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Mother Nature did not get it wrong when she designed the horse’s digestive system and the feed that works best with it. With equines being ‘prey animals’ their natural instinct is ‘fight or flight’ when danger is real or perceived. They must be prepared to travel long distances at speed to evade capture. The natural way is to take in fuel and fluid through forage as they move along to ensure they stay ahead of their predator!
However, with the modern horse, the danger is more often perceived than real but the horse’s instincts are still very powerful. Therefore, when a horse is under stress (whether real or perceived), the tendency to take on water is diminished, as the sympathetic nervous system prepares for their escape.
Due to more consistent high temperatures and horses travelling further, now more than ever, the traditional methods used to encourage fluid uptake (such as electrolytes, plain or flavoured water) will just not suffice for high level performance equines.
Transportation of equines across the globe is a huge industry and one that is known to trigger psychological stress, especially in the younger animals, leading to substantial losses of body fluids. This can cause a horse to become dehydrated, leading to further complications such as loss of body condition, loss of performance, colic and in some severe instances, death.
Attending equine events can be another psychological stressor, when all they can see are horses seemingly running in every direction. This perceived danger can create another very stressful situation for the horse, especially young or inexperienced horses, so being relaxed enough to drink in these sorts of situations may be impossible for some horses. It is only when horses become desensitised through repeated exposure to these apparent threats that they relax and respond in a less instinctual way. But you can now see that psychology plays a huge role in equine behaviour and the regulatory response to fluid uptake.
This is where the new practice of Equine Nutritional Hydrotherapy (ENH) comes in; this innovative new concept works in the most natural way. Even though the modern day horse does not really have predators, the instinct to forage is still one of its strongest, and can override the regulatory ‘thirst’ response due to forage typically containing between 40% and 80% water. Therefore, whilst evading capture, it is natural for horses to take in fluid through grazing whilst on the move.
At Equidiet (UK) Ltd we recognised this and have developed quality liquid fibre diets that provide ENH in response to the difficulty the equine industry faces in hydrating horses; especially during times of stress, whether due to perceived danger, heat or exertion. ENH also addresses the considerable increase in equine gastrointestinal and metabolic disorders, such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), Laminitis and stereotypical behaviours primarily caused by feeds high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s) according to several research papers, and heightened stress levels caused by modern management practices.
Equine Nutritional Hydrotherapy uses this concept to great effect as it is “the ability of a good quality, natural fibre feed to deliver an adequate level of hydration to an equine to balance body fluid”.
The practice of Equine Nutritional Hydrotherapy (ENH) encourages not only the use of natural whole food nutrition, but it must allow for an increase in the hindgut reservoir of fluid available for the horse to use, as and when required. This balances the body fluids to reduce the detrimental effects of dehydration.
This is now proving to be an invaluable resource for veterinarians within the clinical environment, both in the UK and in Europe, as these formulations can also be administered via a naso-gastric tube directly into the digestive system by gravity flow.
ENH can be provided through various means; the liquid fibre formulations that use quality forage based ingredients allow voluntary uptake of large amounts of fluid and quality fibre nutrition that works in synergy with the natural function of the digestive system. Only structural carbohydrates including soluble fibre will allow water to be carried within their molecular structure. Traditional grain based feeds do not have this molecular structure and cannot provide adequate water to balance body fluids.
Equine sports are on the increase, with tests getting harder, fences getting bigger and distances getting further. The movement of equines across the country, continents and around the world is becoming more widespread. It may take years to evoke change and encourage a more fibre/hydration based diet for the modern equine; old traditions are difficult to alter, with many management systems seeming to be ‘set in stone’.
More recently, with increasing temperatures around the globe, urgent changes need to be implemented and Equine Nutritional Hydrotherapy is the way forward. It has to be recognised as the new ‘norm’ when it comes to feeding and maintaining performance, otherwise we will see more and more cases of dehydration, heatstroke and death in the future. Preparation is the key; optimising hydration and preloading into the hindgut is the only natural way forward. Keeping optimum hydration and fluid balance is vitally important and should now form a crucial part of diet planning moving forward. It is impossible for starch to carry fluid to the hindgut reservoir, therefore, we must now look at providing a method of hydration that goes above and beyond providing plain water or increasing salt levels to encourage uptake, and optimises the hindgut reservoir with good quality fibre in replacement for traditional starch feeds.
To some, this approach may seem hard to comprehend, as traditional methods seem to dominate without question. However, our weather conditions are changing and that means we have to adapt our way of feeding to these extreme conditions that are becoming the ‘norm’, according to recent Met Office predictions.
If organisations are serious about the welfare of performance horses, then the new practice of Equine Nutritional Hydrotherapy must play a role in the planning of diets by the Equine Federations and should even be included in the planning of events where the management of Equine Health is major issue.
We need to realise that our temperatures will be going from one extreme to another and we must prepare for this by embracing change and accepting new ways – rather than staunchly upholding old traditions – if we want the future of our performance horses to be secured.
Equidiet (UK) Ltd is at the cutting edge of this innovative bio technology by providing highly palatable liquid fibre solutions that work in synergy with the natural processes of the equine digestive system. Thanks to their high quality fibre ingredients, they provide adequate energy to keep up with the demands of high performance, as well as supporting horses in the clinical environment to recover in a healthy, more natural way.
This article was written by the founder and Managing Director of Equidiet UK Ltd, Sandra Murphy. For more information about Equidiet UK Ltd and their range of products, visit the Equidiet website.