Native breeds have become an increasingly popular choice over recent years and we now see them being used with great success across many different disciplines. Our native breeds have evolved over thousands of years to thrive on very low quality pasture, often on exposed hillsides or moorland and would constantly be on the move, seeking fresh grazing areas or shelter. In their natural environment, these ponies would lose a percentage of their bodyweight over the colder winter months when grass is less readily available and their bodies have to work harder to keep them warm. They would then regain this condition in the warmer spring and summer months. The domesticated lifestyle many natives now live is far removed from this; they may spend prolonged periods of time stabled, be turned out on rich, fertilised pasture and be rugged over the winter months. Many natives now don’t go through a natural weight loss and gain cycle resulting in them entering spring carrying too much weight, causing a headache for their owners!
Spring is often a time of particular concern when you own a native, as the weather is starting to warm up and the grass is almost visibly growing. In order to make life easier for both you and your horse, it is important that calorie intake is strictly controlled at this time to prevent rapid weight gain. There are a number of options including limited turnout, grazing muzzles, and strip or track grazing techniques but all of these could lead to your horse going for considerable amounts of time with very limited fibre intake. This leaves the dilemma of what to feed. Stalky, late cut hay often undeniably has a low calorie level, but it may be of particularly poor quality, be dusty and mouldy and lead to respiratory problems. Or, it may just quite simply be unpalatable to your horse. Unless you pay to have your hay analysed, it can also be difficult to know exactly what sugar, energy and protein it is providing, and if we have weather that is especially favourable for hay making, even the coarsest looking bale may have a surprisingly high WSC (Water Soluble Carbohydrate – i.e. sugar and starch) content.
One option is to choose an appropriate bagged forage product which has an energy level suitable for good doers and those prone to laminitis. The grasses in this type of forage will have been allowed to mature for longer in the field before harvesting. This, combined with the unique fermentation process that occurs within the bag means that each bale should provide a sugar level that is consistently lower than good quality hay, is low in calories yet still provides high levels of fibre.
If your native is on a very restricted diet, ensuring they receive sufficient vitamins and minerals is a further complication. Often these individuals are given a token feed, far smaller than the manufacturer’s recommended amount, resulting in compromised vitamin, mineral and protein intake. Vitamins and minerals are essential in almost all bodily functions from maintaining a healthy metabolism, to hoof and bone growth and development. Likewise, although you certainly don’t want to supply a ration high in protein, ‘good quality’ protein is important as the essential amino acids it provides (amongst other things) supplies the building blocks to maintain muscle tissue, supports healthy hoof growth, and improves coat quality. Consider a fibre-based complete feed which has been specially formulated to take into account the dietary requirements of horses that need a low calorie diet, and when fed at the correct weight, will supply everything they need but with a very low calorie level. As all your horse’s vitamins and minerals will be included, there is no need for any further bucket feed.
Top Tips for Feeding Natives
- Natives have evolved to put on weight during the spring/summer months and lose it over the winter – allow this to happen! Going into the spring with a lean native will make life much easier.
- Don’t rug your native unless you really need to. The extra energy requirements of keeping themselves warm will help to burn off that extra weight.
- Don’t over feed during the winter months – let the weather help you to get rid of that extra weight rather than providing costly additional feeds your horse may not need.
- Always provide a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement/balancer/low calorie fibre feed as forage alone is unlikely to be balanced.
- Choose your forage carefully and always try to feed low calorie options.
- Prevention is better than cure, when spring arrives, use grazing muzzles/strip or track grazing to limit grass intake.
- Regularly weigh tape so you can catch any weight gain quickly.