Lockdowns and the changing of the seasons can cause major changes in the daily routines of horses and ponies, which brings about an increased chance of stress. This in turn can lead to excessive stress levels in the horse, which weakens its natural immune system. In this article, Saracen’s expert nutritionists offer eight handy tips to keep your horse’s stress levels low and to ensure their physical and mental wellbeing stay at their peak.

Stress hormone cortisol and its influence on horses and ponies

An elevated level of cortisol weakens a horse’s immune system

Since horses are flight animals by nature, they are easily scared and get upset when they encounter change or unknown circumstances. Lockdowns or the changing of the seasons are examples of situations that can bring change to a horse’s routine, which may elevate their stress levels and the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is an important hormone that plays a role in the healthy functioning of various metabolic and immunologic processes in a horse’s body, but an excess can weaken the body’s natural immune system. Below you will find tips to help your animal stay in a healthy mindset, which will make these difficult times easier to bear for both you and your horse or pony.

Provide a constant structure

Try to stick to daily routines as much as possible, especially in times of change

Try to maintain your horse’s daily routines as much as possible. That way, you offer the horse structure and avoid unnecessary stress. Feed it at regular times and stick to your normal daily rhythm. For example, if you usually scrub your horse’s hooves first and then brush, stick to this order in times of change – make sure not to suddenly switch it up. The same goes for which fellow horses are in the pasture, or what times the horse gets to go outside. Try to maintain a schedule, so that your horse knows what’s coming.

Also make sure your horse is being tended to by a few set people. If too many different people care for the horse, this can cause stress or anxiety. Ideally, the horse gets to bond with one or two people who act as its primary carers.

The importance of the right diet for horses

Feeding horses is not an easy task. One horse might naturally need more sugars than another, but plenty of other factors come into play when it comes to choosing the right feed: stress levels, age, activity levels, … Here are some general guidelines.

Keep track of your horse’s fibre intake

The intake of nutritious fibre is essential for good health. You should ascertain the normal fibre intake of your horse and track its actual fibre intake closely. That way, you make sure your horse is eating the right quantities to keep it healthy, and you provide a large part of the energy the horse needs to stay in good shape. Tracking fibre intake and noticing changes in the horse’s appetite can also be early indicators of underlying health issues. The easiest way to monitor your horse’s fibre intake is to weigh its forage before and after eating for a few days, so that you can calculate how much fibre the horse is ingesting.

Combat stress and boredom with multiple sources of fibre

It’s important to provide your horse with a variety of fibres and fibre sources. It is recommended to stimulate normal searching and grazing behaviour as much as possible in horses that are stabled for the majority of their time. This combats stress and boredom. You can achieve this by offering various sources of fibre, ideally placed in various parts of the horse box. This can have a positive effect both on the psychological welfare of the horse and on the fibre intake of horses who are picky (hay) eaters. For example, you can hang up a net of hay, provide a haystack, place down a bucket of chaff, and hang up a play ball filled with Saracen Super Fibre Cubes. The key to success is being creative with forage options. Adding a yeast product, like the Saracen Yea-Sacc, can also help keep the digestive system healthy in times of change.

Avoid lengthy periods without forage during daytime

The time of feeding your horse is also important. Research shows that a lack of forage during the day increases the risk of stomach ulcers in horses as compared to horses who fast at night. That’s why it’s best to provide a minimum of 80% of your horse’s roughage during the day and the rest at night, especially for horses whose feed intake needs to be limited. You might also consider a balancer, like the Saracen Essential Balancer, for your horse or pony. This is a cost-effective way to provide a balanced, non-heating ration. If your horse needs extra calories, adding high-quality fibre sources like soaked beet pulp can help.

Determine your horse’s energy needs

The last tip in this section is to thoroughly check whether a lockdown with few to no competitions has influenced your horse’s energy needs. If you are still training your horse as regularly and intensely as before, its feed won’t need adjusting. But if your horse isn’t doing as much heavy work during lockdown, it might be best to adjust its calory intake. Less work means less energy burned, and less energy intake needed. If you don’t adjust its forage, your horse could gain weight rapidly. The best way to reduce caloric intake is to lower the amount of concentrate you give your horse. Just make sure to add a balancer (like Saracen Essential Balancer) to ensure your horse’s vitamin and mineral intake remain the same. You can also choose a feed type with less sugar to avoid behavioural issues. You might choose a feed with a high fibre content, like Saracen Re-Leve mix.

An important consideration when adapting your horse’s feed is to do so gradually. Don’t change their rations suddenly from one day to the next, but introduce the change over a 7-10 day period. This ensures that the microflora in the horse’s gut is not disturbed. The same goes when you reintroduce the old feeding regime once activity levels rise again: start changing rations around 14 days before you want the change to be complete.

The effects of lack of water intake and movement

Encourage your horse to drink enough and give it enough exercise

Apart from feed and structure, water intake and the right level of exercise are also important for the physical and mental wellbeing of a horse. A study showed that horses who got fewer than two days of rest per week had an increased change of stomach ulcers. Of course, it’s important that your horse is not completely immobile on rest days, so make sure it has options for stretching its legs that are not too intense. This will have a positive effect on the animal’s mental and physical wellbeing by decreasing stress and pressure, which helps calm the digestive system and keeps your horse healthy.

Finally, the amount of liquid your horse takes in plays a significant role in its wellbeing. This is not just important in summer: in other seasons it’s equally important to monitor your horse’s water intake. Horses are highly sensitive to changes in the taste and temperature of water, and a decrease in water intake can lead to digestive issues like colic and increase the risk of stomach ulcers, as well as impact your horse’s performance.

There are several ways to make sure your horse drinks enough water, like using mash and/or electrolytes and salt. For example, Saracen Re-Covery Mash can be a nice winter treat for your horse. You can make a thick soup out of it, or even cover the mash with a layer of water, so that your horse has to drink before it can reach the mash. You can also add warm water to your horse’s water bucket in winter to keep the temperature pleasant, add electrolytes to trigger a natural thirst response, or add water to your horse’s feed. The aforementioned fibre also helps to increase your horse’s water intake.

A brief summary of the tips above

We leave you with a brief summary of the tips above, which will help keep your horse’s stress levels to a minimum:

  • Set up a clear routine so that your horse knows what to expect on a daily basis. Feed it at the same time every day, keep its fellow horses in the pasture the same, and stick to a structure in your care routine.
  • Stick to 1 or 2 set caretakers for each horse, with whom it can create a bond and feel safe.
  • Monitor your horse’s fibre intake to make sure it gets the optimum feed quantity for its body and level of activity. Monitoring fibre intake can also help you spot early warning signs of potential health issues when your horse’s intake changes.
  • Offer various sources of fibre in different places in the horse’s box, which will counter boredom and stimulate natural grazing behaviour. Saracen Super Fibre Cubes are easy to hide in a stable ball.
  • Feed your horse at set times and make the majority of feed available during daytime. Fasting at night is healthier for your horse.
  • Evaluate the energy needs of your horse. If your horse’s activity levels decrease, you will need to adjust its feed gradually (over 7-10 days). Offer fewer calories and sugars, but make sure to keep mineral and vitamin levels high. Are you getting back into competition riding? Start increasing your horse’s feed levels gradually 14 days in advance.
  • Alternate activity with rest and plan sufficient rest days to decrease pressure and stress for your horse, which will help keep its digestive system healthy.
  • Monitor water intake, as decreased water intake can lead to a higher risk of digestive issues and impact your horse’s performance. Using a mash, like Saracen Re-Covery Mash, can help with this.

Do you have any questions, or are you looking for tailored nutritional advice for your horse? Contact nutritional expert Lizzie Drury at Saracen Horse Feeds. Email Ignace@lootvoet.be, Saracen’s Belgian distributor, to get in touch.

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