5 tips for retraining the OTTB from a gut health perspective
In New Zealand we love our Thoroughbreds! We've had so many beautiful Thoroughbreds bred here - from legendary racehorses like Phar Lap, Sunline and Horlicks to sporthorses like Charisma (who was actually 1/32th Percheron!). We're delighted to see a world-wide resurgence of thoroughbreds competing, especially in eventing. At the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, around a third of the horses were Thoroughbreds.
Those equestrians who have had their heart stolen by an OTTB will tell you they can't go past the willingness, work ethic, trainability and outright athletic ability of a Thoroughbred.
Once a Thoroughbred is settled into their new life off the track, the sky is the limit for your partnership with them. But, even more than most horses, these racehorses (often young and still growing, or freshly home from apartment dwelling life in Hong Kong) may have gut health vulnerabilities that take knowledge and care to resolve - so they can enjoy optimum condition, comfort, and long term health.
We asked one of New Zealand's top equine nutrition experts to share her insights into how to support an OTTB's condition and health through the transition from racing stable to recreational or competitive riding.
Our expert - Nikita Stowers
MSc (Nutrition) BSc (Animal Science) BBS, Equine Nutritionist at Veterinary and Nutritional Integration LTD
1. History is important
In NZ we are lucky to have a great selection of Off the Track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) to choose from, and a multitude of Equestrian disciplines. So you’ve got yourself a gorgeous young Thoroughbred, off the track? There are some of the key things to keep in mind to ensure you get the most out of your new horse and ensure you have a successful partnership.
One of the most important things when buying any new horse is to know as much about their history as you can. We will often ask questions around vices, experience, veterinary history but we also need to check what their history is from a feed and management point of view.
For example we have a lot of horses that come to NZ after racing in Hong Kong. These horses are unlikely to have been exposed to the pasture and forage that we have, let alone the beautiful outdoor lifestyle! I once even worked with a horse that was imported from America that had never grazed pasture before, and we literally had to teach him to graze pasture on the ground.
Obtaining some simple information about what the horse is currently being fed is vitally important. You should then use this as the base diet and look to make transitions (if required) to your desired diet for your new horse.
So many horse owners fail to do this and as a result we often see drastic weight loss when an ex-racehorse is rehomed. This can often be simply down to the fact that the horses gut hasn’t had a chance to transition to the new diet and in that time has lost condition as a result.
So to avoid this, ensure you know what they are currently being fed and even what they were fed as a racehorse if you can get this information. This, coupled with Veterinary history such as previous gastric ulcers and Selenium status, are our top picks for information to gather if you can.
2. Fibre, Fibre and more fibre
ALL horses need at least 1.5 - 2% of their bodyweight in fibre in their diet each day. For most Thoroughbreds this equates to 7.5-12 kg assuming that most weigh between 500 and 600kg.
Easy, you might say – but make sure you consider that these requirements are Dry Matter requirements. In simple terms, Dry Matter is the weight after all of the moisture has left a feed. If we took 1kg of Spring grass, and microwaved it until we could no longer get any moisture from it we may be left with 150-200g of pasture on a Dry Matter basis.
This is why it is sometimes difficult to meet our horses pasture requirement on pasture alone. This is especially true when the grass is full of water, like in Spring and Autumn.
Luckily we have other forage sources available that have greater dry matter values and sometimes it can really help our horses from a gut health point of view if we provide a variety of different forage and fibre sources so we can be confident we are meeting this requirement.
This is especially important for our OTTB’s, because many of them will have been used to a really low forage diet, and we really need to work hard to reset their gut to digest the fibre based feeds that are best for their health.
3. Rule out any underlying gastrointestinal health issues
What if you are pouring a load of feed into the horse, assuming you are giving them the correct feeds (see above, the more fibre the better) and they are still not gaining weight?
Sometimes we need to rule out gastrointestinal health issues that may be preventing weight gain.
The top two we see in practice are Gastric Ulcers and Hindgut inflammation or imbalance and often horses will have both. Correct diagnosis and treatment of these issues can be life-changing in terms of weight gain for your OTTB - and can prevent you from throwing money down the drain on feed that isn’t being efficiently digested. Because let's be honest; we have plenty of other things we could be spending that money on, like new helmets or boots!!
If you discover your horse has something like gastric ulcers it is important to treat these issues correctly and then maintain a good gut health diet for them providing enough fibre and gut support with a quality product like Poseidon's Digestive EQ.
4. Don’t blow their brains with feed
OTTB’s may be used to getting large amounts of grain based feeds and may also perform very well on them, however a racehorse in heavy work has quite different requirements to an OTTB light to moderate work.
Most Equestrian horses will fall into these categories and so we need to adjust their feed intake accordingly. We still need to provide 1.5 - 2% of their bodyweight in forage per day, but balancer supplements such as Poseidon's Digestive VM alongside high fibre, high fat feeds and supplements are often a much better fit to get the best out of our new horse.
Not only that, but their gastrointestinal tract will thank you for it as well!
4. Ensure they are receiving enough safe calories for weight gain
If you have gathered a good amount of historical information on your OTTB, established they don’t have any health issues that are preventing them from gaining or maintaining their weight, and are meeting their forage and fibre requirement then you are 90% there!
It is however likely that you will need to feed your OTTB a bit more than 'Jerry the bush pony' who gets by on the smell of grass!
There are many great feeds available in NZ for these horses, but as a rule, look for the high fibre feeds first – there are a heap on the market now that don’t contain any grain but still have the same amount of calories as the more traditional grain based feeds.
If you still need more calories for weight gain look to fats and oils as the next part of your horses diet; and if you still need weight gain after this look at grain based concentrates, ideally those that have been extruded or micronised so that you are protecting their hindgut from these feeds ending up where they shouldn’t and causing problems for the hindgut bacteria that they so desperately need.
If you need help selecting a feed talk to a Nutritionist or a knowledgeable feed rep about what is best for your horse.
Did we mention? The sky is the limit with a Thoroughbred
To finish up, here's a lovely video from Love Racing on thoroughbreds in equestrian sports.