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It is human nature – especially in American culture – to want to feed skinny things. Horse, dog, human, it doesn’t matter. What’s the first thing most people say to a thin friend – “Dude, go get yourself a Big Mac, you’re too skinny!” Maybe it’s the nurturing side of human nature that causes us to do this, or maybe it’s just that we can’t stand to see a living creature “suffer”. So of course in Snowy’s case the very first thing any of us wanted to do was to feed her! However with any animal that has been in such a starvation state it is vitally important that refeeding be done slowly and correctly, and supervised by a qualified vet or equine nutritionist. Because horses are grazers they are meant to have food in their digestive tract 24/7. But in cases where food has been withheld completely, or in Snowy’s case the wrong type of feed was fed in too small an amount, the reintroduction of feed has to be done in small amounts. Not only can horses suffer from the typical digestive ailments of colic and laminitis, but they can also develop “Refeeding Syndrome”, whereby the imbalance of nutrients and electrolytes created by the reintroduction of feed can actually cause organ failure.  For more information on this subject please consult the UC Davis study at http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vetext/local-assets/pdfs/pdfs_animal_welfare/nutrition-hr03jul.pdf. While an older study its findings still hold true today.

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In Snowy’s case her owners were not cruel people refusing to feed their horse – they just didn’t have the knowledge of what is appropriate for an older horse to eat. She was being fed large amounts of whole corn, which with her poor dental health (more on that in a future blog) she was unable to chew and thereby digest. While a popular livestock feed up until the 1980’s, modern research tells us that whole corn, especially when fed as the only source of feed, does not provide the essential nutrients that a horse needs. In addition it is difficult to digest even when a horse is able to chew it – for Snowy’s first week at Race2Ring her manure was dark and dry, and you could actually see whole corn kernels in it, meaning that it had passed through her entire digestive tract completely undigested.

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Outside of clean fresh water, the most important item to a horse’s health is fiber. So under the supervision of Tammy Seifert, our equine nutrition expert from Shy Horse Stable & Supply, Snowy was started on a variety of high fiber feed items that would provide the needed amounts in her diet. First on that list was soaked alfalfa cubes. We started very small – only a handful of cubes at a time – fed four meals a day. Gradually over two weeks we were able to up the amounts and lessen the intervals, until by week three Snowy was eating three meals a day of ½ a 2qt scoop of cubes (measurement pre-soaking). Because of her lack of teeth we made sure the alfalfa was soaked at least 6 hours in warm water and fed “soupy” so that she would not have issues chewing or swallowing her meals (the added water was a definite bonus!). This meal soon became Snowy’s favorite, and she is quick to tell us if we are even a few minutes late with it!

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As having access to fiber 24 hours a day is very important, in addition to her meals Snowy was given free choice Chaffhaye (http://chaffhaye.com/). More than just chopped up forage you can purchase at your local farm supply store, Chaffhaye is a specially formulated feed source perfect for older horses or those prone to digestive upset. Loaded with yeast, pre-biotics, and probiotics, it is designed specifically to be easily digested in the hindgut of the horse, just as fresh grass is. It is safe to be fed free choice and horses love it. Because it is alfalfa and we were already giving Snowy alfalfa cubes, we started slow on the Chaffhaye as well so as not to shock her system, but over the course of a week she was getting it free choice, and it was her 2nd favorite (she loves her cubes!). At first Snowy was also provided access to a high quality, soft Orchard Grass hay. However her dental issues made it hard for her to chew, and with the other quality feed she wasn’t really touching it and we stopped feeding hay altogether.

Of course, the best and most natural way for a horse to gain weight is good old-fashioned grass pasture. But because Snowy had lived in a dry lot with no access to pasture, we had to be careful about reintroducing grass so as not to cause colic or laminitis. Although she came to us in December, a mild fall with plenty of rain had left our pastures in good shape, as well as the area surrounding our outdoor riding arena. We fashioned a fence on one end and a gate between the arena and round pen, and little by little Snowy was able to get turned out in her own private pasture, with buddies over the adjoining fence. At first she only was allowed to graze for an hour a day, gradually increasing in 30-60 minute increments until she was grazing all day and in her stall at night. Within a month Snowy received a wonderful holiday gift, in that she was able to start staying outside at night as well in another pasture with good grass and a turnout shed.

After making sure her fiber needs were being met, we next added a pellet to Snowy’s regimen. In addition to added calories for weight gain, the “grain-free” pellet would provide the needed trace minerals and protein for a balanced diet.  At Race2Ring we feed Progressive Nutrition (www.prognutrition.com), which we have found to be the best source of nutrition and digestible ingredients for our horses. Snowy was started on a very small amount – ¼ lb – of their Lo-Carb pellet. Why Lo-Carb and not a “senior” feed? Because PN’s Low Carb has the highest dietary fiber, and overall fiber is the most important ingredient for putting weight on an older horse. In addition,  PN Lo-Carb is much more nutrient dense than a Senior feed and is very low in non-structural carbohydrates.  (After being on corn for so long, starch and sugar are two ingredients Snowy does not need in her diet!).  While Snowy enjoyed her cubes, she started begging at meal times for something more, and that is when we added two meals a day of Lo-Carb – and it quickly became her favorite feed! Like with all our horses we feed it soaked, and in her case a little soupy, and not only was she licking the bucket she would scrape her teeth on the bottom wanting every little drop! Again we took it slow, and over the next six weeks gradually increased her amounts until she is now getting 2lbs of pellets twice a day. At her 6-week anniversary we were able to start introducing a fat supplement – PN’s Envision – which again was fed in very small amounts to allow for her system to acclimate.  Just a couple ounces a day to start and she is now up to ¼ lb twice a day, added to her pellet meals.

Snowy has been with us two months, and I’m happy to say she has gained over 100lbs! It has been a very slow process, however thanks to a proper refeeding schedule she has suffered no bouts of colic or laminitis, and continues to be full of energy.  Of course all this wonderful nutrition is great, but for Snowy to really be able to utilize the nutrients she has be to be able to chew it properly! So the subject of next month will be Snowy’s First Visit with the Dentist.

Snowy Feed Protocol Week 1 (12/5-12/15)

  • 8-10 alfalfa cubes, soaked: 4x a day
  • approximately 6 qts Chaffhaye: 2x a day
  • 1oz Soothing Pink supplement – for prevention of ulcers: 2x a day
  • 1 oz Aqua Aide electrolytes – for help with electrolyte balances: 1x a day
  • ¼ lb Low Carb pellets, soaked: 2x a day (starting mid-week)
  • 1 hour turnout on grass, gradually increasing by 30 minutes a day
  • 24 hour access to clean fresh water, salt block, and Himalayan salt block

Snowy’s Current Feed Protocol

  • ½ scoop (4 qt) alfalfa cubes, soaked: 3x day
  • free choice Chaffhaye
  • 2 lbs Low Carb pellets, soaked: 2x a day
  • ¼ lb Envisions fat supplement, fed with pellets: 2x a day
  • all day turnout on grass (when available) or in round pen with feed “buffet”
  • all night turnout on grass pasture
  • 24 hour access to clean fresh water, salt block, and Himalayan salt block