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Changing diet from winter to spring

Changing diet from winter to spring

As the days grow longer and spring becomes imminent, many horse owners will start to think about the changes they may make to their horses’ diets. Equine nutritionist Donna Case offers her advice for ensuring a smooth transition from winter to spring feeding.

Keep track of weight

The best place to start is by assessing your horse’s weight and condition. ‘Regular body condition scoring will give you an idea about whether your horse is the right weight. It is also the best way to gauge if the calorie intake is right. Run your hands over your horse and have a good check to notice if you can see or feel any fatty deposits. You are feeling for coverage without excessive fat. Fat will feel spongy under your fingers and muscle firmer; however, fat in the neck can harden, so if you are in any doubt, ask your vet or a nutritionist to take a look.’

Another good idea is to get a weigh tape and use it once a week, making sure you record the result. ‘Always use the tape at the same time of day, such as first thing in the morning or last thing at night to try and keep it as accurate as possible,’ adds Donna. ‘The tape might be slightly out, but you will notice if your horse is starting to change weight far earlier, meaning you can act sooner. This is particularly important during spring.’

Consider any clinical issues

Those with increased health risks, such as equine metabolic syndrome, laminitis, tying up or colic, need to be managed carefully in spring due to the sudden change in grazing.

‘The carbohydrate levels in grass rise to their highest in spring,’ explains Donna. ‘This means they are high in sugar and starch and have the potential to cause problems, particularly for horses with clinical issues. Even those who are already healthy can run into problems, as the overall calorie level increases, putting some at risk of obesity.’

Most horse owners are aware of the importance of changing hard feed over slowly, knowing that if they don’t, it can cause hindgut disturbance, scouring and colic.

‘However, it is easy to forget about changes in forage and grazing and make sudden swaps without realising it,’ says Donna says. An example of this would be changing from winter to spring pasture in a day, or suddenly increasing turnout time as the weather has improved.

‘Wherever possible, change onto new grazing gradually to reduce any risk,’ advises Donna. ‘If this isn’t possible, consider strategies to restrict grazing such as using a muzzle, strip grazing or turn out onto bare grazing, such as an arena, and add the correct forage for the horse’s weight. Turning out at night may also be helpful as the sugar levels in the grass tend to be lower at this time.’

For the weight-watching horse, choose a stalky late-cut hay, as it will contain more indigestible fibre and be lower in calories. Soaking the hay in tepid water for 12 hours can reduce sugar levels further.

Provide hard feed appropriately

‘While the majority of changes to the diet in spring come naturally from the grazing, there will be those who need to have their hard feed adjusted,’ explains Donna. ‘Some will start to work harder after a winter break, so don’t be tempted to up feed quantity or type until the work has increased. Remember the golden rule “never feed in anticipation of work done” as this may lead to excessive weight gain or acting out.’

Some horses may become excitable at this time of year. ‘On a kilo for kilo basis, grass can have an energy level equivalent to a competition feed, so it may not be your hard feed causing the issue,’ says Donna. ‘Taking steps to limit excessive grass intake may help, and if you are using a hard feed, ensure you use one with a controlled starch level to reduce the risk of excitability.’

If your horse is becoming overweight, in addition to grazing and forage strategies already mentioned, you may be feeding below the hard feed guidelines. ‘In this instance, adding a balancer to the diet is a great way of providing all the necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids your horse needs to help maintain great health,’ says Donna.

Think about using probiotics

‘Horses undergoing a change in diet or regime may benefit from a probiotic to reduce the risk of hindgut disturbance which may show as scouring,’ advises Donna. ‘During this time of change, look for a probiotic with a high level of protected live yeast to support hindgut health and digestion to minimise the risk of upset and colic.’

By following these easy tips, you will find the change from a winter to spring diet easier to manage, and you will be able to enjoy all the fun the warmer weather and longer daylight hours brings. If you do have any further feeding concerns, do not hesitate to get in touch with your vet.