I had the privilege to attend an international conference over the weekend, hosted by the European Equine Health & Nutrition Congress. I traveled to the city of Ghent, Belgium where the University of Ghent hosted the conference, titled “Feeding for Gastrointestinal Health.” Over the two days, there were multiple talks related to equine nutrition and GI health and here are take home messages from a selection of them. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, a well-organized and referenced proceedings was published at the conference and can be ordered through the following website: http://www.equine-congress.com/en/home
On the first day of the conference, I signed up for a workshop titled “Dental pathologies with GI consequences & dietary solutions.” For two hours we discussed case studies of horses with poor, neglected dentition and their current feeding programs. We all agreed that with proper and careful dental care and alterations in feeding programs, horses can be put back on the right track. Take home message: Be proactive about dental care, especially for Senior horses. Utilizing higher fat and fiber feedstuffs can help increase caloric density of rations and compensate for weight loss/lack of intake that may result from painful dental conditions.
To start the formal lecture section of the conference, we were treated to a wonderful talk by Marcus Clauss of the University of Zurich, who presented a broad view of the horse as a grazing herbivore compared to other grazers such as ruminants and even rhinoceros. He discussed evidence for a tradeoff between retention time and chewing activity in herbivores and how horses in particular have a lower chewing efficiency compared to ruminants. The take home message from this talk: the more we understand horses’ physiology as it relates to their unique behaviors and digestion, the better we can manage and feed them to match what nature intended.
Anna Jansson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences spoke about “Nutritional strategies for gastrointestinal health – the basics.” She started her talk with some telling data about colic cases in Sweden, with clear increases shown in the winter when horses are stabled and do not have access to pasture. She reminded everyone of the tips to decrease risk factors for colic that included: feeding higher amounts of roughage and lower amounts of concentrate, making any feed changes very slowly, and feeding roughage ad lib or spread over 24 hours.
On the topic of feed safety (which they call feed hygiene in Europe), Johanna Fink from Utrecht University spoke of “Hygienic quality of feed: Implications of feed contamination with moulds and mycotoxins on equine health and performance.” In Europe, it seems they have significant challenges with mold, mycotoxins and other concerns regarding quality of feedstuffs. Their wet climates and lack of large spaces to produce quality forage leave many horse owners with fewer choices for roughage for their horses. They also feed more haylage or fermented hay-type products to horses that we typically do not feed in the US. The take home message for me was: thank goodness we have a rigorous testing program in place at Purina through our suppliers and our feed plants to test for mycotoxins and other issues with our ingredients.
Next, we witnessed a tag team talk from both Veronique Julliand (Dijon College of Agriculture) and Annette Zeyner (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg) as they provided an update on pre and pro-biotics for horses. This was a tricky topic and was handled well by the professors as they combed through the sometimes confusing and contradictory data regarding these feed additives. A clear take home message for me was how much work still needs to be done in this area for us to make strong conclusions about what, when, how and why to use these items in horse feeds.
Chris Proudman from the University of Liverpool covered the topic of “Dietary management for reducing the risk of GI disorders (colic).” Similar to Anna Janssen, he also covered the risk factors for colic such as increasing risk when diets are changed rapidly, feeding too much concentrate and changes in season (especially in Dec/January around the holidays). He speculated that perhaps the changes in management and feeding that can occur during the holiday time period may be increasing risk for some horses. But he also discussed how changes in hindgut microbiology and new data on types of bacteria and enzyme activity in the hindgut can answer questions about what happens when diets are changed and/or horses have some gastric disturbance. Take home- there is some new research that should help us in the future.
That sums up most of day one, stay tuned for more later in the week on day two including information on gastric ulcers. And for those of you that made it to the end of this blog post, I bet you can’t guess what the picture above is? It is the stable area of a medieval castle in Ghent, named Gravensteen. The castle was built in 1180 and horses were housed in this “basement.” This area was later turned into a dungeon/torture chamber (for people of course)!