Monitoring Horses' Nutritional and Health Status
Regardless of the types of horses or what or how they are fed, their nutritional and health status should be observed at least once and preferably twice daily. Each horse should be observed individually for injuries, attitude, and feeding behavior, including appetite, eagerness to eat, and rate and amount eaten or not eaten. A sore tongue or mouth, or bad teeth are common causes of decreased feed intake. Moldy or contaminated feed may cause a sudden decrease in feed intake. Any uneaten feed should be closely evaluated to determine if there is a problem with it, if too much was fed, if there is inadequate water, or if there is something wrong with the horse.
Boredom may also be a cause of decreased feed intake, in which case exercise, a change in diet, or providing the companionship of another animal may be helpful. Decreased eagerness to eat, amount eaten, or attitude are frequently the first effects of, and, therefore, indications of, illness. The presence, source, and cause for any abnormal feces should also be determined. The horse showing any deviation from normal should be examined thoroughly. This includes taking a rectal temperature of any horse whose appetite, feed consumption, or attitudes appear decreased. Rectal temperatures more than 1F (0.5C) outside the normal range of 99 to 101F (37.3 to 38.3C) should be evaluated further and treated accordingly.
To ensure that the proper amount of feed is being fed and consumed, the horse’s body weight should be monitored at least every few months. If necessary, the amount fed should be altered accordingly. This is the best and only accurate way to ensure that the proper amount is being consumed, and that the horse is at the body condition desired for optimum physical performance, show performance, growth rate, reproduction, and comfort during both hot and cold seasons. Many horses are either overfed or underfed. Chronic gradual weight gain or loss may not be readily apparent to a person who observes the horse daily until the change becomes severe. Obtaining all horses’ weights periodically prevents this from occurring.
Horses, like other athletes, have optimal performance weights. Weight loss may occur as a result of inadequate dietary energy for the work being performed, or from dehydration. In either case, weight records are helpful in detecting weight loss so that it can be corrected. It has been shown that horses have an optimal weight for physical performance and for maximum breeding efficiency. Most horses in most situations should be kept in moderate to moderately fleshy condition.
Excess fat is usually a result of overfeeding rarely is it due to a hormonal problem. Factors that result in overfeeding include:
- The satisfaction people get from feeding their horses. For many, feeding, not use, constitutes their major association with the horse.
- Inadequate use and exercise, which are common for many horses.
- Purposely overfeeding show horses and sale horses because fat may help hide blemishes, and fat horses traditionally place and sell higher than thin horses.
- Erroneously assuming the mare needs more feed before the last 2 to 3 months of pregnancy and, therefore, overfeeding before this time.
- The horse being high on the pecking or dominance order in a group and as a result getting too much of other horses’ feed.
Conversely, some common causes of thin horses include:
- Poor quality or inadequate amounts of forage available.
- Excessive amounts of internal or external parasites.
- High energy needs due to lactation or hard work.
- Prolonged hot/humid weather which increases energy needs and decreases feed intake.
- Chronic disease that decreases intake or utilization of feed.
- The horse’s being low in the pecking or dominance order in a group and as a result being chased away or, because of fear, staying away, from adequate feed.
This article is from "Feeding and Care of the Horse", second edition, by Lon D. Lewis, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1995. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.