Food scares in the human world are all too common. Hands up if you’re still puzzling over whether a glass of red wine a day will add ten years to your life expectancy, or take a decade off it.
Now we’ve got a scare in the world of equine nutrition. Sugar beet – which many of you have fed for years on the basis that it is a highly digestible fibre – has been named as a potential risk factor for torsion of the large colon, one of the most serious forms of colic.
Research at the University of Liverpool has identified factors that may make a horse predisposed to this form of colic. Some of it will come as no surprise: for instance, horses who quid (drop their feed whilst chewing) are more at risk than those who don’t.
All well and good, and a timely reminder that regular dental checks are essential for all equines, whether working or not.
Nor should we be surprised that horses which have recently been stabled for long periods are also more likely to be at risk. It’s no coincidence that racehorses, many of whom spend most of their time stabled and receive low levels of forage, are at high risk not only from colic but from gastric ulcers.
Oh, and unless they are lucky enough to be in the hands of an enlightened trainer, they are more likely – if they have the predisposition – to develop stereotypical behaviour.
There are, as yet, no ‘shock, horror!’ headlines on sugar beet. The article in the 17 January issue of Horse and Hound, written by the study’s author, Joanna Suthers MRCVS, is as balanced as you would expect.
But will we be sensible about it, or will there be mass panic? Calls to to three knowledgeable feed suppliers showed that owners are already wondering whether they should stop feeding sugar beet.
“The trouble is,” said one, “that so many people don’t take in all the information. They just jump on one little bit of it and panic.”
So let’s not throw a mass wobbly. I’m continuing to feed quick soak, unmolassed sugar beet through the winter and following Clare MacLeod’s advice that all soaked beet should be fed within 24 hours rather than soaking several days’ worth at a time.
If I owned a horse that ticked one or more of the other risk factors for torsion colic – for instance, one that was taller than 17hh, or was a brood mare – then I’d think twice. In the light of this research, I’d perhaps avoid feeding sugar beet in case it tipped the balance.
But for now, I’ll carry on, with care, until Clare advises us otherwise.