Feeding Low-Bulk for Troublesome Tummies

While a low-density feeding program can be a game changer for some horses and distressed owners, it’s not for everyone. Learn the ins and outs here and then work with your vet to understand if it’s right for your horse.

While a low-density feeding program can be a game changer for some horses and distressed owners, it’s not for everyone. Learn the ins and outs here and then work with your vet to understand if it’s right for your horse.

When your horse can’t chew, chokes, or continues to colic, you worry. It feels like a lose-lose scenario. You can’t feed them, or you’ll have a problem but if you don’t feed them, they can’t thrive, and they certainly can’t perform if they’re a riding horse. Enter, the low-bulk diet.

IBD can show up as low-grade recurring or chronic colic, sudden weight loss from lost nutrients or variable appetite due to an uncomfortable gut, chronic diarrhea, or changes in blood work (e.g., low protein or Vitamin E). Notify your vet if you detect these changes in your horse.

What is a low-bulk diet?

The difference between a low-bulk and a high-bulk diet can be described quickly in human terms using the burger and the salad. To get the same amount of energy (or calories) from a salad as a burger, you would need a very big bowl and a lot of chewing power. That’s the same experience for your horse as they eat hay or grass – they need a lot of it to maintain their energy and their body composition. Processing a high volume of feed takes time. The horse chews it, it enters the digestive system where it’s broken down, and exits.

Typically, this process happens easily enough. For some horses, there’s trouble somewhere along the line. They may be seniors and have fewer teeth to chew. Or they have some sort of inflammation or bowel-related disease that can cause issues during digestion. Perhaps they’re impacted, making output difficult.

The low-density diet essentially converts the salad to the burger for your horse. Instead of the high-volume, high-fiber diet of traditional hay or grass forage, a horse is fed pelleted hay or complete feed (e.g., senior feed) that reduces the time from mouth to pitchfork.

Which horses is this approach good for?

A low-bulk diet is typically best for a horse with a diagnosed gastrointestinal problem or one that can’t chew well, but there may be other reasons, which is why it’s best to work with your vet.
Typically, these are the horses that a diet change might be right for:

  • Senior horses
  • One that experiences recurring colic
  • A horse with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • A horse with motility issues
  • One that frequently chokes

How do I manage this lifestyle?

Implementing and managing your horse’s low-bulk diet can be a challenge. Consider these factors to make it easier.

Switch mindfully: Choose the pelleted option most like what your horse already eats. If they eat timothy now, switch to timothy pellets. If they eat alfalfa, use alfalfa pellets. You can also use age-appropriate complete feeds such as senior.

Make it enjoyable: You might find over time that your horse isn’t interested in the pellets; they want to forage. The goal is to make the feed more palatable. You can do this by sweetening it, using molasses or other sweeteners. Confirm with your vet to ensure that you appropriately meet your horse’s health needs. Some horses may also prefer soaked or dry feed—it typically doesn’t matter from a horsekeeping standpoint.

Feed often: The low-density approach requires small, frequent meals throughout the day to limit the transit time from the mouth to the gut. If this is difficult for you or the facility you board, consider an automatic feeder that can distribute pellets at regular intervals.

Alternate lifestyle: Transitioning a horse that lives in a field with full-time access to round bales will be more difficult than one that lives at home in a stall with a run or dry lot. If your horse is at pasture, you may need to look for an alternative environment.

Watch for challenges: Since low-density feeds intentionally have less bulk, your horse may be predisposed to gastric ulcers. The feed doesn’t cause ulcers, there’s just less buffer against gastric fluids with less forage.

[Is your horse BORED of your riding routine?]

What to ask the vet?

If you suspect your horse has any of the symptoms or challenges of the typical “low-bulk diet” candidate, share your concerns with your vet. They’ll be able to document and notice patterns such as recurring colic. They can also draw and compare blood samples and body condition scores to look for changes over time

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