What is your mental image of a normal horse? For the serious equestrian it may include a BCS of 4.5, a well-muscled topline, a sleek hair coat, well-groomed mane and tail, clipped face, ears and legs, sparkling white chrome and deep, lustrous color. The horse is pleasant, attentive and responsive in its stall and under saddle with quiet, respectful ground manners. When ridden, it is sure-footed, strong, supple, collected and agile.
While this may sound like the ideal performance horse, this vision doesn’t come without cost to the horse.
The lengths we go to attain this healthy, sound, successful horse are not normal for the horse biologically or socially.
- Confinement is not normal.
- Isolation from a herd family is not normal.
- Feeding grain is not normal.
- Regular, strenuous exercise is not normal.
- Trailering for hours is not normal.
- The show environment is not normal.
Horses have largely adjusted to lives of domestication, training and performance. However, equine biology has not evolved along with lifestyle. Digestive function, too, remains unchanging, thus challenged.
Just as a horse requires careful training and conditioning to gallop over fences, sliding stop or passage, sound nutritional and digestive care are foundational.
Elementary Digestive Health and Nutrition in Horses
In an ideal world, we would offer:
Little to no grain feed.
Light work only.
For many reasons, though, we either don’t, can’t or won’t manage our horses within this model.
The fact remains that these elements are what we need to ensure a higher level of well-being for our horses. Or, we at least need to take steps to counteract the negative effects when management options are limited.
Balancing Performance Needs with Health Concerns
Caring for horses, especially show horses that need to perform and compete at higher levels, is a constant balancing act.
We have good reasons to keep them stalled and isolated:
- Avoiding injury from fences, obstacles and other horses.
- Easy access for grooming, exercising, blanketing and other care.
- Protection from sun and insects.
- Personality and gender management.
- It’s easier to keep a watchful eye on them.
We feed them grain because:
- Hay or grazing alone isn’t enough for horses in training.
- It’s often cheaper and more convenient.
However, keeping horses confined by themselves, limiting forage and feeding grain are well established factors in poor digestive health. That’s, in part, why the majority of performance horses suffer from common stomach and hindgut health issues. Too often, our efforts to reduce the risk of injuries result in definite problems in the horse’s gut.
Why a Return to Natural Care is Better for Performance Horses
Let show horses be horses. Providing constant forage, increased turnout with buddies and less grain feed benefits health significantly. And in addition to the digestive and overall health benefits, it also pays in terms of trainability.
In a great article for Equus Magazine on turnout injury risk in summer, prolific writer and horse health advocate Fran Jurga shares:
“Horses with adequate turnout opportunities are often easier to control and train, a point often stressed by British dressage rider Carl Hester, who is bold enough to turn Olympic gold-medal winners out, and to even ride them on the trail.
“Turnout time may even directly benefit a horse’s musculoskeletal health; horses with turnout time had measurably superior bone density to those who stood in stalls all day.”
Other studies show that pastured horses adapt to training more quickly, as well. Here’s more reading on this topic:
- Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to initial training: the comparison between pastured versus stalled horses
- Don’t fence me in: managing psychological well being for elite performance horses
- Identifying causes and preventing injuries to horses
Aim for Better Digestive Well-Being in Horses
It may take more effort in management and additional elbow grease to let your show horses live more like horses. But the benefits for health and performance are clear.
We know that caring for performance horses is a constant and delicate balancing act. And we know that the sensitive equine digestive system can still be challenged under the best of circumstances. That’s why we created SUCCEED Digestive Conditioning Program – to support optimal digestive health for the performance horse lifestyle.
Serious horse people know the secret is the right care, the right feed and SUCCEED.