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Feeding Performance Ponies

What defines a pony? Generally any horse under 14.2 hands at the withers for English ponies, and under 14 hands for many Western disciplines. The world’s smallest recorded ponies are Einstein (3.5 hands) and Thumbellina (4.5 hands).

Performance ponies are usually judged on topline, condition and coat mane and tail.

Overfeeding and hence obesity are the main nutritional issues with ponies.

How do we feed them to be healthy and happy, without getting too fat?

Overfeeding and obesity can lead to many of the metabolic disorders, including laminitis, difficult behaviour, insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome. These topics have been covered in previous articles in this series.

The important points to be considered:

  1. How much to feed.

Feeding tables are usually based on horses weighing 300 - 500kg. Ponies weigh much less (50-350kg) and so the amount of feed offered must be reduced according to their body size. Most ponies are overfed. Ponies also have the knack of scrounging more feed than bigger horses - so they eat more. It is also important that any treats or snacks be taken into account when feeding ponies, smaller body size means less margin on feeding guidelines.

  1. How do you estimate body weight?

Weighing your pony on weigh scales is the only accurate method. Weightapes based on girth measurement are quite variable and can often lead to inaccurate measurements, especially with ponies. For the best estimate use the girth measurement and the length of the horse from the shoulder to the point, rather than the stifle.

A recent study in the US compared methods for estimating bodyweight. The difference between the actual weight and weight tapes was 65.8kg. Measurement of body length from shoulder to the point gave the most accurate estimate.

These pictures show the line measurement from the shoulder to the point. (Wagner and Tyler, J. Equine Vet. Sci, In press)

The most accurate way to measure weight is to use the formula:

Estimated weight (kg) = (heart girth (cm) 2 x body length (cm) (point))/ 11,800

Our own pony Jummy measured 167 cm girth and 156 cm shoulder to point, therefore his estimated weight was (167x167x156) = 446224/11800 = 368kg. His actual weight was 357kg. His weight using a weigh tape was 390 kg .

  1. Getting your feeding measurements sorted.

3.1 Dry matter. As a general rule of thumb; your pony will need 1.5 to 2% of its bodyweight as dry matter, depending on the level of work, and the energy content of the feed. Some ponies can eat up to 5% of their bodyweight... hence they get fat. Our pony need s about 5.5 kg of dry matter per day (360 X 1.5% = 5.5kg). Grass contains approximately 10% dry matter. Hay contains about 70% dry matter. Most concentrated feeds contain about 90% dry matter. It is important to weigh what you are feeding...dont guess, remember to allow for the water content. Dont be fooled by volume. For instance CoolStance copra will absorb up to 3 times its weight in water and swell to three times its volume. Hence 1kg dry CoolStance will weigh 4kg when wet, but it still only delivers 1 kg of dry matter. This is where many people can become confused. Water does not provide nutrients.

3.2 Digestible energy (DE). All feeds contain energy. You pony will require approximately 140 Kilojoules DE /kg bodyweight. Our pony therefore requires 5.5 kg dry matter and 50 Megajoules per day (1000kilojoules = 1 megajoule). If your feed contains 10MJ/kg dry matter, he will need 5kg feed. If feed contains 15MJ DE/kg dry matter, he will need 3.5kg dry matter for maintenance.

Rules of thumb
Dry matter intake = 1.5-2% of bodyweight
Digestible energy intake = 140 KJ/kg bodyweight

Feeding for performance

    1. There are a lot of articles in this series about feeding for topline, feeding balanced Non Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) and feeding to avoid metabolic disorders.
    2. Coat condition. Feed oil for coat condition. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils (canola, soy, maize) will increase and unbalance the omega 3 : omega 6 ratio. Polyunsaturated oils can produce free radicals unless stabilised. Saturated oils do not unbalance the Omega 3:6 ratio and don’t produce free radicals.
    3. Omega 3: Omega 6. The Omega 3:6 ratio is out of balance because horses are fed high NSC feeds containing polyunsaturated oils. Reduce the NSC intake, and replace polyunsaturated oils with saturated oils, and you will reduce the Omega 3:6 ratio to normal levels.
    4. Building Topline. The previous article “Feeding for Top line and Condition” explains the science behind how feed nutrients are partitioned into muscle or fat. High NSC diets are partitioned into body fat, and can cause insulin resistance. Be sure to select diets high in saturated oil, low in NSC (<15%) and high in digestible fibre.
    5. Understand your feeds. Recognise that not all feeds are the same, some feeds are designed to meet very specific requirements, and that water does not provide nutrients.
    6. Understand feed labels. Unfortunately there is no requirement for including NSC on feed labels. Read the label. If it contains grain, or grain by products it will contain sugar and starch. If it contains vegetable oil, it will be polyunsaturated. Also remember to look for seed grains in any hay that you feed.
    7. Temperament. Do horses get headaches? We know that what you feed your horse will influence how they feel and the way they behave. For example high NSC feeds cause a myriad of unwanted responses in horses including behavioural problems. Try reducing the NSC to <15% by replacing grain with saturated oil and digestible fibre.
    8. Feed little and often. Ponies have small stomachs and so feeding at least three times per day will enhance their digestion, improve feed utilisation, and prevent insulin and glucose spikes.
    9. Activity level. Be honest with yourself and your horse and feed according to the activity level. Dont overfeed.
    10. Treats. It’s okay to give treats and rewards to your pony, just make sure you have accounted for this and substituted from his or her daily ration. Remember that your pony depends on you to be strong for both of you.

Throughout history, ponies have always demonstrated the ability to be extremely resilient in tough conditions. Although your pony will require less feed than other horses, the need for good nutrition is still paramount.