Whether they are elite performance athletes or beloved backyard trail buddies, the horse is an amazing animal. Unfortunately some seem more accident prone than others. Many horse owners will at one point or another be forced to keep their equine partner in stall confinement for an extended period of time. And if your horse is anything like mine, this will happen often. Due to his frequent stall rest and my Equine Science studies at Texas A&M University, I picked up some tips along the way for managing a horse’s nutrition, among other things, during the recovery period.
Most of the time our horses are on stall rest due to injury. This often means we are administering some sort of pain killer or anti-inflammatory such as bute or banamine. It is important to note that while these drugs help with pain management they also block the release of prostaglandins which trigger the release of gastro intestinal mucus. This mucus acts as a protective coating in the horse’s stomach and helps prevent ulcers. Any horses that are on these drugs for any prolonged amount of time should be closely watched for signs of ulcers. Ulcer preventatives and treatments with the active drug Omeprazole are the most effective in equines. It has also been shown that a steady intake of forages helps the horse’s digestive track function properly and continuous digestion lowers the risk of over production of stomach acid which leads to ulcers.
No matter your horse’s typical work load, stall rest drastically decreases their activity thus decreasing their energy requirements. In order to maintain a healthy body condition, you will need to cut calories out of their diet. All changes to any horse’s diet should be made gradually over time to avoid digestive tract problems such as colic or ulcers. This includes meal sizes and the type of feed being offered. Starch and fat are the horse’s two main sources of energy. While your high performance horses need ample amounts of both in their diet, a horse on stall rest needs less of these nutrients and more fiber to encourage a healthy digestive system. Compare feed labels at your local feed store to determine which products will best meet your horse’s nutritional needs.
Every horse’s diet should be based off of forage and any nutritional requirements not met can then be supplemented by concentrates (grains). If your horse needs concentrates, offering smaller meals more frequently and evenly spaced throughout the day helps maintain more natural continuous digestion. Your horse’s meals should be based off of weight — not scoops — and you should never feed more than .5% of your horse’s body weight in concentrates per meal.
A horse’s digestive tract is built for grazing and a continuous passage of forage. At a minimum a horse should consume 1% of its bodyweight in forage per day. For the stall bound horse that is used to pasture grazing it is especially important to mimic their natural grazing behavior as closely as possible. A slow feed hay net is a good way to offer forage to your horse on stall rest. This will keep them occupied longer and help reduce boredom. If a hay net is not an option, feeding small meals of forage several times throughout the day is the next best approach.
If given the okay by your vet, hand grazing your horse is another good way to alleviate boredom and give your horse some foraging time. Another important factor to keep in mind is fresh grass has a higher moisture content than dried hay. When a horse’s access to grazing is restricted, their water intake should increase to help prevent impactions in the hindgut. Always provide ad libitum (as desired) access to clean water. Providing a trace mineral block is another good way to ensure your horse isn’t lacking any nutrients without access to grazing.
Keeping a horse on stall rest requires patience and good management. It’s not easy convincing a 1000lb animal to keep still in a box for several weeks to months at a time. It can be frustrating, but given the proper care and a healthy diet you can set your horse up for success. Before you know it you’ll be back blazing trails and winning ribbons in the competition arena.