Ask the Expert: Elisabeth Chizek, Equine Nutritionist
Q: What are some of the key nutritional considerations for OTTBs transitioning to new careers?
EC: As with most aspects of transitioning an off the track thoroughbred, the key is understanding what track life is like and slowly transitioning the horse to its new post track environment. Racehorses are generally fed large amounts of cereal grains, like corn and oats, that are high in starch and sugar to fuel them for intense training and racing. Due to the large volume of calories needed to perform, racehorses are generally fed multiple grain meals throughout the day. When your new horse’s workload decreases to that of a pleasure or sport horse, these high calorie grains and large feeding amounts can cause your horse to become hot and difficult to manage.
The following feeding suggestions are general guidelines to improve body condition while helping hot or nervous horses relax in their new home.
Providing free choice, quality hay or pasture is important for maintaining weight, reducing boredom, and buffering stomach acid. All horses should be consuming at least 1.5-2.0% of their body weight in forage (15 – 20 lbs for your average 1,000 lb horse) daily. Most racehorses are fed using large hole hay nets, so if your horse isn’t eating as much hay as you would like off the floor or strewing it about his stall or paddock, give a hay net a try.
OTTBs commonly arrive from the track with gastric ulcers, so it may be a good idea to have your new horse’s stomach scoped by your veterinarian. If ulcers are present, follow your veterinarian’s suggestions for treatment. Feeding an alfalfa and grass mix hay can provide additional calories and have an increased acid buffering capacity in the stomach compared to grass hay alone. If your barn is equipped with automatic waterers, hanging water buckets initially will allow you to know if your new horse is drinking water and how much. Slowly introduce the automatic waterers and watch to make sure the horse is comfortable consistently drinking out of them before removing water buckets.
Your new horse may be “racing fit” and need to fill out and gain weight in certain areas if you are purchasing directly from the track. I recommend starting your new OTTB on a performance type feed commonly sold by most major feed companies. Performance feeds are generally moderate-to-low in starches and sugars and high in fat and fiber.
“Cool calories” from fat and fiber sources are excellent for maintaining or gaining weight without the excitability of calories from grains. I like to look for a feed that is at least 10% fat and fiber and less than 20% starch and sugar combined (also commonly referred to as NSC, or non structural carbohydrates). Start with small amounts (1—2 lbs) daily and increase as needed according to the instructions on the bag for weight gain or maintenance. I highly recommend weighing your feed with a scale and not feeding based on the volume of your scoop. Remember to keep meals small, no more than 5 lbs of feed at one time. If large amounts (10+ lbs daily) are required, break it up into 3-4 feedings per day.
Commercial feeds are balanced to provide most of your horse's daily protein, vitamin, and mineral needs, with the exception of salt. Many horses will not consume the recommended daily value of salt with just a salt lick or loose salt alone. In these cases, I recommend top dressing 2 tbsp of plain iodized salt daily, or feeding an electrolyte supplement. If the horse is in strenuous work or lives in a hot and humid climate you can increase this amount to up to 4 tbsp daily.
Every OTTB is different, and these recommendations are meant to give new owners a starting place to discover what works best for their individual horse. If you are struggling with any nutrition related issues or have further questions, consider consulting an equine nutritionist to help you create a customized diet for your horse.