horse health food

Yes, I’m not kidding!

A healthy diet is not only important for us, but also very much so for our four-legged buddies.

I often get the feeling that many horse-owners don’t know what their horse needs in its diet and just buy whatever looks like a fancy muesli mix.

First of all, what a normal and healthy horse really needs is ample water, unrestricted straw and hay, some grass and maybe  some of them a few scoops of oats.

Horses are grazing animals, which means they spend most of their day munching on something. They have to! If a horse is deprived of hay or grass for too long it can cause digestive problems, a notable decrease in performance and even dangerous colics.

Daily hay ration: 10 – 15 kg (depending on the size of your horse)

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This article is about feeding horses, but then I so often see people stuffing their already fat and under-trained ponies and horses with mueslies, apples and other stuff they certainly don’t need. So, whenever you think about buying feed for your horse or thinking about changing its diet, ask yourself: does he/she really need this?
Over-feeding is not horse-love, it’s animal cruelty.

Another word of caution must be said about horses with special requirements, such as horses with hay allergies, summer itch or laminities (often seen in ponies, Icelandic horses and Haflingers). Please make sure to discuss every aspect of their diets with your vet, even ask about how to regulate grazing times on the meadows and what their stable bedding should be like!

To prevent the development of such ailments in your horse, always make sure your horse isn’t being oversupplied with proteins. Do your horse the favour and never give them more than what is recommended to feed per 100 kg of horse-weight, ask your vet if you don’t know what your horse might weigh.

Now, this is a little list of feeds and supplements for a healthy horse diet. The order is decreasing with importance and/or frequency of feeding those items:

herbs

I’m a big fan of herbs. They are mild, natural but effective supplements to balance your horse’s diet and help it with ailments it might have.

There’s many different herbs and herb mixtures to help with the change of fur, hooves, lungs and respiratory problems, joints, muscles, nervosity and many other things.

Our 25-year old tall, slightly skinny and arthritic ex-athlete gets these herbs:

For his heart:

  • hawthorn
  • rosehip

For his arthritis:

  • dried ginger
  • devil’s claw (or grapple plant)

Those two I need to switch every few weeks. Read up on your herbs, don’t feed them blind!

2x / year a little detox for 6 weeks each:

  • milk thistle herb (to help detox his liver)
  • goldenrod (to help detox his kidneys)

There’s lots of different herbs for different requirements. Some can be fed long-term, others only for a short period of time. It’s always important to be sure about the exact amount (yes, I weigh Wesley’s 36 grams/day of each herb).

If you don’t know too much about herbs and what amounts and periods to feed them, make sure to ask your vet or an equine health practitioner, such as your Osteopath.

In case you live in Germany, I can only recommend my herb supplier – they are super-fast, have subscription options with mixtures depending on the season, and an in-house horse health expert who will advise you via email or phone: www.deganius.de

carrots, parsnips and beetroot

dinner for two

A great and healthy treat for all kinds of horses.
Can be fed up to 1 kg per day and regulates digestion as well as increasing appetite.
For horses with bad teeth or “senior” jaws, you might want to chop up the carrots into small, mouth-sized pieces.

mineral feed

  • yeast
  • chalk
  • salt

Mineral mixes are generally something I’d recommend feeding. But be aware of what your horse might be missing in its daily hay and grass supply. Speak to your farmer or vet.

The prepared mineral mix I feed (only 2x/week – we have very fat meadows) consist of:
Calcium carbonate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium chloride, wheat germ, wheat flour, wheat bran, brewer’s yeast, Magnesium oxide, soya oil

oils

  • linseed oil
    The perfect supplement for a shiny coat & strong hooves. I feed it during fur-changing season.
  • mixed-seed oil or sunflower oil
    This is good for coat and digestion, I feed it the rest of the year since my old boy doesn’t utilise his food very well any more and tends to get skinny.
  • Marigold and plantain oil help with itchy skin.

Oils are especially useful when the seasons are turning and they are shedding or growing their winter fur. Don’t feed oils to overweight horses though!

mueslies and other stuff

I much prefer mixing hay cubes, corn cubes or flakes (only for light horses or skinny old ones!) and squeezed oats myself. The cubes need a while to soak – but then I’m rarely out there for less than an hour. This is also much cheaper than ready-made mueslies are.

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Yummy, yummy mess!

If you really feel you need to feed pre-mixed muesli or when time is of the essence, then buy grain-free and molasses-free muesli.
I’m assuming here, you don’t happen to have a horse in the stable that gets heavily trained every single day and goes to tournaments every weekend.
If you do, then make sure they also get the following:

supplements for athletes

  • electrolytes (especially when they have been sweating a lot)
  • grains (in addition to oats)
    Only needed with underweight horses or real athletes, not for leisure horses.

apples and bananas

Feed apples and bananas sparingly and not too frequently, as a high-sugar diet can cause many health issues in your horse.
An apple before a training session might perk your buddy up, though!

 

 

 

The perfect in-saddle training session

Why train horses at all, you might ask?
Horses are as fragile as they can be strong. Seeing them play on the meadow, when they act all imposing and full of energy always fills me with awe. That’s what they are made for, playing, dozing (a lot), eating (even more) and walking – in the wild 30 – 50 km per day.

What they aren’t made for: carrying the weight of a rider on their backs.
And this is precisely why we need to train them accordingly, we simply owe them.

A well-trained riding horse is not only well muscled in its neck, back and hindquarters, ideally it is perfectly balanced with all four legs perpendicular to the ground, can stretch its neck forward-downward in a relaxed way without falling forward and shows self-carriage under the rider as well as without.

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Beautifully executed forward-downward stretch without reins shown here by Andrea and her 7-year old mare. Note her upright but relaxed and independent seat.

To form a well-balanced, strong and self-carried horse with a great posture, we work a lot from the ground. But a thought-out riding session can also help your horse improve:

5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together

Take some time with your buddy to arrive where you want to be, with him/her. Cuddle a little or do some leg stretches, then walk around the arena together and get tuned in to each other. As much as you might still be with work issues in your head, your horse isn’t much different.

  • Walking together: The great advantages of walking together is that you can give your horse the chance to loosen up its back and most importantly produce joint fluids that are vital to avoid injuries. Don’t forget that a horse in captivity is mostly just standing around and usually rather stiff when you pull it out to go for a ride.
  • Ground exercises are a great way to gain your horses attention and interest before getting into the saddle as well as loosen up the musculoskeletal system.

10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing

  • Getting in the saddle:
    Use this as your standing ritual to practice standing still with your horse, don’t kick it into a walk as soon as your behind hits the saddle. What’s it going to learn from that? Well, probably not standing still and patiently until you are ready. This becomes especially important for save dismounting and mounting out and about on the trail.
  • Please do yourself and your horse the favour to use a mounting block whenever you can, even if your horse isn’t that tall. It will spare its probably still stiff spine from being pulled to one side by the rider’s weight and when practised regularly gives them a “target” for standing patiently for you to mount.
  • Warming up at the walk: Choose big figures and light exercises, for example leg yields (I explain more about this further down), big serpentine lines to do initial bends on. As a rule of thumb: walk your horse straight to start with, then go into wide bends, avoid tight bends and turns before your horse is fully warmed up.

15 Minutes: Warm-up

  • “Jogging round”, trotting exercises (relieve the horse’s back through posting to the trot, stepping on the stirrups), again first on straight lines, then bended lines.
    I encourage all my pupils to make the jogging rounds a fixed routine in their riding, at the beginning and at the end of each riding session. Horses feel save and relaxed with routines they know. And there’s no point in working a horse that isn’t relaxed.
  • After 5 – 10 minutes, ask for lots of walk – trot, trot – walk transitions to soften your horse. This also builds strength in the haunches and the lumbar region of the back and  improves their self-carriage. Be patient with the downward transitions in young horses and use your voice in combination with your seat with all requests, and only then the reins.

Watch out for active hind legs, a relaxed top line and frequent neck stretching – this should make up most of your session.

posting trot and forward-downward
Posting to the trot to relieve his back – Slight forward-downward position

10  Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot

  • First, a little definition of side-step exercises:

1) Leg yields: can be ridden on the long side or diagonals, more challenging on circles or bent lines in walk, trot and even canter.
Leg yielding means asking your horse to step sideways with its front and back legs. The horse is straight in itself, with possibly a little positioning of the head towards your inside leg (if you do it on the long side, your inside and outside leg switch around in this exercise). Do not override the angle, maximum 45° towards the arena wall.

2) Shoulder in: long side or big circles (+ counter shoulder-in to the outside of the arena) in walk, trot and canter.
With a shoulder in, you are asking your horse to to keep its hindlegs in a straight forward movement on the same track (be careful not to push the hindlegs out), meaning its hindlegs should step straight and forward and not cross! The head is slightly positioned inwards with a minimal neck bend and its forelegs are on an inside track crossing each other, with the inside foreleg crossing over the outside foreleg. From the front you’d ideally see three legs, as outside front and inside back legs align – this isn’t the most important part though, more important with this exercise is to keep the hindlegs straight and forward stepping.

3) Haunches in: long side or diagonals (also called traverse) in walk and trot, – leave the “bended sidesteps” in canter to the pros as this requires your horse to take a lot of weight on the outside hindleg. The counter-exercise here is called renverse.
This is in effect the opposite of shoulder-in when it comes to your horses footfall: the forelegs are on the original track stepping straight and forward, the haunches come on an inside track (mind that front outside shoulder, don’t let it pop out) and the outside hindleg pushes forward and crosses over the inside hindleg. What stays the same compared to shoulder-in is your very soft positioning and slight neck bend to the inside.
I recommend doing haunches-in only with well-carried and strong horses, not a beginner’s lesson as it isn’t productive when not executed out correctly.

! Very important for a harmonious and sustainable training routine:
Alternate all collection work with stretching exercises and relieving the horse’s back through posting to the trot (stepping on the stirrups) frequently in between or giving them a walking round after an exercise well done.
Your horse does not have to put its nose into the sand for a correct and beneficial forward-downward movement, however, always look out for active hind legs and a relaxed top line.

5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)

Now, these can also be done very well from the ground and should definitely be practised first time from the ground. I can only recommend getting off your horse in the middle of your riding session, it gives it a chance to get the blood flowing in its back muscles again and will have a great effect on your horses’ interest in your requests. They get bored easily!

  • Turn on hindquarters (“walking pirouette”) = the forelegs move around the inside hindleg. If done correctly, meaning not letting the horse’s front legs walk away from the hindlegs and “leaving” the pirouette movement, this is a great exercise to form the muscles and self-carriage necessary for collection.
  • Turn on the forehand (“counter pirouette”) = the hindlegs move around the inside foreleg. This exercise improves flexibility and strength in the hindquarters, especially in the lumbar back, pelvis and croup area.
    Tip: Rather do leg yields with youngsters as the counter pirouette inhibits forward movement and might lead to stress.

5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work

  • Start on a wide circle, slowly and controlled decrease the size of your circle but maintain the horse’s forward tendency to ensure a correct start of collection, then increase the circle again. Tight but smooth turns and bends, like volts or serpentine lines help here, too.
  • Counter gallop exercises help straighten your horse, vary tempo and use the middle line (off the sides) frequently to check for straightness.
  • Flying changes are a great way to work those back, shoulder and hip muscles. You may want to start doing these over ground poles first.

5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down

  • Posting trot jogging round = make this a routine, your horse will quickly learn that jogging rounds are there for it to relax and leave the session with a good feeling.
  • Wrap up: dismount, say thank you, loosen the girth and walk a few rounds together.
  • Don’t forget, especially when it’s cold out: Blanked the horse when sweaty until dry!
getting out of the saddle
Say thank you when you get off!

 

*My time indications are, of course, recommendations:

  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together
  • 10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing
  • 15 Minutes: Warm-up at the trot
  • 10 Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot
  • 5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)
  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work
  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down

For rehab candidates, youngsters and older riding partners I recommend long warm-ups and very short work intervals.
As a rule of thumb: Try not to ride longer than an hour.

6 steps before getting in the saddle

Yes, there’s no better place between heaven and earth than on a horses back! Even though I am much more on the ground nowadays, there’s still nothing like a racy gallop in the early morning when the sun has just come up behind the Alps, the meadows are still dewy and the last mist whorls recede into the forest. Or one of these days when everything seems to go easy and smooth while practising those dressage moves in the arena and your horse is all gaits and movement.

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I haven’t forgotten that feeling, I still understand it, but lately more and more horse owners are giving me the feeling what really wanted was a mountain bike, not a living, breathing, highly social animal.

Think about it. We keep horses in captivity that would walk 30 – 50 km per day in the wild. Every other day or so, we pull them out of their herd (hopefully not a tiny 3×3 m box) for an hour, clean them, saddle them, hop on, ride around, put them back… same procedure every time.
Wouldn’t a mountain bike do the job?

Here’s why I try to teach horse owners to vary their training:

First of all, it will hugely improve the relationship you have with your horse. To build trust, horses need a fair leader, good communication and body language – that’s rather difficult when you spent most of your time together in the one spot it can’t see: your horse’s back.

Secondly, that aforementioned back is a lot more sensitive than most riders are aware of. After only 15 minutes under saddle, a horse’s back becomes numb, like a foot gone dead from sitting awkwardly. Its vertebraes are compressed, blood circulation comes to a standstill – you are, after all, sitting on its spine!

Lastly, you will get much better training results compared to doing everything from the saddle. Be it teaching a new move, giving your horse courage to be saver on the trail or just see them in action from the ground.

These are the 6 steps I recommend doing regularly and definitely well before getting into the saddle of a new horse. Your horse will love you for leaving the saddle home every now and then!

1. Grooming

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Grooming your horse is a great way to build a strong bond between you. And by grooming I don’t necessarily mean the cleaning you do before you saddle them, it’s much more an act of friendship. Just take a moment as often as you can, to walk up to your horse and give it a friendly scratch with the tip of your fingers, if you have a sensitive horse, just give them a rub with the flat of your hand. Watch their eyes and ears to find out which ones are the good spots.

Scratching the withers or the top of the mane relaxes horses and releases calming endorphins. Horse buddies do it all the time, be a buddy!

2. Walkies

I go for walks with all horses on a regular basis, even if it’s just a 15 minute detour before going to the arena to train. Just a few weeks ago, it was a real struggle for her owner and me to lead this young chestnut mare below. Cody would crowd you, be inattentive and frequently jump into you.
To practice leading, I keep a whip between the horse and me in my right hand. This helps define the space between us and keep her front shoulder away from me, with a flick of my wrist I can bring the whip in front of her chest to keep her from speeding up or overtaking me. Cody now lets herself be led relaxed and respectfully, and it improved her courage and confidence to walk by herself.

leading

Mostly though I go for walks when my time is limited, it’s a great way to say, “let’s do something fun together”, and gets the juices flowing. And a little early morning walk or after a stressful day in the office, it really gets you back on the ground.

3. Hanging out / Feeding & Grazing

This one might be the easiest way to build a real relationship with your horse. Just be around without wanting anything from them every now and then. If your horse has the privilege to live in a free herd, you’ll likely already be spending some time with them after training to feed them – if not, try and make it a habit.

Just take your buddy out to a spot of yummy grass or put a chair into the paddock, you can even read a book. And I can already picture the huge grin on your face, when your horse lifts its head from the grass to walk over and check in on you, all by itself.

4. Liberty Work

halt

Liberty work is spending time with your horse at liberty, meaning no tack, no strings attached. Start out doing this in an enclosed space, a paddock or arena.

When starting out with liberty training, don’t expect too much and take it easy. This is time for you and your horse to have fun together, at liberty.
Begin by walking together in different positions: partner/companion position, leading ahead, driving from behind (herding).

Then practice stops and starts, left and right turns, backing up…

When Wesley and I do liberty training and he decides to walk away, I let him.
I give him a few moments, then I call him – and wait. It mostly takes a little while for him to decide if he should turn around, I can watch him ponder the question: his ears are with me but he’s pretending he hadn’t heard me, until a few moments later he turns around and walks up to me to see what new idea I’ve come up with, a look of curiosity in his eyes you will only see at liberty.

Now in my books, this is the greatest compliment you can get from your four-legged buddy!

5. Lunging

cavesson
halter cavesson

Correct lunging is an art and I will probably elaborate in more detail in a future post.

For now, all I’d like to say about correct lunging is forget all the tack: please do not use bits, side reins or other stuff that will just render the exercise void.
All you need is a lunge and a stable halter, or better yet a cavesson and ideally a dressage whip (forget about the long whips, you don’t need to reach your horse).

 

With lunging you can really practice your posture and body language and how it affects your horse.

From a training perspective it is also a great way to straighten your horse, yes – straightness does not come from trail riding in the same direction. Your horse should be able to move around the circle without “falling out of it”  – ideally you have no tension on the lunge and its ear and eye are with you with an ever so slight bend in its body and neck around you.
Here’s a nice example of my friend Gaby and her Sandro:

Sandro Longe2.jpg

What’s more, lunging is a great diagnostic tool as you can see your horse move freely and can observe rhythm, footfall, self-carriage and decide what you need to work on.

6. Ground Work

This one is especially important if you enjoy riding dressage, teaching “tricks” or are simply interested in improving your partner’s posture and musculoskeletal system.
Ground work means working with your horse from the ground, for this you can use a bridle, long reins, a halter or just a rope and ideally a dressage whip to elongate your arm reach. I use ground work whenever I teach a new move, say leg yielding, or want to improve something, like smoother walk-trot transitions.

With my old boy I do a lot of ground work as substitute for in-saddle training sessions to stretch and smooth his muscles and work on his flexibility, for example when it’s rather warm outside.

I firmly believe, if your horse can’t do (or does not understand) what you are asking from the ground, you have no business demanding it from the saddle.

 

I hope this post gave you some exciting new ideas to try out with your horse, go visit him/her and have some fun together! Happy to hear what you guys do!?