Feeding An Off The Track Thoroughbred
A Thoroughbred which has just finished its racing career or come directly from a spelling farm will have very different nutritional requirements to a Thoroughbred who has never raced or spent minimal time in race training. This is due to the diet they are fed whilst in training and spelling.
When assuming responsibility for a recently retired racehorse, it is important to be aware of what they have been fed previously, so their nutritional needs can continue to be met as they “let down” and transition to their new life with you as their partner.
Most horses in training will have received a very high amount of concentrate in their diet (hard feed in the form of grain, such as oats/corn/barley). This high concentrate feed will have allowed them to obtain enough energy during their racing careers to encourage muscle growth/development and support body condition.
However, to understand a little about how this is relevant to you as their new owner, you need to have a basic understanding of the horse’s gastrointestinal system (stomach and intestines) and how they function.
As the horse has evolved to be a grazer/forager in the wild, it has been designed with a large hindgut (caecum) which acts as a fermentation chamber in order to produce energy. This means for a horse to stay healthy it needs forage (such as grass/hay) for the hind gut to ferment 24hours a day. This will lead to a fine balance of microflora in the hindgut, which is capable of breaking down forage and providing energy and vitamins/minerals to the horse.
Once we ask the horse to undergo more rigorous exercise, whether this be dressage/showjumping/racing/eventing, the horse will need greater support in the form of energy. This will be mostly supplied by people in the form of grain (starch).
A small amount of starch (no more 2g starch/kg of horse bodyweight e.g. no more than 1kg in one meal for a 500kg horse) can be tolerated by the horse, as it is broken down in the horse’s foregut. However, once your feeding surpasses the recommendations, the undigested starch will move into the horse’s hindgut (fermentation chamber). Once the starch enters the caecum it will undergo rapid fermentation which results in pH shift to acidic, as well as favouring bacteria that are less able to break down fibre (such as grass/hay).
If your horse’s hind gut becomes acidic, it predisposes them to many diseases which may start to manifest clinically and affect their ability to be healthy and perform at their best for you. These diseases include colic, diarrhoea, laminitis, and the ability to absorb essential vitamins/nutrients, manifesting as poor hooves and a dull coat, as well as inability to retain condition.
This is relevant to you as your horse is likely to have finished his career with a diet high in grain and a gut microflora. They will need support to transition back to a forage-based diet whilst obtaining sufficient energy from feed and sufficient vitamins/minerals to be healthy.
With this overview of how a horse’s gastrointestinal system works, here are some tips to support your new best friend through the “let down”:
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