The horse is a non-ruminant herbivore, designed to live in herds, roaming freely over open plains, typically eating for 16-20 hours, surviving on a diet of grass, herbs and shrubs, which are high in fibre and low in starch. Our domestication has in general restricted feeding time and introduced uncharacteristic feeds such as starchy cereals, protein concentrates and dried forages.
With this in mind, when formulating equine diets, it is not just the feeds that eat that need to be considered, but their feeding behaviour. Our feeding practices and management change can vary, but how horses have evolved has not. Working in harmony with the horses digestive and behavioural needs will ensure a healthy happy horse inside and out. Gaining an understanding of what they need, why they need what they do and the risks associated with them not having these things, is vital for overall health and wellbeing. This is the case both physically and behaviourally and will help avoid many health issues; particularly those that are diet related or that can be controlled and prevented by diet and management.
Brief explanation of what a routine visit would entail
A routine visit would include a full assessment of the horse, taking into account weight, body condition score, age, breed, temperament, workload, energy, health status / veterinary issues, current management, pasture details, the type of forage and feeds fed and the amounts.
An accurate weight can be taken on a weighbridge to ensure accuracy of feed rations and the balance of nutrients. Condition scoring gives and indication of current health status risk and / or disease risk. Overall health and performance will be affected when horses are at the lower and higher ends of the BCS scale, so it is important to address this to minimise the risk of health issues. Any concerns are discussed, and it is an opportunity for the owner to ask as many questions as they need to. Independent nutritionists have the whole feed market to choose from when making recommendations.
Are any specific times of the year or reasons why a horse would need a nutritionist
There is not really a specific time of the year that a horse needs a nutritionist; that would be dependent on the individual! However, nutritionists advocate regular visits to ensure that any changes or issues that may arise, are addressed, allowing them to be proactive. This keeps the horse in the best of health and performing optimally. The majority of clients have quarterly visits, so that they know that their horse is always being fed to bodyweight and so that any increases or decreases in bodyweight are dealt with promptly and accurately (which can be difficult to detect when you see them all the time!). Regular visits allow nutritionists to be proactive and are there to ensure that the horse is always getting exactly what is needed and for dietary adjustments to be made where necessary.
A nutritionist is an invaluable part of your horses health care support team; all health professionals are there with one priority; to help keep your horse in the best of health. Prevention is always better than the cure!
Problems often seen in horse behaviour / eating habits etc that would indicate a need for getting checked
Nobody knows your horse better than you and I would always advise addressing any changes in behaviour or eating habits, no matter how subtle those changes are. Changes in appetite, performance, overall mood and any new behaviours that may appear, such as crib biting and box walking are all indicative of something being out of sync. Checking feed, feed regimes and feed management are a good starting point; small changes can make a huge difference!
Nikki Meggison – Independent Equine Nutritionist