If your horse has an enforced rest due to icy conditions, you being ill or some other unplanned event, how can you feed and manage them to keep them healthy?

Horses that live out or are turned out daily are not so affected by enforced rest, but those who are stabled full time need to be managed carefully.

The most important action is to reduce any starchy hard feed down to 1 kg maximum daily. Starchy hard feed include all cereals e.g. barley, oats, maize or wheat, and most coarse mixes. If in doubt, check the starch level of your hard feed and if necessary call the manufacturer and ask. Maintaining a high level of starchy feed intake in a horse off work increases the risk of colic and can cause tying up in susceptible horses. Reducing starchy hard feed during a rest period applies to all horses stabled for any part of the day.

The type of tying up that occurs after horses are rested but maintained on high starchy hard feed rations is termed Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM). It is commonly called Monday Morning Disease. This type of tying up is caused by an abnormality in how muscle glycogen – the fuel that causes muscle contraction – is stored and broken down during exercise. Giving starchy feed to a PSSM-affected horse who isn’t working causes them to build up huge stores of abnormal muscle glycogen, which can subsequently cause tying up when they are exercised.

Stabling horses and feeding high levels of concentrate feed are both associated with an increased risk of colic, so if horses are going to spend more time than usual confined in stables, reducing their hard feed is sensible. Stabled horses on high intakes of starchy hard feed are more likely to have excess exuberance and can become difficult to manage, ride or both – another good reason to reduce the amount.

Stabled horses should ideally have ad lib (free choice) access to forage, unless they are overweight or would become overweight on such a regime. Ad lib forage keeps their digestive tracts healthy and fulfills their psychological and physical need to chew. Having plenty of forage to chew also allows them to have a normal time budget, which provides good welfare. Given free choice, horses spend almost three quarters of their time eating.

Fit horses on enforced rest should ideally have as much turnout as possible, providing they are not on box rest for a clinical reason. If turnout is not an option, they should be walked out daily, for as many miles as is practical. If your arena or hacking routes are icy and unsafe, consider transporting your horse to an unaffected surface, or even to a treadmill or swimming pool.

In conclusion, if your stabled working horse has an unplanned rest, drop their hard feed ration back and try to allow as much movement as possible.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.