The Science (and Art) of Feeding: Top Advice from TopSpec’s Katharine Mieras

The other day we were lucky enough to have the lovely Katharine Mieras from TopSpec come to visit the shop and give the staff training on the latest products in the TopSpec and VetSpec range.

Feeding horses these days seems to be a more complicated task than ever and trying to navigate your way through the myriad of products on the market can be a challenging and daunting task! Largely it’s more complicated because the science behind horse nutrition and the accompanying research undertaken into it has produced a feed palette more specialised than ever for us as owners to choose from. I remember 20+ years ago when I got my first horse (yes it was that long ago, and yes I am that old, as the much younger girls in the shop like to remind me…) and he came to me with a feed regime that consisted of barley, flaked maize and sugar beet! No wonder he was so spooky! But feeding cereals straight like that was pretty common at the time and it’s amazing to think how much the landscape of equine nutrition has changed since. Nowadays, the focus is on good quality protein and forage as the key building blocks for every horse’s diet. What we then choose to layer upon those, whether for energy, condition, joint support etc are the variables which change according to each and every horse, as well as the ambitions of each and every owner. Feed has become a personal, and hence much more specialised business, and we as owners have had to become much more skilled in the art of feeding it.

 

That’s why having the support of experts such as Katharine is so important. They act as facilitators, synthesising huge swathes of scientific research and data and making it accessible in a way that allows us to make informed choices about what is best for our horses – and dogs! And Katharine is wonderful at that, patiently and skilfully answering the multitude of questions the team had for her! So rather than try and do justice to her impressive knowledge on all things nutrition, here’s some of the team’s questions for your interest instead – you might find something that relates to you and your four legged friends too!

What are some of the risk factors to consider when feeding horses in winter?

It all depends very much on the individual horse and it’s workload. Quite a lot of leisure horses will do less work over winter – shorter days, worse weather, time-poor owners – and need to be fed accordingly with maybe lighter options. Whereas older horses or poor doers need to go into winter better covered and be fed with condition in mind, with a diet based on feeds containing good quality protein. Horses are often turned out for less time, so keeping an eye on the starch level of feed is important. Forage is key and it’s very important to know the quality of forage you are feeding – for example this year the hay and haylage are exceptional and the good doers are paying for it!

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Leo has wintered out better than ever this year because of the excellent quality and quantity of ad-lib haylage on offer. He can often be found with his head stuck in the entire bale

What is the best way to manage weight in ‘good doers’, while still ensuring they receive all the nutrients and vitamins that they need? Especially ones in hard work who may need the extra support but not the extra calories?

Balancers are extremely useful for the horses that don’t tend to drop weight over winter. The low calorie options such as TopSpec Lite Feed Balancer will provide horses and ponies with all their essential nutrients, their hoof supplement, and a probiotic, but without adding condition. For the ones needing extra support, you can choose a higher specification supplement such as TopSpec Antilam or the powdered TopSpec All in One Multi-supplement – both containing a higher specification of vitamins and minerals but both being a low calorie option. Again it’s very important to keep an eye on the hay/haylage quality and ration or soak accordingly, if necessary.

How do horses get ulcers and what can be done to limit the risk?

Horses can develop ulcers for a multitude of reasons, including stress, reduced forage ration, pain, competition, travelling. You can limit the risk by allowing access to ad lib but appropriate forage (ie not rich ryegrass haylage for a good doer!) so they can trickle feed as nature intended. Minimising stress is also important – keeping their environment and routine as suitable as possible. Feeding forage or chaff before work can help form a fibre mat in the stomach to stop the acid splash, or a Feed such as TopSpec UlsaKind Cubes which helps the stomach contents become more viscous and ‘goo-ey’, therefore less likely to splash against the side of the stomach.

In what circumstances would you consider feeding electrolytes?

I usually recommend feeding table salt daily to horses in any form of work. Horses will only usually require an electrolyte supplement if sweating heavily – for example after cross country or gallop exercise – or if their forage intake is compromised, say during travelling. When buying Electrolytes the most important ingredient is the sodium so be sure to pick one with a high sodium content!

How much table salt should you feed?

I recommend a teaspoon of salt for a pony, a dessertspoon for a large pony/small horse,  and a tablespoon of salt for a larger horse. It’s also important to provide free access to a salt lick, although some use these more than others! If a horse is being fed a lot of hard feed then their requirement for salt is lower, but those that are on reduced rations do benefit from the addition of table salt.

What would you recommend feeding a horse with spavin?

If a horse has spavin, I always recommend a Joint Supplement. The best ones contain the scientifically recommended amounts of ingredients for joint support – 10g of glucosamine and 10g of MSM (for a 500g horse), and it’s important to include antioxidants too, to help mop up free radicals around the joint. Always read the labels and the doses recommended on the tubs!

What would you feed a lab who struggles to get enough protein intake but gets fat on air?

‘Slimming’ dog foods will sometimes be bulked up with grain to reduce the calories. Looking for a higher meat content food will mean the protein level is better, which is important not just for muscle tone but for loads of bodily functions. VetSpec Superlite is 50% chicken but contains 20% less calories than the VetSpec Healthy Dog – the kibble contains more air and is higher in fibre, to improve satiety.

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Poppy the lab has a tough time watching her weight! No wonder she needs a rest!

What would you feed a stiff Jack Russell who is sometimes prone to patella fixation?

For patella fixation I would suggest a food with a really good Joint Supplement. VetSpec Omega 3 Joint Mobility includes not only a good level of omega 3 oils, but also a very high level of glucosamine and chondroitin which are very important for joint health. These ingredients will help support the joint and with chicken being naturally high in MSM, it also contains a great anti inflammatory.

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Super cute Jack Russell Tilly-Mint has to watch those dodgy knees!

What would you feed a very fussy dog?

Fussy dogs are usually tempted by high meat content foods, and those that don’t contain a lot of grain – makes them much tastier! We’ve found the VetSpec range at 60% chicken and being cereal grain free is excellent for dogs without a great appetite.

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Gorgeous Spaniel pupper Archie may look like butter wouldn’t melt, but he’s a fussy wee guy!

What is the most common problem that you see/question that you get asked most?

By far and away the most common question I currently get asked is ‘how do I manage my horses weight?’. The winter has been very mild – combined with the excellent conserved forage, and the fact the grass has barely stopped growing – and it’s been a real issue for the good doers. Exercise is definitely the most important way of managing weight, even 15 minutes lunging or loose schooling can make a difference. Choosing low calorie options such as balancers can help, and choosing appropriate forage including soaking hay (minimum of 8 hours) or using low calorie partial hay replaces can also help in their management. Muzzles are also a very useful tool in managing grass intake.

LC

For more information or any additional support and advice, please call the TopSpec helpline on 01845566030.  And remember, there’s 25% off all TopSpec Supplements and half price on all 2kg bags of VetSpec for Dogs throughout March!