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Feeding the Heavy Horse

With heavy horses turning their sizeable hooves to a variety of activities these days, ranging from pleasure rides, showing and dressage to the more traditional pulling and ploughing, providing the right nutrition is essential. Our nutritionist – Lisa Elliott MSc – is a bit of a heavy horse nut, and had a beautiful giant called Rupert in her life for many years and in this article Lisa gives the lowdown on feeding your gentle giant for optimum health and well being.

The Basics

Regardless of whether a horse is a shire or thoroughbred, they still need the same essential nutrients in their diet. These are: water, energy (carbohydrates and fats), protein, vitamins and minerals and they are all vital for life.

Water is easily the most important and given that a heavy horse can drink around 54 litres per day, it’s essential that your horse has access to clean, fresh, palatable water, which is free of contamination.  Warming up water in colder conditions and supplying salt (around 3-4 tablespoons per day for heavies) can help encourage drinking so your horse stays well hydrated.

Forage First

As for all horses, a heavy horse’s diet should always be based on good-quality ad lib forage for optimum digestive health. Forage like grass, hay and haylage ideally fed at a rate of 2 – 2.5% of bodyweight, provides an ideal source of energy from fibre (complex carbohydrates).

Heavy horses are generally very efficient at digesting and extracting maximum levels of nutrients from their feed. This means they will often need less energy to maintain body condition than their lighter relatives and are usually very good doers. So, if your horse is not working hard, then forage fed alongside a high specification balancer to meet vitamin, mineral and protein requirements is usually all that is needed and represents the perfect diet.   However, its often a good idea for owners to be aware of the NSC (starch and sugar) levels in forage for heavy horses as they can sometimes be prone to obesity and metabolic problems. Ideally you should be looking to maintain your horse at a moderate Body Condition Score (BCS) of 5 – 6 on a 9-point BCS chart.

Certain heavy horses can also be prone to Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), a genetic defect in the way that starch and sugar are stored in the muscles, so it makes sense to keep their levels to a minimum with a high fibre, forage-based diet.

The Working Heavy Horse

Heavy horses who are working regularly at higher intensities will likely need more energy to fuel work and maintain body condition that forage alone can provide.  The easiest way to supply this is to offer a higher energy feed alongside forage. Ideally the feed should contain a blend of energy sources to fuel work more efficiently, like highly digestible fibre (complex carbohydrates), fat, and controlled levels of starch and sugar (simple carbohydrate).

Heavy horses differ from their lighter relatives in both muscle composition and mass. An increased muscle mass means that heavy horses can often benefit from additional good-quality protein, particularly those that are competing regularly in pulling, ploughing and heavy working classes, to fully support muscle strength and integrity. Consider feeds containing good-quality protein sources like soya and linseed for optimum power and performance.

By being aware of the specific nutritional needs of heavy horses to provide the right diet and management, you can help keep your gentle giant happy, healthy and performing well, whatever the discipline.

Castle Heavy Horse Mix

This palatable mix is specifically formulated to support the needs of heavy horses, supplying targeted nutrition for optimum performance of heavy horses in regular work, competition and showing.

If you have any questions for Lisa about how to create the best diet for your horse, email or call 01497 570345.


Handsome Rupert

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