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Quinn on Nutrition: Horses’ needs resemble our own

June 6, 2016

The western way of life is alive and well in Montana. That was evident at the recent Miles City Bucking Horse Sale where — every year for the past 66 years — top cowboys and horses challenge one another in events from saddle bronc riding to horse racing.

Not to be outdone in the festivities was a women’s riding group, the Bozeman (Montana) Saddle-ites. Their mission? To promote western heritage. Good job, ladies.

I was amazed at the physical condition of these athletes — horses as well as humans. What do you feed your horses? I asked Ralph Young, a top breeder of racing Quarter horses in Columbus, Montana.

"High quality hay, a few supplemental vitamins and minerals and plenty of fresh water," he said. Like people, he explained, a horse off his feed does not perform well. And the similarities don’t end there, I learned.

Like humans, baby horses are usually ready for food other than mom’s milk at the age of 4 to 6 months. And they need high quality food that provides protein and calcium for muscle and skeletal development. Because they are growing so rapidly, young ones need nutrient-dense diets — foods that pack a load of nutrition in every bite.

Race horses are indeed young athletes. Many start racing when they are two years old (equivalent to a 19 year-old human). And, like people, horses have different nutritional needs at each stage of life. Pregnant females, for example, have higher energy (calorie) needs than older mares out to pasture.

Forage — plant material such as leaves and stems (aka "vegetables" in human-eze) — is the cornerstone of horse diets as well as those of healthy people. And horses, like people, do better by eating small meals throughout the day rather than one or two large meals, say animal science experts. That’s because horses and people have relatively small stomachs in relation to the amount of food they consume in one day.

Similar to humans, the biggest nutritional problem for horses that are only exercised occasionally is overfeeding — too many calories for the amount of energy expended. Horses, like other species we know, get fat when too much palatable feed is available; the yummier the food, the more we will eat, say experts.

Veterinarians use a body conditioning score of 1 (extremely thin) to 9 (extremely fat) to determine if a horse is in good shape. A middle score of 5 indicates a healthy body type; you can feel but cannot see the ribs of these animals. Horses that score a 6 have a small reserve of fat for cold winter nights. With increasing fatness, however, there is no advantage to health, say experts of horses as well as humans.

"Anyone here from New York?" the announcer boomed to the crowd at the end of this three-day Montana extravaganza. "Welcome to America."




McClatchy-Tribune Information Services