Changing diet from winter to spring

Changing diet from winter to spring

As the spring grass makes an appearance, it’s time to start considering how to safely transition your horse’s diet. From avoiding excessive weight gain to minimising the risks of digestive issues, Petplan Equine vet Gil Riley explains how to manage the change in seasons.

Spring is a great time to look forward to more riding and less mucking out, but horse owners also need to take care when introducing any new diet. Here’s how to help your horse take that transition in their stride – so that you can both enjoy the warmer weather, longer days and more time spent in the saddle.

The dangers of dietary changes when feeding horses

‘Horses’ digestive systems don’t cope well with sudden change,’ says Gil. ‘This means any adjustments to their diet need to be made carefully and gradually.’ A healthy horse’s digestive system contains billions of microbes, and these are vital for breaking down the roughage that makes up the majority of their diet.

‘The microbes in a horse’s gut need time to adapt to new foods, as some will thrive while others don’t.’ As a result, if the change is made too quickly, it can cause health issues including:

So, how can you transition your horse onto fresh spring grass, safely?

1. Take it slowly

‘Any change in diet should be carried out slowly over at least one week,’ says Gil. Gradually introduce your horse to new spring grass using strip grazing or by limiting their turnout on a new paddock. Start by allowing access to spring grass for a short amount of time each day and if there are no issues, this time can be gradually increased until they’re turned out as much as you choose.

2. Consider any clinical issues

If your horse has any health issues like equine metabolic syndrome, laminitis, or is prone to colic, you’ll need to manage the transition to spring grazing with even more care. ‘The higher carbohydrate levels in spring grass can exacerbate any pre-existing health issues,’ says Gil. Speak to your vet for tailored advice, which may include testing for specific conditions or adjusting medication as needed.

Spring feeding for horses – preventing obesity

Gil recommends keeping an eye on your horse’s weight using a combination of weekly photos, a weight tape and assessing their body condition. It’s best to take your photos and measurements at the same time of day, to keep things as consistent as possible. If you don’t have a weight tape, a piece of baler twine will do!

To assess your horse’s body condition, run your hand over them and see if you can feel any fatty deposits. Fat usually feels softer and spongier under your hands than muscle, but on your horse’s neck and crest it can harden. If you haven’t assessed your horse’s body condition before, watch our condition scoring video or speak to your vet for advice.

‘Unless they’re in regular, vigorous work, many horses don’t need hard feed because the grass and hay in the UK is so rich,’ says Gil. ‘Most horses in moderate work only need forage, potentially with a balancer to provide all the vitamins, minerals and amino acids they need to stay healthy. Many owners also like to feed a pre or probiotic. But the jury is still out as to whether these work or not.’

If your horse is overweight, the most effective way to control this is through a reduction in horse feed first, before increasing their exercise. ‘You want your horse to be fit, not fat,’ says Gil. ‘Musculoskeletal injuries are more likely if your horse is overweight, especially if they’re a little too enthusiastic about being turned out!

‘If your horse is still on combined turnout and stabling, soaking hay for between four and 12 hours can help reduce the calories. You can also substitute some of your horse’s ration for a low-calorie chaff,’ suggests Gil. ‘Track systems are a great way to encourage more exercise. I wouldn’t normally recommend the use of a muzzle until other management options have been explored first.’

The effect spring grass can have on horses

As the spring grass starts to come through, some horses can become more reactive and excitable, or you might notice their droppings become looser. Horses also generally eat faster during spring, so they may be consuming more calories than they need, and it’s much harder for owners to keep a track of how much their horse is eating.

Unlike hay, the levels of non-structural carbohydrates (sugars and starch), within grass can vary throughout the day. ‘The sugars in grass tend to be highest in the mid-afternoon,’ says Gil. ‘While this might make it seem like a good idea to turn your horse out at night, the cold temperature causes a spike of another sugar, fructan, which has been implicated in causing laminitis in some horses.’

‘Most horse owners in the UK are very tuned in to their horse’s weight and energy levels,’ says Gil. By observing your horse closely during any dietary transition, you’ll be able to make any adjustments as soon as possible. Which means more time to enjoy those warm spring days together!

If you’ve got any tips and tricks for how to feed your horse in spring, head to our Facebook page and let us know!