Kathy Carter looks at how forage analysis works and the equine health benefits it can offer

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The scientific analysis of the nutritional and mineral profiles of forage is a useful tool for balancing equine diets, and avoiding the mineral deficiencies that can arise when feeding commercial supplements along with untested hay.

In simple terms, the process aims to ascertain levels of dietary dry matter, digestible
energy, protein, minerals and sugars.

Sally Tobin of forage analysis provider The Healthy Horse Company says her clients predominantly want to assess locally produced hay, to avoid physical or behavioural equine issues that could occur as a result of suboptimal nutrition.

Nicola Tyler explains the process TopSpec follows: “A 500g sample, sourced ideally from multiple bales, is placed in a polythene bag and sent to the service provider for analysis in an accredited laboratory.

“A report is supplied to the client, after which we can offer telephone support, feedstuff recommendation and nutrition plans.”

Nutritional deficiencies
Sally Tobin says those who keep their horses without shoes are particularly pro-active in the area of forage analysis.

“Issues caused by nutritional deficiencies, like weaknesses in the hoof’s structural integrity, white-line separation or just ‘footiness’, become apparent more quickly in an unshod hoof,” she says.

Barefoot trimmer Lucy Priory, of Barefoot South, has studied the work of equine nutrition expert Dr Eleanor Kellon VMD. She agrees that hooves are a strong indicator of health.

“Diet is often a co-factor in some lameness presentations. My clients are shown how to look for clues to a suboptimal diet, such as dry hoof wall, weak horn growth, stretched white line, multiple horizontal lines across the hoof and persistent thrush.”

Farrier Martin John Deacon agrees that diet may be a potential cause of hoof problems, with poor horn structure, suboptimal hoof quality and slow growth being the most common signs.

“With most horses, their general body condition is indicative of whether they’re responding to dietary nutrition,” he says.

“If a horse had poor-quality horn or persistent cracks, and I had eliminated predisposing mechanical, environment and management factors, I would suggest looking into its diet, with the owner potentially utilising forage analysis and supplementation”.

Is it for everyone?
Many horses could benefit from forage analysis, however, lots of owners are unaware of the service. Some would rather trust the nutrient analysis carried out by the manufacturer before the feed or haylage reaches them, reading the breakdown of protein, mineral, sugar and starch published.

TopSpec’s Nicola Tyler says that while this approach can work well in certain situations, horses with conditions such as laminitis, PPID (Cushing’s), insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome or azoturia may benefit from the information that forage analysis provides.

Saracen’s nutritionist Lizzie Drury adds that while limitations to analysis include continuity of forage supply and financial constraints, the service can be beneficial.

“I would always recommend analysis if I was carrying out a ration review for a horse with a particular issue, such as failure to maintain body condition, loss of performance, or a condition such as respiratory disease. Here, you need to know what the horse is getting,” she says.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (15 January 2015)