Feeding the “poor doer”


Dr Derek Cuddeford, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh

How you approach this rather depends on why the animal is a “poor doer”. There can be a number of reasons why a horse or pony does not thrive. A lot of them can be due to the way in which an animal is kept rather than there being nutrition-based issues. However, it is essential that you have your horse or pony checked over by a veterinary surgeon to ensure that it is not suffering from any treatable condition before you consider any dietary strategies to try and reverse the animals status. Chronic disease is often causal of animals not doing very well.
As everyone knows the mentality of an animal is important in terms of general handling and riding. Some horses are complete “nuts”, being restless, hyperactive and generally pretty difficult to deal with-bit like some people. It is really annoying when these people eat as much as they like and never get fat but of course, we worry when our horses of similar character do not easily hold condition. You could consult a behavioural expert to see what can be done in terms of quietening the horse down. Some feed products are marketed as “calmers” but they do not really work. This sort of animal would be better kept in company (group housed or kept in a field) which should have a calming effect. High-spirited, well-fed Thoroughbreds can be hard to keep in good condition and of course, the more you feed them, the more you train them, the more high spirited they become and the more difficult it is to keep condition!
One simple reason for a horse to be a “poor doer” is that its needs are simply underestimated. How on earth is this possible? It can arise because owners/feeders are not aware of the differences between feeds in terms of their water content. Grass contains about 80 to 85% water so a 500kg horse will eat ~ 60 to 80kg daily of fresh material which in most cases is fine because the horse helps itself. When housed, the horse is fed so this introduces room for error. If supplying average hay (14% water) a horse will need about 14kg daily. In contrast, a horse fed haylage will need very different amounts dependent on its water content. A 50% moisture haylage must be fed at around 25kg daily whereas a 30% moisture haylage should be fed at ~18kg daily. The more water a forage contains, the more that must be fed. A lack of appreciation of the water content of forage can lead to unintentional underfeeding. The solution is simple just feed more.
Horses that are overtrained can become stale and just lose their appetite. It might be that taking them out of training for a while will solve the problem although this can be a real managemental problem. Another approach is to feed small meals (no more than 0.5% BW) frequently through the day paying particular attention to providing fresh, highly palatable feed. For example, a molassed coarse mix is much more attractive to a horse than are pellets or cubes. Haylages or legume hays are usually more attractive than coarse grass hays and obviously, feed containers must be scrupulously clean.
Stereotypic behaviours can turn horses into “poor doers”. A horse that cribs a lot instead of resting can have great difficulty in maintaining condition. Equally horses that weave or stall walk are expending energy unnecessarily and thus need more food in order to try to retain their body score. Of course, a non-dietary strategy is to chuck them outside on grass or onto an all-weather area with company. Unless the behaviour is fixated they should stop performing the stereotypy and thus escape the “poor doer” category.
Confinement is stressful and some animals respond by eating less as well as maybe performing the behaviours noted above which will simply exacerbate the situation. So in fact it is possible to create a “poor doer” that feeding per se will not put right as the animal has no appetite for more food. The obvious solution in a case such as this is turn out before any adverse behaviours develop.
Parasitism can be the reason why an animal does not do well. Many people will have some sort of worming programme in place for their horse or pony but the question arises “Is it effective”? Ask your Vet to check out the animal’s current parasite load and obtain advice on instituting a good worming strategy. After all, increasing the feed allowance to nourish the worm burden is not a good idea. Another issue is that damage to the gut wall could have arisen through previous worm infestations and if this is permanent then absorption of nutrients from the lumen of the gut could be compromised. The result of this is that it will be necessary to supply the animal with highly digestible feed ingredients to try to improve its status. This might entail seeking out better quality forages and providing some quality concentrate/balancer.
Oral problems are often the cause of animals not doing as well as they should. Animals may have an overshot or undershot jaw which makes prehension of feed rather difficult so care has to be taken to ensure that food can easily be gathered into the mouth. If a horse cannot grip food with its incisors it will be less able to pull hay out of a hay net for example so a realisation of this and common sense should enable one to sort this out for the horse. Even with perfect incisor tooth occlusion, loss of incisors can impair feed intake but the provision of chopped forage in a bucket will overcome this problem. Apart from the food harvesting parts of the mouth (lips and incisors) there remains the food processing parts (premolars and molars) that must be in good order. Again, loss of teeth and poor occlusion both impair food processing competence often realised by the presence of long fibre particles in the faeces. This may necessitate feeding pre-ground forage and concentrate pellets.
“Old age is, so to speak, the sanctuary of ills: they all take refuge in it” (Antiphanes, a Greek writer born 408 BC). Many “poor doers” are veterans, seniors or whatever other euphemism you choose to describe an old horse. As the quote implies their bodies have suffered and accumulated a lifetime of insults. As mentioned above there may well have been a history of parasitism sometimes with dire consequences that can contribute to impaired food utilisation as discussed above. It is more likely that some teeth have gone walkabout in an aged horse and this will demand special care in the way of diet as described already. Controversy exists as to whether old horses have different nutritional needs than those of young horses. So far it is unclear but it would be wise to offer old horses good quality diets and several special products are available in the marketplace. Many old horses are “poor doers” for a multiplicity of reasons as indicated so quality food is necessary.
Often animals that struggle to maintain status are those that suffer pain hence the need for veterinary input. Horses with gastric ulcers may remain in poor condition as do those suffering pain for other reasons. As humans we know the effects of chronic pain and having a good appetite is not one of them. A dietary manipulation will have no effect without a veterinary intervention.
Environmental conditions can have a big impact on individual horses that are group fed. They can limit food availability and at the same time increase nutritional needs largely in the form of energy. Horses or ponies in this situation are thus fed to meet needs but at the same time can be in a vulnerable situation. Some might appear to do less well than others and thus be classed as “poor doers”. These animals need to be closely observed at feeding time because in a herd situation however small there will be a certain “pecking order” or hierarchy and it could be that the animals that are not doing well are simply bullied off their feed by a dominant mare. This is analogous to the Alpha male in a wolf pack who gets to eat first. Anyway, the solution is simple, take out the timid members of the group and feed them separately; they will soon recover!
In conclusion, when considering how to deal with a “poor doer” there is a process of elimination. Firstly, seek the help of your vet in order to rule out any disease or treatable causes of poor physical condition. Identify those conditions that can be managed dietetically such as a horse with poor teeth. As a general rule, seek to encourage feeding by offering highly palatable feedstuffs little and often in clean utensils and you can always use oil to increase dietary energy density as described in the last article.

Author: The Editor

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