Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Notes and Thoughts from the “Green Horse Seminar”

On May 17, Traveller’s Rest attended a seminar in King George, VA, called “The Environmentally Friendly Horse: Caring for Your Land.” The program focused on keeping horses healthy while also keeping farms and pastures “healthy” through proper management.

One of the most interesting aspects of the seminar was the discussion of how modern horse owners try to force horses into a particular management style rather than molding a management plan to fit the horses’ natural requirements. Developing a “natural” management program is becoming more difficult in Virginia as farm sizes shrink and stocking rates increase. Poor management and crowded farms are leading to less healthy horses. Of particular note is the increase in unfit, overweight and obese horses. A study by Virginia Tech determined that 51% of horses surveyed were overweight or obese (only 5% of owners surveyed felt their horses were too fat.) Surprisingly, grain-based feeds do not seem to be the problem.

(This little butterball now wears a grazing muzzle and has lost ~ 75 pounds since February)

Horses evolved to graze “scrub” plants, ranging 8-15 miles a day to meet their nutritional needs. Even though, in the wild, horses would spend most of their time eating, they were constantly on the move while they ate. Today, in many areas, horses are grazing lush grass pastures or eating rich grass or legume hays, often standing in one place or walking over very small areas. Both the food and the method in which it is presented are contrary to the way equine species evolved. Richer pasture + less exercise = fat horses!

Many of us with overweight horses try to manage the problem by restricting grazing time. Guess what? That doesn’t work, unless by “restricting” you are talking about limiting grazing to only an hour or two a day. Horses, if healthy and left to their own devices, will eat the amount of forage their body says it needs in any given day. During 24-hour a day turn out, a horse may consume 0,8 – 0.9 pounds of forage (dry matter) per hour. A horse on pasture only part of the day, however, may eat up to 3-4 times that amount per hour to “make up for lost time.” Simply cutting back on hours spent grazing will not necessarily reduce total calorie intake. Instead, consider turning out on a dry lot with hay, or using a grazing muzzle when turn out is on pasture. Oh, and ramp up that exercise program!

For more on the “Fat Horse Study,” see “University Researchers Lead Pioneering Study in Equine Obesity.”

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