Focusing on Fibre and how it can enrich your horse or pony’s diet to help them make the most of the feed that you put in.
When formulating a diet to provide your horse with all the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients that he needs to thrive on a daily basis, fibre should be a major contributing factor. As horses are hind gut fermenters, they have the capability to really utilise the fibre that we supply to them through their feed and forage, helping them to gain additional energy through its break down whilst keeping their digestive system healthy and motile. So, with all this in mind, here are a few facts you should know about Fibre and how it can help your horse or pony to thrive
- What is Fibre?
As well as acting as a dietary ‘filler’, Fibre is an effective energy source, made up of complex carbohydrates that can be broken down by bacterial fermentation in the hindgut into VFA’s or Volatile Fatty Acids which the horse can use for energy after further conversion. Fibre is made up of Lignin, Cellulose and Hemicellulose, all of which have different structures which influence the amount of energy available after they have been broken down. Lignin is more structural and therefore indigestible, so feeds with a high lignin level, such as straw have a low energy content, when compared to cellulose and hemicellulose which are digested by hind gut bacteria and provide the majority of the energy available in fibre.
- What happens when my horse does not get enough fibre?
Diets that don’t provide a horse with enough fibre can cause major problems including:
Colic can become a very real threat to health if dietary fibre content is low
Colic – if a horse’s gastrointestinal tract is not kept full it is prone to twisting and moving in ways that it can’t normally when it is full of fibre. Unfortunately for the horse this can lead to serious colic that can only be resolved (if the horse is lucky) by surgery.
Diarrhoea – low fibre diets very often results in loose droppings, which in-turn affects the whole dynamic of how the gut works. Horses with diarrhoea digest what fibre they do ingest less efficiently and they are prone to problems with dehydration and electrolyte deficiency.
Dehydration – horses on a low fibre diet don’t have a readily available water reserve in their gut, which means that if they sweat heavily or spend an extended period of time away from water they are more prone to dehydration than a horse on a high fibre diet as fibre allows more water to be held in the gut
Energy deficiency – horses that aren’t being fed enough fibre are also most likely not receiving enough energy (calories) so they may be losing weight or having difficulty gaining weight.
Constant hunger – because fibre is the part of the diet that provides the ‘gut fill’, a diet low in fibre will leave a horse always feeling hungry, which can lead to behavioural issues
- How much fibre does my horse need?
As a rule, your horse should be fed an absolute minimum of 1% of its bodyweight in fibrous feeds per day, which equates to 1 kg fibre/100 kg bodyweight (which equals 5 kg fibre/day for a 500 kg horse). Preferably a horse should be fed at least 2% of its bodyweight per day in fibrous feed and this level will keep the horses gut full and provide plenty of feed to chew on to keep it happy.
- How can fibre be adjusted to suit different horses?
Grazing may not provide adequate nutrition for underweight horses
Fibre can be included at different rates in the diet to suit different types of horses because obviously, the same levels will not be applicable to both good doers and skinny minnies. With regards to good doers, it is important to ensure that if pasture and grazing is rich, restriction of this is imperative to make sure that additional weight is not gained so it would prove beneficial to use low calorie forages little and often to control calories whilst maintaining gut health.
If your horse is underweight, the case may be that he needs more grass than ad-lib forage can provide so using a high fibre based feed in his bucket such as chaff would be beneficial. Also, as fibre provides high levels of slow release energy, when combined with oils, it can provide the energy content of performance feeds, but with much less starch and quick release energy which will be ineffective in helping a thin horse gain weight.
- What are the best sources of fibre for my horse?
Hay is an excellent source of fibre
Obviously, it goes without saying, that grass, hay and haylage are excellent sources of fibre and are vital to your horse or pony’s wellbeing and as on average, it takes 3000-3500 chews to eat 1kg of hay, it is going to keep your horse occupied and fuller for longer than a high starch, low fibre feed. Fibre can also be supplemented into the diet in the form of a chaff, which can be mixed with a Blue Chip Balancer to help slow the passage of the feed throughout the digestive system, reducing the risk of elevated levels of stomach acidity, maintaining a motile, healthy gut. Alfalfa based chaffs are a popular choice as they are low in starch and sugar but provide a high quality source of protein alongside their high fibre content
So we hope that clears up a few queries you may have had about fibre and its importance in your horse or pony’s diet. It really is an invaluable addition so always ensure you are feeding the correct amount for optimum health and well-being!