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Feeding Your New Horse

Q. I’m shopping for a new horse and looking at a preliminary eventer, although we will only be competing at novice level. Currently he’s being fed four good-sized timothy hay flakes and about 9 pounds of a performance feed. I’ll be boarding at a facility that offers orchardgrass hay and alfalfa; it also offers a choice of three feeds from a national feed company. I understand that sudden dietary changes increase the risk of colic and am wondering what I can do to ease the transition if I purchase this horse?​

A. You’re correct that changes in diet increase colic risk. While we often think about dietary changes for horses already in our care, my experience is that relatively few people consider dietary changes that can result when a horse changes owners. Risk factors for colic can remain elevated for some time, because forage changes can increase colic risk for as long as three weeks. Therefore, you will need to stay diligent for at least the first month that he’s in his new home.

Consider Stress Beyond Dietary Changes

When buying a horse, you aren’t just changing his diet but also his environment and management. Some horses are very attached to their people and herdmates, which can also complicate the transition, as it takes time to build a trusting relationship with a new owner and integrate into a new herd. These stressors increase horses’ risk of developing equine gastric ulcers, so this is something else you should consider.

Get Information About His Current Diet

The first thing I recommend is to ask the horse’s current owner or manager about his current diet and routine. Initially, you’ll want to try to keep the diet and management as similar to what the horse is used to as possible. Ask if you can take or purchase a bale of his current hay, and purchase the same performance feed the horse is eating. Start off by feeding the same amount of hay he current eats, and over the first week the horse is in your care, mix in your hay gradually, increasing the amount until you’re only feeding your grass hay.

Be Proactive About Gastric Ulcers

You might also want to add a small amount of alfalfa. However, I would ask the current owner/manager whether the horse has any sensitivities to it first, because some horses do seem to be alfalfa-sensitive. Feeding a small amount of alfalfa might help reduce ulcer risk due to the buffering capacity of the calcium it contains. Ask your veterinarian whether he or she would recommend administering the management dose of omeprazole to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers and, if recommended, find out for how long they recommend giving it.

Gastric-health-support supplements are available, and several have university research showing they might help reduce ulcer risk in times of stress. You might want to consider utilizing one of these for at least the transition period, especially if you decide not to give omeprazole. Supplements can also be useful when you are transitioning off omeprazole. I would also supplement with a good prebiotic, especially something with live or hydrolyzed yeast, as these can help stabilize the hindgut environment and should help ease the hindgut bacterial population through the transition period.

Transition Feed Concentrates Over Seven to 10 Days

Start by feeding the same concentrated performance feed the horse has been eating. Because your barn provides feed, I would consider transitioning to one it offers. Look at the ingredient label and directions for use, and see whether one of the three feeds your barn offers is anywhere close to matching as far as ingredients, nutrient levels, and feeding rates. If so, transition to the chosen barn feed gradually over a seven- to 10-day period.

Consider Changes in Caloric Needs

Keep in mind that, with the horse going preliminary now but only going novice with you, he might not be working as hard and might not need the same level of calories that he’s been getting. Consider whether you should reduce his total concentrate feed intake to maintain his weight and temperament. You might decide that you want to reduce his feed intake and increase his hay until you have established a relationship together and have a better sense of his needs. If you do decrease his feed amount to below the manufacturer’s recommended feeding levels, you will want to switch to a feed with a smaller daily intake that is more heavily fortified or provide additional supplementation to balance the diet. Again, make any transition to a new feed slowly over seven to 10 days.

Take-Home Message

Having a new horse is always exciting but requires careful planning and observation to make the transition as low-stress and easy on the horse as possible. Get as much information about the horse as you can from the person you’re purchasing him from, and ideally try to maintain a relationship with him or her so you can check back in over time if you have questions about your new horse. If you make changes slowly and pay attention for signs of stress, you’ll set yourself up for a successful new relationship.

Published by Thehorse.com