When it comes to feeding horses, it’s important to provide them with a balanced diet. This is particularly so when considering broodmares – mares that are used to produce foals.
For any horse, providing nutrition is a balancing act. They need to get a large percentage of roughage, benefit from eating 12 – 20 hours a day and like humans, can be negatively affected by too much of a good thing! Feeding horses correctly covers two of the five freedoms:
- Horses should have freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition
- Horses should have freedom to express normal behavioural patterns
Physiologically, horses need to be eating little and often. Their digestive tract is designed in such a way that they need to constantly have food moving through it. For this reason, it is important that they are able to consistently eat. This is why grass and hay (roughage) is so beneficial.
If we gave horses’ access to 12 – 20 hours worth of grain to eat, they would be in big trouble! Plus, it would break our pocket! A good rule of thumb is to feed twice as much roughage as grain – if you feel that your horse needs the added benefit of particular concentrates. Otherwise, many horses can do quite well on roughage only in their diet. This can be made up of grass, hay and chaffs of varying types. These can provide the horse with enough to eat, high levels of energy, calcium, and phosphorus and other vitamins and minerals.
Concentrates are often introduced into the diet because a horse is eating as much as it possibly can consume and is lacking in something – such as energy. A more concentrated feed (grains like oats or corn) can provide horses with this necessary requirement without them having to eat large amounts.
If horses don’t consistently have food moving through their digestive tract, then they have periods of not chewing, aren’t producing saliva and can quite honestly get bored and hungry. This lack of digesting results in a rise in acidic levels in the gut, which can result in stomach ulcers. So to be able to eat consistently is something that they need to do behaviourally to stay healthy.
Feeding the Broodmare
It may come as no surprise to you that horses should be eating 1 – 2% of their bodyweight. Let’s put this into perspective. A 450 kilogram horse (around 1000 pounds) needs to be eating 4.5 – 9 kilograms (10 – 20 pounds) of food daily. This will help them to maintain their current weight.
Obviously, if we want them to put on weight, we need to look at more food or food that is higher in sources that will encourage weight gain. If our horse is obese, then we need to limit their access, but not stop them from being able to eat regularly! This may mean feeding foodstuffs that are lower in nutritional value, but will still take time to chew and consume.
For the broodmare, she shouldn’t be ‘eating for two’ as soon as she is deemed pregnant. This would be a waste of money and wouldn’t be healthy. In her first trimester, she can be fed as you would feed any other horse to maintain a healthy body weight. It is only as she enters her second trimester that you may like to consider increasing her available diet. Once she is feeding a foal, she will be using up more energy than a racehorse in full work!
The Mare’s Gestation
Mares are pregnant for around 11 months and 1 week, or 345 days. This means her trimesters can be broken up into three lots of 115 days. If you know the date your mare was bred, you can work out her due date by using this date, taking away 1 month, adding 7 days and adding 1 year.
An example: my mare was bred on February 1st, 2016 (this would be a northern hemisphere date, in the southern hemisphere breeding is carried out from September to December). If we take away a month, this would bring us to January. Then we add 7 days, bringing us to the date of the 8th. Finally we add a year. Our mare’s due date can be anticipated for February 8th, 2017. Of course, mares don’t follow our timing and it’s no guarantee that this date will produce a foal, but it gives an indication of when one can be expected.
Knowing when our mare was bred and when she was due as well as the general gestational length of the mare allows us to plan her nutrition accordingly. Why is this so important? Because she needs to maintain her weight, stay in good physical shape and grow a foal.
In the mare’s last few months of pregnancy, her foal doubles in weight. This can give you an indication of why correct feeding of the broodmare is so important! As horse owners, we need to know that our mare is getting enough calcium and phosphorus in her diet (this helps to grow bones), enough protein (this aids muscle growth) and enough energy (she is eating for two!). Plus, we want to know that she’s able to eat 12 – 20 hours of the day so that she will be happy and healthy. That’s a lot to consider!
But if we break it down, we need to make sure that we are giving our mare:
- Plenty of roughage, around 2/3 of her diet
- 1 – 2% of her body weight in food a day
- At least one food source that is high in protein, calcium and phosphorus
- Lucerne (alfalfa) can be an excellent choice
- The chance to eat more in her second and particularly her third trimester
Always when feeding horses, they need to have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Some horses will restrict their food intake if clean water isn’t available. This is particularly so if they’re eating a lot of dry roughage like hay. Never underestimate the value of providing horses with a diet that mimics what they would eat in the wild. A variety of roughage and the opportunity to consistently graze are healthiest for most horses.