EQUINE - Time out holidaying your horse and how to feed for rest periods

1 Oct 2017

It is around about this time of year and certainly up to and across the festive season that many people give their horsey partners a well-deserved rest period or horsey holiday. This can vary from a couple of weeks to a couple of months but what should happen to feeding during these periods?

Rules of Feeding

One of the Golden Rules of Feeding is to “feed according to work done”.  This essentially means that when your horse is given time off and/or a reduction in work load, his feeding should be adjusted accordingly. There is a surprising dearth of information available on this subject matter and what is available is often in the realms of myth and tradition with no real scientific basis.


A horse that is in medium/hard work and/or is being fed more than 1.5 kg per day of a high grain/starch content feed should have its feed rations cut back accordingly when being given a rest day or a short holiday.   Cutting this type (high starch) of feed back is crucial as it results in a drop in calorific intake and more importantly a drop in the starch and sugar content of the diet to avoid excitability or muscle problems (e.g. azoturia or “tying up”).  Also, perpetual good doers that are given time off, should also have their feed cut back as all those calories, no longer used for work, can only go one way!!

Popular ways of dealing with rest days include:

  • Feeding a bran mash on a rest day
  • Keep feeding the same
  • Replace the grain part of the ration with an equal amount of lower energy feed
  • Cut the existing nuts/coarse mix or grain component of the ration back to a third or a half.

Bran Mash

Speaking as a nutritionist, this would be the option that falls into myth and tradition and one which I would not advocate. It absolutely goes against one of the other Golden Rules of Feeding, which is to “make all changes gradually”. A bran mash has traditionally been given to hardworking horses on their day off, historically a Sunday evening for hunters and racehorses, to prevent them from getting “Monday morning Disease” or “tying-up”.

The general idea to cut the grain back is correct but the sudden change of feeding stuff will almost certainly upset the good bugs in the horse’s stomach and could result in a tummy upset. It was also thought that the bran mash had a mild laxative effect so would clear any toxins out of the horse’s body ready for work the next week. This would definitely work in humans, who have relatively low fibre intakes but will have no effect in a horse that eats mostly fibre.  A bucket of bran would be a drop in the ocean in the total fibre intake of a horse! In fact whole oats have the same fibre content as wheat bran, which perhaps puts things in to perspective. The loose droppings, seen the night after a bran mash, are more likely to be due to the fact that the horse has a digestive upset, due to the sudden change in diet rather than some perceived laxative effect. Some people get a 'warm feeling' from feeding their horse a hot feed after a hard week.  If this is the reason then you can give yourself the same effect by adding warm water to his usual bucket feed, there is no need to feed a bran mash.

Keep Feeding the Same

If your horse is on a feed containing higher levels of grain, or straight grain (barley,oats, wheat, maize) only, then this is really not a sensible option because of all the reasons already mentioned; excitability, tying-up risks etc. If however your horse is not in a high level of work and/or is on a high fibre, low starch diet already, then the need to change is not as great, in fact your ability to change anything will be fairly limited and the status quo can happily be maintained.  Nuts or mixes containing grain (barley, oats, wheat, maize etc) and straight grain proportions should be cut by at least 50%, but in most cases to 30% of the usual “working” ration (see below).

Cut the Existing Feed Back

This is the safe and sensible way to deal with a rest period of a day up to a couple of weeks or so. Not only does it remove the risk of making a sudden change to the diet it also lowers the starch and sugar content of the diet to minimise excitability and the risk of your horse becoming “tied-up”. This risk is further reduced if the horse gets some decent turn-out on his rest days.  Cut the hard feed back by 30-50%, from the evening feed the day before his rest day till the evening after the rest day. In other words his feed returns to normal proportions the evening after he has done some work again, thus abiding by the “Feed according to work done” rule.  If the feed is cut for more than a couple of days then topping up with a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement (e.g. Harbro One Scoop). will ensure that the horse still gets all the nutrients it requires  If you feed a chaff in his bucket feed then increase this portion of the diet and/or give him extra hay or haylage to keep him contented.

Swap For The Same Amount Of A Low Energy /Low Grain Feed

For the same reasons as the bran mash scenario this would not be a good plan for a short term rest. Since changes are supposed to be gradual over the period of about a week it makes sense that this is not worth doing unless your horse will be having a reduced work load or rest for a period of a month or longer.  This is probably the case for many horses over the winter and is the best medium to longer term solution. It is also the best solution for those that struggle to hold condition over the winter period.  Swap to a high fibre, high oil feed instead and increase the forage portion of the diet.  Remember to swap back again gradually and only once he is up to a work level where a change in feed becomes necessary. Good doers should be cut back to a light chaff and a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement.

In Summary

  • For rest periods or work load reduction periods of up to a month cut the horse’s hard feed by 30-50% and make up any deficit by using a vitamin and mineral supplement and increasing the forage portion of the diet (this can include chaff products).
  • Use plenty of turn-out during rest periods if possible.
  • Feed a prebiotic or yeast product (e.g. Yea-Sacc 1026) over any period of change (this includes reduced exercise) to minimise digestive upset.
  • For rest or reduced work load of more than a month, swap to a high fibre, low starch alternative or chaff plus a vitamin and mineral supplement for good doers.
  • Make any changes gradually over a period of 7-10days.
  • Feed reduced feed levels from the night before the rest day, till the evening after his work has resumed.

Stick to the above and you and your horse will have a stress free holiday, and be ready and raring to go afterwards.

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