7 Hidden Dangers in Every Barn that are Stressing Your Horse
In their natural state, horses tend to lead consistent, uncomplicated lives. However, even in the very best barns with the most conscientious owners, modern horses are often subjected to unnatural stresses that can pose serious health risks, from colic to gastric ulcers, and beyond.
Evolution & Natural Tendencies
Horses have evolved over millions of years as nomadic prey animals who find safety in numbers, traveling as a member of a relatively consistent herd. As “trickle feeders,” horses spend the majority of their days grazing (10-17 hours per day!) and, left to their own devices, they spend most of their time slowly walking as they graze, only occasionally running from predators or to play.
Health Risks & Unnatural Stress in Every Barn
It doesn’t matter if a horse lives in a backyard barn or a world-class show facility, every modern horse is exposed to some level of unnatural stress that can put their health and wellbeing at risk. “As much as we love our horses, it’s important to realize that domestic horse-keeping can be inherently ‘unnatural’ and stressful for them,” said Dr. Lydia Gray, SmartPak’s Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director. “SmartPak is committed to educating horse owners and professionals about the management practices that put horses’ health at risk, and how we can be smarter about their care.”
Here are seven of the most common practices that are at odds with what nature intended, and may be putting your horse’s health at risk:
1. Large, infrequent meals and limited grazing
Because horses were designed to constantly take in small amounts of food, their stomachs are always producing gastric acid to aid in digestion, whether there is food present or not. Normally as horses graze, their bicarbonate-rich saliva mixes with the long-stem forage they’re consuming and protects the sensitive stomach lining from the corrosive effects of this gastric acid. But the longer a horse’s stomach sits empty and unprotected in between large meals the more at risk he is for developing gastric ulcers.
Plus, the lower portion of the stomach (where gastric acid is actually produced) is lined with glandular mucosa. Not only is this lining built to withstand the harsh effects of stomach acid, it also produces bicarbonate and mucus as an added layer of protection. The upper portion of the stomach is lined with non-glandular mucosa which is less able to hold up to acid exposure and does not produce protective material like mucus and bicarb, making it that much more important to feed small meals frequently or allow grazing.
2. Exercise & training
Exercise and training, especially on an empty stomach, can have significant impacts on a horse’s health. Thinking about the anatomy of the stomach described above, if a horse is trotting and cantering on an empty stomach, all that constantly produced gastric acid can end up splashing and “sloshing” around in the stomach, coming into contact with the sensitive non-glandular mucosa and increasing the risk for gastric ulcers.1
Additionally, exercise and training can contribute to wear and tear on joints and soft tissues,2 potentially leading to permanent, irreversible damage like arthritis. Normally, the horse’s body has natural abilities to repair the minimal levels of wear and tear that are associated with low-impact activities, like walking and grazing. However, when we put horses into concentrated training and exercise programs, the associated wear and tear can outpace the body’s ability to maintain and repair joint and soft tissue structures, resulting in damage that can compromise soundness and performance.
3. Changing herds
In the wild, herds are consistent, with few new adult horses joining, and a steady hierarchy of dominance. This is not always the case with modern horses, who may move from barn to barn, travel for competitions, and regularly meet and interact with new horses, which can result in stress as the “pecking order” is reestablished.
4. Trailering and travel
Shipping a horse from one location to another comes with inherent stresses that can increase the risk of developing gastric ulcers1, as well as putting stress on the immune system, which may result in compromised function.
5. Increased stall time
Time spent in a stall is a fact of life for most horses, but it can have some pretty unpleasant downsides including limited movement, which can contribute to joint stiffness.
Lack of activity can also lead to reduced circulation throughout the body, which is particularly troublesome for hooves. This is because hoof structures are nourished by the blood circulating through the hoof, which delivers vital nutrients to help keep those structures strong and resilient. As a result, poor circulation is often a precursor to weak, cracking, unhealthy hooves.
Perhaps most concerning of all, increased stall time is associated with an increased risk of both ulcers1 and colic3.
6. High-grain diets
Fresh pasture is a horse’s natural feed source, however most modern barns don’t have access to rolling acres of green fields. As a result, many horse owners have turned to grain to add calories to their horses’ diets to help maintain weight and support energy levels. However, grains are not a natural feed source for horses, and are much more calorie dense than pasture, in addition to having inversed relationships of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, among other things. These disparities all add up to high-grain diets being associated with increased risk of ulcers1 and colic, unhealthy weight gain, along with excess energy and excitability.
7. Sudden changes in hay or grain (type or amount)
Changing from a quarter scoop of grain to a half scoop might not seem like a big adjustment, but it can have significant impacts on a horse’s digestive health. Changing the type or amount of grain being fed has been linked to a 5X increase in colic risk. 4 Similarly, feeding a new cut of hay (even from the same field!) or switching from grass to alfalfa has been shown to increase a horse’s colic risk up to 10 times!4
Stressed by All the Stress? Don’t Fret — You Can Help Your Horse!
Stresses and health risks aren’t the result of bad management – they’re unavoidable parts of modern horse-keeping. Luckily, there are lifestyle and management changes you can make, in addition to providing the support your horse’s body needs to cope.
1. Build a smarter diet in five easy steps
i. Focus on forage
Considering that your horse was designed to spend over half his day roaming and grazing, it’s no surprise that the foundation of his diet should come from forage. Whether it’s fresh pasture, hay, or a combination of the two, your horse should be eating 1–2% of his body weight in forage every day (for a 1,000 lb horse, that’s 10–20 lbs daily). The best way to mimic Mother Nature would be to provide free-choice access to hay and/or pasture all day, but every barn is different and resources are limited, so work with what you’ve got and make sure you’re meeting that 1–2% requirement.
ii. Consider calorie requirements:
As forage is broken down in your horse’s hindgut, one of the by-products of the digestive process is volatile fatty acids, or energy. So, if your horse is getting the recommended amount of forage, he’s also getting a major source of calories. However, some horses — “hard keepers” or those in hard work — require additional calories to maintain their ideal weight.
Since forage is your horse’s natural feed source and provides calories, adding more forage should be your first weight-gain strategy. If your horse can’t maintain his weight on forage alone, consider adding a more calorie-dense feedstuff, like grains. Because your horse was not designed to digest large amounts of non-structural carbohydrates like grains, you should aim to feed the minimum amount needed to maintain his ideal body condition score. (Not sure how to determine your horse’s body condition score? Check out SmartPak.com/BodyCondition.)
iii. Round out the MVPs (minerals, vitamins, proteins)
How you supply these nutrients depends on what else your horse is eating:
• Hay only— While your horse’s forage supplies some protein, vitamins, and minerals, it may not be enough to fulfill his daily requirements. You can do a hay analysis or forage testing to find out this information. In many cases, you’ll want to provide a ration balancer to complement your horse’s forage and ensure he has the nutrients he needs.
• Hay and grain—If your horse is getting a full, recommended serving of fortified grain, his protein, vitamin, and mineral needs should be met. However, as discussed above, most horses simply don’t need that much grain. If your horse isn’t getting a full serving of grain, he also isn’t getting a full serving of vitamins or minerals, and a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement can help bridge those gaps. (Not sure if your horse is getting a full serving? Visit SmartPak.com/ReadingFeedLabels to learn how to check.)
iv. Add a dash of salt
Salt (sodium chloride) is an essential part of your horse’s diet. It supports healthy nerve and muscle function and encourages your horse to drink, helping to avoid dehydration. Even a horse in no work needs at least one ounce of salt per day, and that need increases with exercise and hot weather. Hay, pasture, and commercial feeds provide very little salt, so top-dressing meals with salt or an electrolyte supplement can help your horse get what he needs.
v. Balance your fats
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are both important to your horse’s well-being, but maintaining the correct balance between the two is critical. Omega 6 fatty acids support pro-inflammatory reactions and omega 3 fatty acids support anti-inflammatory reactions; so your horse should have two to four times more omega 3s than 6s. High grain diets and lack of fresh pasture and are two reasons that the modern horse’s diet often has too many omega 6s and too few omega 3s, setting the horse up for a chronic state of inflammation. That’s why many horse owners look to supplement their horse’s diet with additional omega 3s.
2. Make dietary changes slowly
As you now know, grain and hay changes can increase your horse’s colic risk 5-10 times, but it’s impossible to avoid dietary changes altogether. When you do have to make changes, in type or amount, make them as gradually as possible, ideally over the course of about 10 to 14 days.
3. Reduce stall time and increase turnout
We all have to work within the limitations of our geography and the property on which our horses live, but looking for opportunities to maximize turnout time and limit hours spent in a stall can help mirror your horse’s natural activity and environment, supporting physical and mental health and wellbeing.
4. Provide supplemental support for areas of unavoidable stress
Not every area of stress can be minimized or avoided — jumping puts stress on your horse’s joints, there’s no way around it. However, there are ways you can make sure your horse has the support he needs to stay at the top of his game. In addition to working closely with your veterinarian, supplements are a smart way to provide daily, ongoing support.
Think about the areas in which your horse is experiencing the most stress. If he’s like many competitive eventers, his joints and digestive tract are under significant strain from exercise, training, travel, and competition. So it’s no surprise that these are among the most popular areas for many eventers to provide daily supplements for support.
If you want to build the perfect supplement plan for your horse, visit SmartPak.com/Wizard today to get a custom recommendation to review with your veterinarian and the rest of your horse’s care team.
We Can’t Stress this Enough
If you have one takeaway from this entire article, it should be this: your horse is under stress and helping him cope with that stress is part of good horsemanship. Be mindful of the areas in which his life differs from his natural state, do your best to make changes when you can, and be sure to provide support when you can’t. Your horse says thanks!
1Videla R, Andrews FM. New perspectives in equine gastric ulcer syndrome. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009 Aug;25(2):283-301. 2McIlwraith CW. Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)—An Update. Proc of the 11th International Congress of the World Equine Veterinary Association. 2009. 3Cohen ND. Factors predisposing to colic. 8th Congress on Equine Medicine and Surgery. 2003. 4Cohen N, Gibbs P, Woods A. Dietary and other management factors associated with equine colic. Proc of the Annu Conv of the AAEP 1999 (45) 96.98.