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Shoes mask weaknesses, barefoot highlights strengths

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Diet for barefoot hooves

Ok - let's set out the stall here. In the past I have tried really hard to keep out of any discussions about feed. Many aspects of horse keeping are open to earnest debate, but perhaps none get so muddled and/or muddied as the ones about diet.

But the thing about keeping your horse barefoot - certainly in the UK - is that for many of us, diet is the the biggest factor in whether we will be successful. I define success as my horse being comfortable and happy to work at all paces over a variety of surfaces including rocks/stones.

The thing about diet/feed is that there are so many vested interests and I don't just mean the usual suspects of the feed and drug companies. Feeding your horse/dog/family/yourself is often tied up with a complex set of emotions. It is very hard to be passionate about your horse and completely objective about his/her care.

So how do we meet both the physiological and psychological needs of the horse in relation to diet and meet the needs of the carer (whatever they may be).

For me some of the answer lies in education. That way it is easier to resist the subtle (or not so subtle) marketing and emotional blackmail that horse owners get subjected to.

But unfortunately it isn't that easy for the everyday horse owner to get a decent education about what to feed their horse. So much published information is either out of date/rooted in tradition or led by parties that have something to sell.

One thing I have learnt - is that the horses I have worked with have all learnt to self select. Although I am sending a memo to the little QH that plastic car bumpers are not generally considered to be part of a balanced diet for anyone; horse or human.
Little QH trying out a new supplement...

When I had my PP - all the horses liked to eat the moss from an old oak tree. They also liked to chew on silver birch, but not the other trees. The little QH would spend hours licking the metal gates which were coated in zinc. The arab in particular was an expert at digging up patches of minerals. She would also strip all the leaves from nettles as soon as they died. George mostly seemed to copy the girls. I don't know if that meant he lacked confidence/experience to choose for himself or if he was just doing a natural horse behaviour thing - as in the matriach knows best. I do know he didn't just survive - he thrived.

So - what to feed? This blog is not the place for specific advice but I am more than happy to share what I do with mine.

What I feed

Ad-lib Soaked Hay
I feed ad-lib soaked hay. The hay is soaked for between 1-12 hours to reduce the amount of sugar in it. Steaming doesn't do - its great for swelling mould spores, but sugar has to be leached/washed out.

It took a long time to teach Grace to eat even dampened hay such was her sugar dependancy. If you want a sugar, mineral and/or particulate analysis then Dodson and Horrell offer a hay analysis service. Their website has a reputation for iffy links, so if you can't find the information you need call their nutritional helpline 0845 345 2627.

The hay provides three basics for my horse. It satisfies her physical and emotional need to chew. The fibre feeds the bacteria in the gut and these provide both nutrition and heat for the horse. I often find a cold horse can be quickly warmed up by giving them some hay to eat. Long feed like hay also staves off boredom.

Vitamins/Minerals and nutritional necessaries
I provide Grace with a 'base' of Kwik Beet and micronised linseed. I can increase/decrease the quantity according to her needs, but she always gets a small amount to act as a carrier for her minerals.

The Kwik Beet is very low in sugar and high in fibre and it also has useful levels of minerals which I take into account when analysing Grace's diet. The micronised linseed is an excellent source of high quality protein and oil. Again it has other minerals which I factor in.

To the base I add calcined magnesite, brewers yeast and seaweed. A good source of information about quantities can be found in Feet First. But it is important not to be too rigid as each horse's requirements are different.

Grace has 3 licks. None of them have any sugar in. Each lick supplies something different mineral wise, although the base is salt. Grace gets to choose which one she wants to use. At the moment her favourite is the Himalayan salt lick, but she is also having a go at the one which is high in copper. This ties in with slight signs in her coat that she may be copper deficient. This is not uncommon in areas with high natural iron - but it is largely unrecognised. Pregnant mares that are deficient in copper can have complications at foaling which are frequently fatal.

I am also considering getting her a specialist magnesium rich block. Again she will have free choice.

Supplements are a huge source of expense and worry for horse owners. And many are unnecessary and misdirected. For Grace if a supplement is prescribed by a vet I will have had an intense, active discussion regarding ingredients, efficacy and side effects. Grace doesn't have any prescribed supplements :-)

I don't feed any mainstream supplements. Most have very low levels of the required ingredient and it is cheaper/more effective to feed the 'source' instead. For example instead of 'branded magnesium supplement' at £30 for a small tub I feed calcined magnesite which costs more or less the same for 25kg. Not all horses like CM but you can buy magnesium oxide which is more palatable, albeit more expensive. You can get both of these products from The Metabolic Horse Company.

Be careful though - I have seen a 'specialist' barefoot supplier offering linseed lozenges and waxing lyrical about the health benefits. Unfortunately they don't seem to be aware that linseed lozenges are a waste product from linseed oil production. So the lozenges are low in oil. Equally unhelpful - the waste linseed has been glued into the lozenge shape using sugar syrup/molasses. I have seen these lozenges cause a lot of problems for a horse I do, so I avoid them.

And just because something is advertised as safe for laminitics or low in sugar - read the labels, check the ingredients. If sugar syrup, corn syrup, molasses, glucose or anything similar have been added then I wouldn't feed them. Not even if they have the Laminitic Trust mark.

Help its all so complicated
Feeding a diet based on a horse's individual needs, rather than a prepackaged mix can be a pain while you adjust. But the benefits outweigh the initial frustration.


  • Even if I am cutting calories I can ensure Grace still gets all her vitamin/mineral requirements

  • I know precisely what my horse is getting in her bucket

  • I pay for high quality feed rather than marketing and cheap fillers (like wheat middlings)

  • My horse is calm and settled during 'down' time, but full of energy when working

  • Her coat is shiny and her skin is in good condition

  • My horse will be less likely to suffer colic or laminitis or mental/emotional stress

  • My 'hard' feed bill has been more than halved, but my horse is better fed

  • Micronised linseed is a really good 'blind' for horrible things like bute and even fussy feeders seem to love it. Its the only thing that will tempt Grace to eat 'nasties'.


  • Need to be organised. I bag feed up in advance. Then if I am late to the yard it is easy for someone else to feed Grace for me

  • Some of the ingredients are not sourced by local feed merchants - I get my micronised linseed by post from Charnwood Milling

  • Need to have a good eye for detail. I take photos regularly so I can spot even tiny changes in my horse before they become an issue. Photos are also nice to have and very reassuring

  • I have a nutrition plan which is adhered to and monitored. This means knowing the basics of what a horse requires. Read Feet First as a starter for ten - it is available from Amazon

  • Initially I had to weigh out lots of ingredients until I got a decent set of measuring spoons

If you have any burning questions that I haven't addressed in this blog, then feel free to add your comment and if it is appropriate I will respond in a future post.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Hi Sophie

I came across your site yesterday and have really enjoyed reading all this very useful information you have been sharing about barefoot horses.

My mare has been barefoot for the last 2 years. When I got her she only had shoes in front so they came off straight away and she coped well with the transition with the use of hoof boots - thank heavens for them!!!! I have her on a traditional yard system with horses out at grass during the day and in at night during the winter, then out at grass 24/7 during the summer.

Her feet are great on grassy tracks and on the road, but she is still "careful" on gravel and is ouchy if she catches a random stone (I am not using hoof boots anymore). Like many, I struggle with her diet; she currently has haylage at night, and I feed alfalfa pellets and alfabeet along with a broad spec vit&min supplement (Benevit from Feedmark), magnesium oxide, brewers yeast and garlic. Any suggestions on how I can improve this further would be greatly appreciated. Having read about the micronised linseed, I wonder if this might help? What about the broad spec vit&min supplement, is this really necessary? She is generally a good doer - I tend to just increase the amount of alfabeet she gets over the winter if she's looking a bit lean.

I look forward to hearing from anyone that might have any helpful suggestions.

Thanks so much

Lisa ;oD

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Southern England, United Kingdom