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Horses, like all animals, have a range of nutrient requirements to meet their daily needs. If these minimum requirements are not met, the horse may experience deficiency symptoms. The severity of the deficiency symptoms may depend on the degree of the deficiency and the time period over which the deficiency exists. A sub-clinical deficiency may be the result of a small deficiency over a period of time. Subclinical deficiencies may also result in decreased immune response, decreased reproductive efficiency and decreased performance. A clinical deficiency is present when there are readily observed or measured symptoms.
Horses by nature are grazers, they have a large hindgut specifically for digesting fibre; they are designed to eat for about 18 hours a day. In the wild, horses grazed on whatever shrubs, grass and weeds were available as they moved with their herds, these roughages had varying nutritional values. Today we have access to improved grass species and better pasture management practices that provide high quality pastures with increased nutrient availability and longevity. Hay is a direct reflection of the pasture nutrient availability and conditions at time of cutting. Pasture composition can still be highly variable. It is affected by plant species, soil fertility, water availability, climate, stage of growth and management practices. Applying fertilizer to the soil increases, yield, protein and nutrient content of forages subsequently grown. High temperatures generally increase the concentration of fibre in forages, which has led to a subsequent decline in digestibility. When there is a decrease in leaf proportion there is typically also a decrease in crude protein (CP) concentration and an increase in the concentration of non-digestible fibre. This can also lead to decreased palatability of forages. Temperate grasses tend to have higher digestibility than tropical grasses. Digestibility declines as forage matures, the most effective way of avoiding low digestibility is by maintaining forage in a young vegetative stage of growth by regular cutting or grazing.
Hay and pasture should always make up the majority of the horses diet. Access to adequate amounts of good quality pasture and hay can provide horses with minimal nutritional requirements such as barren mares or non-exercising mature horses with most of their nutritional needs especially energy and protein. Pasture and hay however, are typically always deficient in several trace minerals such as copper, zinc and selenium so it is important to supplement these deficiencies. The diet illustrated in figure 1 may produce some sub-clinical issues over time. The diet in figure 2 shows one option of correcting these issues by adding a low intake vitamin and mineral concentrate such as HYGAIN® BALANCED® or HYGAIN® SPORTHORSE®. Feeding commercial feeds higher in energy and protein therefore only becomes necessary when horses do not have adequate access to good quality pasture and hay or there are increased demands on the horse, such as pregnancy, lactation, growth or performance.
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