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Empty Fields Everywhere—Why Movement is So Important
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Consider these potential problems
Obesity. The reason is obvious -- too little activity, combined with too many calories. Reducing calories can be accomplished by minimizing or even removing concentrates from the diet, but forage must never be restricted. Doing so starts a hormonal cascade that actually keeps the horse overweight.
Porous bones. Skeletal bones are made of living, dynamic tissue that is constantly being subjected to changes in mineral and protein content. The horse’s large size helps him build bone mass simply by moving. Inactivity can make horses’ bones porous, potentially leading to fractures when only a slight demand is placed on them.
Poor feet and hair coat. Inadequate blood circulation reduces the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the extremities and hair follicles. Don’t be fooled by the shiny coat that results from added dietary fat – that is simply a result of more oil secretion from the skin’s sebaceous glands. Truly healthy hair and hooves require exercise to delivery necessary nutrients.
Digestive disorders. Horses allowed to graze on pasture 24/7 rarely develop ulcers. Stall confinement is a significant cause of this painful condition, especially when forage is not available ‘round the clock. In addition, digestive tract muscles suffer from lack of activity. A steady, consistent supply of forage will help exercise these muscles.
Physical activity increases blood circulation and stimulates gastrointestinal motility, keeping the entire digestive tract in good shape, lessening the chance of torsions, impactions, and intussusceptions that lead to colic. Fiber digestion is also improved. What is so disheartening is that within two weeks of changes to stall confinement (such as experienced by horses transported to training facilities), the vast majority of horses will develop ulcers and more than half of them will develop colon/cecal impactions.
Mental well-being. The stress of stall confinement and isolation often leads to unattractive behaviors, consistent with trapping any animal – weaving, stall-walking and circling, pawing, wall-kicking, chewing, head-bobbing, self-biting, and even cribbing (which is more than just a bad habit – it is generally done to alleviate the pain of an ulcer). Horses are social animals, requiring time with each other in a herd environment to provide protection, comfort, and mutual grooming.
Metabolic impacts. Sedentary horses lose muscle mass and can become insulin resistant. Muscle uses a large amount of glucose for energy; the more muscle mass your horse has, the more glucose transporters are produced, leading to increased insulin sensitivity. Therefore, exercise not only burns calories, but reduces insulin resistance. Exercise also helps reduce leptin resistance.
Fitness decline. Reduced exercise results in loss of muscle and bone mass which significantly impacts the horse’s fitness level and performance ability. Researchers at Virginia Intermont College found that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness and even more interestingly, pastured horses were able to maintain the same fitness level as horses who were stalled and exercised five days per week.
Growth retardation. A growing horse requires exercise for cartilage and overall bone and joint development. Restricting exercise can result in injury, under-conditioned joints, contracted tendons, deformed legs, and osteopathic disorders.
Accelerated aging. When the immune system is suppressed, the horse becomes more susceptible to catching infections from other horses, developing insect-borne diseases, and exhibiting allergic responses to the environment. Weariness from confinement increases oxidative stress, resulting in free radicals that damage healthy tissues, inhibit repair, and alter DNA. What we once thought as age-related conditions such as degenerative arthritis, and equine Cushing’s disease, now appear in horses at far younger ages.
We need to think “outside the box” (pun intended). We need to find ways to offer our horses a safe environment that encourages movement and grazing time, as well as respects their innate physiological need for forage flowing through the digestive tract at all times.
One innovative approach is to transform an area into a “Paddock Paradise" where horses seek out new batches of hay while walking from place to place. This concept is quite versatile, allowing for even small sizes of land.
Relaxing standards that require keeping a horse stalled so he will stay clean and well-groomed, in favor of having a happier, more naturally kept horse will cut back on maintenance requirements and allow more time for enjoying your horse. Think of creative ways to let your horse outside to be with other horses.
If some stall time is unavoidable, be sure to provide at least two places where hay is always provided. If your horse tends to eat very quickly, start by providing hay free-choice. Once he gets the message that he will not run out of hay, he will start to slow down his eating and be more relaxed. Commercially available “slow feeders” are a good option for many horses, if they are introduced gradually, to avoid frustration
Shelter from harsh weather is a must. This can best be accomplished by offering your horse the option to make choices. Barn stalls with open gates that can be entered at will, allow your horse to decide what is most comfortable.
Confining a horse to a stall or small outdoor area without the ability to exercise leads to an animal who is mentally stressed and physically limited. Exercise, walking, grazing, socializing, and freedom to flee from perceived dangers are essential parts of what makes your horse, a horse.
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices. Dr. Getty’s goal is to empower the horseperson with the confidence and knowledge to provide the best nutrition for his or her horse’s needs.
Dr. Getty’s fundamental resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available in paperback as well as in hardcover and Kindle versions. All except the Kindle version are available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com -- buy the book there and have it inscribed by the author. Print and Kindle versions are also available at Amazon; find print versions at other online retail bookstores. The seven individual volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for equestrians!