EQUINE MANAGEMENT AND TRAINING - Fred and Rowena Cook
Retraining Racehorses, Rehabilitation, Therapy & Schooling
Email: Enquiries@equinetraining.co.uk or call 01780 740773
Our clients regularly ask for feeding advice and whilst we will happily discuss the many available options it is only logical that we will recommend what works for us. No-one can dispute that every horse that passes through this yard leaves looking an absolute picture of health with a wonderful skin, a bright eye, superb feet and is clearly very content.
We base our feeding regime on what nature intended for the horse - and that means "Feeding Fibre First". .
We believe in keeping feeding as simple as possible and working with nature. This means basing a horse's feed on fibre as it is fibre that a horse is designed to digest.
There is a huge range of fibre based products on the market but one stands out above them all - Dengie.
Love Fibre, Love Your Horse, Love Dengie
But why do we choose Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is the best and most valuable plants you could feed your horse, whatever its size, breed and level of activity.
Alfalfa ("Medicago sativa", literally translated meaning "medicinal cultivated plan"), was recognised by ancient civilisations as being of great benefit to human health and the Persians, Greeks and Romans similarly realised this but also fed it to their cavalry and chariot horses to provide strength and stamina.
Today, it is once again being recognised that Alfala (also known as Lucerne) should form the basis of the feed of every horse whatever its age, breed or workload.
So what is Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is a very leafy, bushy crop with leaves similar to clover and grows up to 3 feet (1m) in height. Related to the pea and bean family alfalfa is what is known as a "perennial legume". It has very deep, penetrating roots which can be many feet long. In these roots are "nitrogen fixing" microbes which enables the alfalfa to take nitrogen from the air and convert it to protein, negating the need for nitrate fertilizers to be applied to the growing crop. Vital minerals and trace elements essential for the plant's survival and taken up by the roots are passed on in a natural and available form to any animal which then consumes it.
A quick look at the horse’s digestive system
There are many benefits to feeding Alfalfa but first we very briefly examine how the horse has been designed to better understand such benefits:
Nature designed the horse as a herbivore, i.e. to eat fibrous vegetation of some sort, a trickle feeder i.e. eating over long periods of time and to ingest foods that were relatively low in nutritional value i.e. fibrous foods; so fibre is the most important constituent in a horse's diet after water - a horse's diet must be based around fibre intake.
A horse continually produces stomach acid for the digestion of food regardless of whether it is eating or not, but unlike us, it does not continually produce saliva to neutralise the acid; so when a horse is not eating (chewing promotes saliva production) acidity can build in the stomach which then can do harm. Fibre also soaks up the acid produced in the stomach helping to protect the vulnerable region of the stomach that doesn’t have its own built-in defence system. Hence the importance that a horse does not have long periods of time without eating something.
But why feed fibre?
It is thought that grass is actually the best, natural form of fibre a horse can have but this is not necessarily the case as grass can contain too much of certain nutrients, sugar for example, that it can cause as much harm as it can do good. Improved, lush pastures can contain high energy levels leading to weight gain and over-excitability and high sugar levels can result in laminitis. Thus some horses have to have their grazing restricted and so an alternative source of fibre is needed to keep the digestive system healthy.
The digestion of fibre takes place in the hindgut but in order to do this effectively and efficiently the horse relies of many millions of friendly bacteria which break down the fibre. This is because the horse, like other herbivores such as sheep and cattle, doesn't naturally produce the enzymes required to do this.
As a consequence of the break down of fibre the bacteria produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs) which the horse is able to utilise as a [slow-release] energy source, or they can be stored as fat. When fed a diet which is high in fibre the VFAs produced are weaker acids so the gut is kept within an acceptable range of acidity. However when starch (e.g. from cereals) reaches the hind gut its digestion produces much stronger acids which is not a happy environment for the micro organisms and they can die off potentially resulting in problems such as colic and laminitis.
A valuable result of the fermentation process is that B vitamins are generated so a horse that is receiving plenty of fibre in his diet should not need any supplementation of these vitamins unless they are under a lot of stress or may have a compromised ability to digest the fibre such as veterans.
The digestion of fibre also produces heat so a horse can literally have his own internal central heating system providing he gets enough fibre; hence the reason why in cold weather conditions it is so important for horses that are mainly or fully out at grass, to receive plenty of fibre so that they can keep warm. .
Fibre is also important for proper gut function. We all remember learning about peristalsis in our biology lesson at school, but this process of contraction and relaxation of the muscles of the digestive tract is vital to maintain health.
As fibre is the most natural feed for a horse to have, it does not overload the digestive system in the same way that cereal-based feeds do and so can be fed safely in larger quantities.
Fibre takes longer to chew than cereals and a greater chew time is very beneficial, given the horse is designed to eat up to 18 hours a day.. Not only does this fulfil the horse’s natural desire to chew, the saliva produced is an acid-buffer for the stomach acid and helps to keep the gut functioning normally. This can also help to reduce the risk of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome; a particularly common problem in current and ex-racehorses.
So why feed Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is probably most commonly recognised as a source of fibre for horses however it provides so much more:
1. A source of quality protein
As alfalfa can manufacture protein, it is only to be expected that it contains good amounts of quality protein, protein being made up of amino acids, some of which must be supplied in the diet and hence are known as “essential”.
All horses require protein, particularly breeding stock and youngsters, but the working horse also has a requirement to enable it to build muscle and have good muscular function.
Protein often gets bad press for making horse overly excitable, badly behaved, etc. but it is actually high levels of starch and sugars (which provide quick-release energy) that are to blame.
2. Low in sugars and starch
Alfalfa naturally has very low levels of starch and water-soluble carbohydrates (i.e. sugars). This makes it an excellent feed for any laminitis prone horse/pony or those that have to watch their waistlines - the good doer.
3. Mineral and Vitamin content
Calcium - is a major requirement in any horse's diet, it being necessary for strong bones and hooves, studies have proved that alfalfa helps to improve the quality and growth of horn (thus good for horses with poor quality feet or those being transitioned to barefoot). It is also of particular importance for breeding mares and growing youngsters. A diet that is deficient in calcium will result in the body seeking a source from elsewhere - usually its own bones! Over time this can of course lead to a decrease in the density of bone.
Alfalfa is an excellent source of calcium actually containing up to 3 times as much as grass. And far better to let a horse obtain calcium naturally rather than by feeding it in a supplement.
Cereal crops, whilst having a high phosphorous content, are low in calcium, so a cereal-based diet can lead to an imbalance of the all-important calcium/phosphorus ratio. The inclusion of alfalfa in the diet can correct this imbalance as it has a 5:1 (C:P) ratio thus helping to achieve the ideal ratio of 2:1 in the diet as a whole.
Vitamins A and E and the B vitamins Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic acid, Biotin and Folic acid are found in plentiful quantities in alfalfa. And cobalt (a trace element) which is important for the absorption and utilisation of iron and enables the synthesis of Vitamin B12, is contained in alfalfa at good levels.
4. A source of energy
Contrary to popular belief fibre is actually a very effective, excellent energy source, not just a constituent to the diet to "bulk it out", "fill a horse up". Such is the energy content that it can easily meet the requirements of the properly working horse i.e. , working here meaning horses that are regularly training for and competing in dressage or show jumping, eventing (2-day), etc.
5. An acid buffer
Feeding cereals increases the acidity of the horse's gut contributing to causing to gastric ulcers, colic and laminitis as well as behavioural problems. However research has proven that feeding alfalfa can neutralise such acidity - and indeed more effectively than 24 hour access to grass.
6. Improved behaviour
As we know in the wild a horse would spend many hours a day roaming around and more or less constantly eating. So when we restrict this natural activity it is only to be expected that unless a horse is kept occupied by other means and has his other psychological needs met, he is going to come up with something to do.
Research currently suggests that an increase in stomach acidity due to reduced saliva production (i.e. a horse not having constant access to food) can cause windsucking and cribbing to develop – hence why when antacids are given, this behaviour lessens or ceases in some cases.
Box-walking, weaving, chewing, etc. are also symptomatic of the stressed horse.
It is realised that there are genetic elements which play a part as obviously not all horses, although under the same management regime, develop bad habits. Of course it is not possible for every horse to live out 24/7 or be turned out many hours a day; and indeed there are those horses which actually do prefer to be in.
Fibre creates slow-release energy; it is the digestion of starches and sugars which creates the fizz effect.
So, in short, put fibre first in your horse’s diet and see the benefits for yourself – it is essential for his health and well-being both physically and psychologically.
So why Dengie?
The alfalfa used in Dengie products is grown by Dengie here in the UK and is non-GM.
Dengie is also the leading manufacturer of fibre-based horse feeds in the UK Indeed there are 13 different fibre products in the Dengie range making it the most extensive on the market. So whether your horse is a good doer or one that needs extra conditioning, Dengie have something to suit. For those with horses/ponies prone to laminitis there is 6 products within the range that are approved by The Laminitis Trust.
Coatings are applied to the alfalfa products which improves palatability as alfalfa is naturally bitter. When dried the leafy part of the alfalfa becomes very brittle and can break up into very tiny bits (giving a dusty appearance) so a coating helps to prevent this. Whilst the original Dengie product - Alfa A Original [in the yellow bag] - has a molasses coating, the coating only gives a sugar content of 10% so no more than grass thus it is ok to feed with fear of increasing excitability etc. (although not to be fed to the laminitic or cushingoid horse/pony].
For other Dengie products the coating is rape seed oil. Soya is no longer used as the company could not guarantee a GM free supply, This is important because with some of the products being approved by The Laminitis Trust and organic holdings being supplied, its non-GM status had to be protected. As the world wide demand for soya increases, this is leading to more and more deforestation which in turn is having a detrimental effect on the indigenous flora and fauna as well the environment so Dengie elected to change to rape seed oil which is grown in the UK.
Dengie also have a range of supplements to compliment their fibre products so you can formulate the right diet for your horse or pony whatever their breed, age or work load. And if you need help they have a friendly, efficient Helpline too as well as equally friendly regional representatives. .
By feeding fibre products from Dengie Horse Feeds we are assured that we are feeding the best quality from guaranteed GM-free sources.
For more information on the Dengie range please visit www.dengie.com.