Rest and recovery: just what the doctor ordered
Whether a racehorse needs some downtime from the rigors of track life or a show jumper is on stall rest with a bowed tendon, the right nutrition can make a difference in recovery time and extent of recovery. Some horses will require less energy intake, while others with more significant injuries to overcome may require additional calories, because the immune system can be a major drain on energy reserves. Balanced nutrition is key to maintaining a healthy horse so during times of illness, injury or post-surgery, proper nutrition is that much more critical. Supplementing a balanced diet with nutrients that nourish and protect the digestive tract can also help to ensure your convalescing horse regains or maintains the ability to optimally digest and absorb needed energy and nutrients from feed and forage. It is important to communicate with your veterinarian when managing a lay-up or convalescing horse. He or she knows exactly what challenges your horse is facing and can help you design a diet that meets specific needs.
High-quality fiber and plenty of it
The foundation of any good diet is fiber. Fresh green grass is best but it isn’t always possible to provide it to a stall-bound horse. Hand grazing can limit boredom and provide much-needed nutrients. Long-stemmed hay should be available all the time. More mature hays that contain less energy can be used when counting calories. Richer alfalfa hays provide more energy, vitamins and minerals for horses that need them. Cubes and pellets are also appropriate, but some long-stemmed hay is necessary for a healthy GI tract.
GI tract support
Supporting optimal digestive tract health is imperative when horses are recovering from a trauma or illness. Research has shown that when a horse’s routine and diet are disrupted, he can develop gastric ulcers in a matter of days. The sensitive microbial population of your horse’s hindgut can be thrown out of balance in a matter of hours when feeding schedules are altered. Antibiotic therapy can disrupt the microbial population in the hindgut and NSAIDs can cause gastric irritation. While your horse is recovering, make all feed changes slowly, provide access to free-choice hay if possible, and feed frequent, small concentrate meals that are low in sugar and starch. Offering supplements that buffer excess acid and support healthy GI tract tissues will greatly reduce the risk of both gastric and colonic ulcers, and colic and laminitis that are caused by digestive tract imbalances. Overall GI tract health impacts the immune system, so a healthy gut really does equate to a healthier horse.
High-quality fats are excellent sources of energy for horses in need of increased calories without increased carbohydrates that may disrupt the hindgut. Fat is also a “cool” feed, in that the hormone spikes associated with high-starch feeds, which cause excitability, do not occur when fats are absorbed; thus, horses stay calmer during lay-up periods. Horses stalled for extended periods of time may become depressed or bored, but maintaining energy intake is vital for complete recovery. If horses become finicky or ‘back off’ feed, then ensuring they consume significant calories in a small meal may be necessary. Fat is the perfect ingredient to provide those extra calories.
Vitamin/ trace mineral supplementation
Horses that are intended to consume small amounts of feed as a result of post-operative care still must acquire their daily nutrients in order to recover fully. Therefore, providing convalescing horses a concentrated form of highly digestible vitamins and trace minerals plays a key role in recovery.
Natural vitamin E
Vitamin E also plays a significant role in the healing process. As a strong antioxidant, natural vitamin E can effectively minimize the negative effects from free radicals that are produced when horses are ill or suffer from injuries and infections. Convalescing/recovering horses are often kept in stalls to minimize movement and exercise. As a result, the majority of their forage intake should be in the form of high-quality hay. But even the highest quality hay does not have the same vitamin E content as fresh forage. Therefore, supplementing with this critical nutrient in its natural form is especially important for horses recovering from illness, surgery, or over-stressed limbs. Vitamin E also supports a strong immune system.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are nutrients that aid in decreasing inflammation in horses recovering from injury, post-surgery, and illness. This supports quicker healing and may reduce lay-up time.
B vitamins and magnesium
Stalled horses may become restless and rambunctious after extended stays in confinement. Keeping your horse settled and calm is particularly important for horses in recovery but tranquilizers can delay healing processes. Therefore, natural calming aids, such as thiamine (B1) and magnesium, may aid in de-stressing your horse and helping him maintain a calm attitude, which is the best attitude for optimal recovery.