Feeding for Recovery

Illness or injury are inevitable, at some point, with performance horses and not only do these have to be treated but they generally involve a change in routine for the horse and an appropriate change in diet too.  This can be almost as stressful as the problem itself, so it’s worth considering how best to deal with the situation in order to minimise the risk of secondary setbacks and maximise the chances of a speedy recovery.  Correct nutrition may be considered vital for optimum performance and its role in supporting healing, and a subsequent return to competition, should not be underestimated.
Vital Fibre

Even quite minor injuries can mean that a horse needs to be confined to his stable for a couple of days so it is important that the horse has access to plenty of fibre to promote normal gut function and help relieve boredom.  Fibre is broken down by a population of micro-organisms present in the horse’s hind gut to provide a source of slow release energy.  These micro-organisms also have an important role in helping the horse to resist disease and recover from infections, particularly of the digestive tract.  Plenty of fibre is therefore important as a source of nutrients and for helping to keep the horse healthy. 
The nutritional value of conserved forages such as hay or haylage is lower than that of fresh pasture.  As the quantity of concentrates also has to be reduced when the horse is on box rest, the overall nutrient intake can drop significantly.  A balancer, such as Lo-Cal Balancer, is ideal in these circumstances as it provides all the vitamins, minerals and quality protein the horse requires, for maintenance and all-important repair, but without the energy that could cause behavioural and digestive upsets.
Boredom can also become quite a problem for the horse on prolonged box rest so it can be worth introducing both stable toys and alternative forage sources to keep the horse’s mind active and satisfy his need to chew.  Chopped fibre sources take as long for the horse to chew as long fibre, like hay or haylage, and can be offered as an alternative to, or alongside, hay or simply to bulk out a reduced quantity of compound feed.  Clean, dust free forage should be used at all times but a lower nutritional value could be considered if the horse is prone to gaining condition. 

Changing The Horse’s Diet

Although ideally sudden changes should not be made to the diet, it may be necessary to drastically reduce a fit horse’s concentrate ration, if his workload is suddenly reduced.  This course of action is certainly preferable to risking the onset of metabolic disorders, such as azoturia, due to a starch overload associated with an excessive intake of cereals.  The micro-organisms present in the horse’s digestive system take time to adjust to a new feed and any sudden changes can disrupt the micro-organism population, which may result in loose droppings, colic or even laminitis. 
When changing a diet quickly, a “digestive enhancer”, such as a pre or probiotic, may be beneficial in helping the micro-organisms to adapt to the new diet, thus reducing the risk of upsets occurring.  Digest Plus prebiotic acts as a food source for beneficial gut bacteria so that they can thrive at the expense of pathogenic species.
The expected length of time the horse will be on box rest and the current diet will determine how significantly the diet needs to be altered.  Oat-based, high energy mixes should be completely removed from the diet, if the rest period is prolonged.  For short term box rest of, say, a couple of days, reduce the oat-based mix to about a third of the normal ration and add Lo-Cal balancer to increase the nutrient concentration of the diet. 
Any reduction in the volume of concentrates should be accompanied by an increase in the forage provided.  If the horse on long term box rest requires some concentrates to maintain condition, it is advisable to gradually introduce a high fibre cube, like Everyday High Fibre Cubes or High Fibre Complete, over 4 to 5 days after the previous diet has been reduced.    
Feeding to Heal

Maintaining a balanced diet is as important during convalescence as it is for work and correct nutrition may actually aid soft tissue healing by providing the nutritional components for repair.  Amino acids, for example, are the building blocks of protein and are essential for soft tissue construction.  Some amino acids have to be supplied by the diet as the horse can’t synthesise them himself and are termed “essential”; these are particularly vital for soft tissue repair.  Forages do not generally contain the quality protein required to supply plenty of essential amino acids, although alfalfa is a good source of the amino acid, lysine.  Again, a forage balancer is useful here, to provide all the amino acids required for tissue development.
For horses who have dropped a considerable amount of condition, Cooked Cereal Meal is highly digestible and ideal for horses recovering from surgery, especially surgery to the digestive tract.  It can be made into a mash so that it is easy to chew and swallow but does need to be fed alongside a vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer as it is a straight cereal, rather than a fully balanced compound feed.   
Alternatively, where carbohydrates are best avoided, for example in cases of laminitis or azoturia, oil is an excellent source of non-heating calories.  Outshine is a unique extruded supplement which is 26% oil, alongside key supporting vitamins and minerals to aid its efficient utilisation.  It offers an easy-to-use alternative to straight oil, which can prove unpalatable when fed in significant quantities.
Tempting Fussy Horses or Limited Appetites

When horses are depressed or stressed through illness or a change to routine, they can quickly go off their feed.  Tempting them to eat can be tricky and they may only eat very small amounts.  The following tips may be helpful in trying to encourage your horse to eat:

  • Offer very small feeds at a time – just like when we’re feeling ill, horses can also be put off by having huge amounts of feed put in front of them.
  • Try adding succulents, such as apples or carrots, to make the feed more palatable.
  • Garlic Supplement can be added to feeds to can hide the smell and taste of medicinal powders. 
  • Adding warm water to the feed can appeal to some horses.  Although bran is not an ideal feedstuff for horses it can be made into a mash which some horses really enjoy.  Adding a vitamin and mineral supplement will help to provide a balanced diet. 
  • Make sure the feed bowl is in a comfortable position for the horse.  If the horse has a front leg injury, for example, it is better not to put the feed bowl on the floor as the horse will have to put more weight on the injured leg to balance himself which may cause increased pain and put him off eating.   
  • Using concentrated sources of nutrients will reduce the volume of feed the horse requires to provide the necessary nutrients.  Lo-Cal Balancer provides a low-calorie balanced diet for good doers.  Adding Baileys Outshine to Lo-Cal balancer for poor doers will provide extra calories for weight gain. 
  • Ensure the horse is left in peace to eat his feed. 
  • For horses on prolonged box rest, alternative forage sources will provide variety and interest.  Consider Alfalfa Blend, Alfalfa Plus Oil or Ultra Grass, for those who don’t need to worry about weight gain, or Light Chaff  for those who may need to watch their waistlines!