The rules of good feeding state “feed according to work done”, so if you are planning to give your horse a break, you will need to adjust his feed accordingly, but those same rules state that “changes in feeding must be made gradually”, so what is the best way to go about this?

The main reason for cutting feed is to reduce the calorific and, more specifically, the starch and sugar component of the diet, to avoid weight gain, excitability or muscle problems, particularly for horses susceptible to the condition widely known as tying-up, azoturia or ERS.

To keep the horse’s feed the same as normal during a period of time off is foolhardy, unless the horse usually operates off very little hard feed.

Historically hunters and work horses were fed a bran mash on their day off when straights (oats, barley, chaff and bran) were the only options. Bran was popular as it had a reasonable energy content, supplied mainly from fibre, without starch. It was also light in weight and palatable, which is great for tempting a tired horse to eat. But feeding solely bran on a day off meant a drastic cut in key amino acids, vitamins and minerals and antioxidants, just at a time when a horse needs them for tissue repair after exertion. It also meant a change to the horse’s normal rations, which could negatively affect the horse’s digestive balance.

Now most horses are fed a compound feed in the form of a mix or nuts. If a horse is in hard work on a high energy ration and is having a single day off, either you could switch to a feed with a lower energy or simply the amount of the current feed being given, which means the ingredients passing through the digestive system don’t alter. If you decide to switch to a lower energy option, check that the ingredients are similar to their current ration to avoid disturbing the gut’s digestive flora.

Top tips for feeding for a day off

  • Cutting the feed by 50% in a diet for a competition horse cuts the energy by nearly 30%, and the starch level drops by nearly 50%
  • Feed an extra slice of hay or turn the horse out to maintain dietary fibre levels
  • Turning out on fresh, lush pasture may provide just the kind of high nutrition you are trying to avoid — ie too much sugar
  • Keep supplies of micronutrients up — if the hard feed doesn’t contain enough at the reduced level, add a broad-spectrum supplement
  • Use probiotics tactically: their use could be beneficial in helping the gut return to normality