding my horses flax seed (also called linseed) for about a decade. I started with HorseTech’s fabulous products, first with Glanzen, their hoof & coat supplement, then moving onto one with glucosomine in it. I found that feeding a flax-seed based supplement improved their coats so that they glowed. I also liked the fact that flax seed adds Omega 3 fatty acids to the diet — the only other natural source of Omega 3s in a horse’s diet typically is fresh grass, something my horse doesn’t get enough of!

These days I feed flax as part of my horse’s overall diet. I feed it separately now mostly because when I had two horses, they had different needs: it was easier for me to customize their nutritional packages by buying individual components than finished products. Now I’m used to “building” my own supplements.

There are several benefits associated with Omega 3 fatty acids:

  • It can help reduce inflammation which may help horses with joint stiffness or arthritis.
  • It helps improve coat quality adding shine and softness.
  • It improves digestion.
  • It boosts the immune system and can help regulate thyroid function.
  • It can help reduce the chance of laminitis.

In humans, Omega 3 fatty acids improve heart health and can reduce the chance of blood clots forming in the veins, thereby reducing the chance of strokes. There have been no comparable equine studies, but hey, it can’t hurt!

Horses are able to extract the nutrients from whole flax seeds.

Horses are able to extract the nutrients from whole flax seeds.

How do you feed it?

If you do a Google search on feeding flax seed you’ll see that there are several recommended ways to feed it: ground, boiled, soaked — anything except whole seeds. Lots of sites tell you that whole seeds can’t be digested. However, that appears to be a myth. Current research shows that horses can masticate flax seeds just fine and that the nutrients were extracted from the seed hulls even if you see a few whole seeds in your manure pile.

I’ve been feeding whole flax now for about a year. Previously, I fed ground flax seed. I haven’t seen any changes in my horses so far and it’s far easier to feed it and store it. I’ve also read that there’s another benefit to feeding whole seeds: when they are eaten they form a coating in the digestive tract that helps keep the gut moving effectively.

Probably the most popular way to feed flax is ground. When you buy commercially ground flax seed it is stabilized. That’s an important point: if you grind it yourself, you need to grind it fresh for each meal. The nutrients in flax seed start to degrade very quickly if they are not stabilized and when they are exposed to heat, light or oxygen. Ground flax also goes rancid quickly so you should be very careful about cleaning the grinder very well as the remnants can contaminate new batches. Refrigeration can help extend its shelf life a few days, but you’ll still see a loss in nutrients.

People who boil or soak their flax seed often do so because they believe that otherwise the flax might contain harmful levels of cyanide, which is toxic. In truth, while the seeds do contain the two components necessary to create cyanide, they are in different parts of the seed. Ironically, it’s the contact with water that brings the two components together and causes the formation of cyanide. Soaking is actually the most dangerous way to feed flax.

Boiling isn’t a good idea because while it changes the cyanide to a gas form, removing it from the flax, it also destroys the fatty acids which is why you feed flax!

Another consideration

While cyanide shouldn’t be a concern, if you feed flax seed keep in mind that it’s calcium/phosphorous ratio is not balanced appropriately for horses. Since it is high in phosphorous you should feed either a calcium supplement or a feed high in calcium (such as alfalfa) to balance your ration.

Generally nutritionists recommend feeding 4-8 oz of flax seed per day which makes it a very low cost supplement with many nutritional benefits.

Does oral HA make a difference?

Sodium hyaluronate (HA) is a substance that occurs naturally within the joint and helps to create a cushion between bones and tissues. It’s been used successfully to treat the symptoms of arthritis in horses when injected into the joint, where it acts as a lubricant and mild anti-inflammatory.

HA is also used as an IV treatment for arthritis (Legend is the best known). When given in this way it attaches to anti-inflammatory receptors on the blood side of the joint capsule and has very strong systemic anti-inflammatory properties, but no lubricating effect.

So what about oral HA? It’s one of the most talked about ingredients in oral supplements and it is available in powdered, gel and liquid forms. It is expensive. But does it work?

It depends on who and what you believe. And also what you think it does.

When I asked my vet about it, his opinion was that oral HA is not absorbed orally. But there are a lot of people who believe strongly that it’s making a difference for their horses.

Let’s look first at the gel vs. powder or paste.

Here’s what’s written on the website for Hyaluronex, a popular HA product:

Hyaluronan must be completely hydrated to be bioavailable and absorbed.2 Further, once absorbed it must have the appropriate molecular characteristics including molecular weight to be effective.3

Hyaluronan is among natures most water-loving molecules. As a powder or pellet it slowly absorbs up to 1000 times its’ weight in water creating a thick, viscous fluid. In healthy mammals the transit time from ingestion to excretion does not provide the necessary time for hydration of this incredibly hydrophilic molecule. Research indicates that little of the High-Molecular-Weight dry forms are absorbed before excretion and that while some Low-Molecular-Weight dry forms may be hydrated and absorbed during ingestion and digestion they are not effective.3

There is also debate over whether oral dosing (squirting it into the horse’s mouth, or under its tongue) increases the efficacy compared to top dressing. The theory here is that it is more readily absorbed through mucous membranes and that if it’s top dressed it gets at least partially digested before it gets to the mucus membranes.

There is also no evidence that HA delivered orally has any direct effect on the joints, despite the claims. For example, On the Lubrisyn website, they claim that,

Lubrisyn’s purified, high molecular weight HA is rapidly and thoroughly absorbed by the body and is ideal for increasing the viscosity of the synovial fluid that cushions and protects the joints.

However, on the FAQs page, there is a statement from Lubrisyn website that states:

There have been no studies completed to date that show increases of HA in the joints after administration of an HA supplement. These types of studies are extremely invasive to the joints as well as difficult on the animal. There are existing studies that show marked improvement in animals’ mobility and performance while undergoing HA supplementation.

I did find reference to one study, conducted in the Czech republic that finds that horses given a gel-based oral HA did show results, Medicinal properties in whole foods:

Researchers in the Czech Republic have performed a number of studies on sodium hyaluronate in horses, rats and humans. The most extensive animal experience to date with hyaluronan has been with racehorses. For example,

In a study of 53 sport horses of various breeds, given oral sodium hyaluronate syrup 100mg/500kg body weight for 30 days, good to very good results were observed in multiple orthopedic diagnoses. (4)

  • Daily 100 mg doses of an oral hyaluronan gel produced higher serum levels at day 7 in 4 horses than a single IV infusion of hyaluronan in 4 comparable horses. (5)
  • The effect of 100 mg of hyaluronan as an oral gel on lameness and other orthopedic conditions in 13 actively training Thoroughbreds was notably beneficial when compared with 12 others horses serving as controls. (6)
  • A blinded study of 13 horses found a significant benefit of 20 mg hyaluronan, 5000 mg of glucosamine sulfate and 450 mg of chondroitin sulfate in accelerating recovery from arthroscopic surgery. (6)
  • Four Thoroughbreds with synovitis of the MCP joints were cured or considerably improved after 21 days of 100 mg of hyaluronan as an oral gel. Improvement was noted during the first week. (6)
  • A review of various available veterinary preparations of hyaluronan rated their effectiveness. The nutraceutical preparation was found to be noticeably effective. A commercial preparation of hyaluronan oral gel was deemed to be as effective as an IV formulation. Finally, intra-articular injections were rated high for severe disease, when accompanied by maintenance on nutraceutical preparations. (7)

Studies like this, plus the many users who report that their horses show improvement after taking an oral HA product lead me to believe that there is a positive effect that is imparted from oral HA products. In my reading for this article, my guess (and it is truly a guess) is that it works largely the same as the IV treatment: it reduces inflammation. I just can’t figure out how a feed through HA supplement can actually improve the synovial fluid in the joint. Perhaps for many horses, a system reduction in inflammation is enough. Or, as a vet that I’ve worked with said, “if you think it’s working, it probably is. But don’t hold your breath for research because it’s too expensive to conduct.”