Feeding Horses on Stall Rest

What Is Stall Rest?

Stall rest is a period of confinement where a horse is kept in a stall, or sometimes a small pen, due to an injury or illness. The recommended length of time for confinement varies from days to weeks to many months, depending on the duration required for healing. Some injuries or illness require complete confinement for a duration of time and once adequate healing has occurred, controlled exercise in the form of hand or tack walking can commence. In other cases, the horse may be confined to a stall, but have a recommended controlled exercise plan from day one.

This can be a stressful time for horses and their humans! The goals for stall rest are to keep the horse and their handlers safe and promote quality healing.

Why Are Horses Put on Stall Rest?

There are a large variety of issues that lead a veterinarian to recommend that you put your horse on stall rest. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Soft tissue injury
  • Bone injury
  • Laminitis
  • Recovery from surgery
  • Laceration requiring stiches
  • Illness
  • Isolation when transmissible disease is suspected

In short, there are many reasons your veterinarian may recommend some period of stall rest. This is something that most horse owners will experience in their time of owning horses.

How Do Nutritional Requirements Change During Stall Rest?

The change in a horse’s nutrient needs during stall rest is partly dependent on what level of work they were in before stall rest. For a horse that was not in work and on a maintenance diet, very little about their diet will change as they transition to stall rest; however, if a horse was in moderate or heavy work, there will be a larger shift in their nutritional needs.

The most significant change in nutritional needs for most horses is a decrease in the amount of energy, or calories, they need on stall rest, particularly if the horse was previously in work. We reduce the caloric density of the diet during stall rest so the horse does not gain weight and so that they don’t have excess energy that may make them harder to handle during the stall rest period.

While the calorie density of their diet should be decreased, be cautious during the beginning of stall rest to not make too drastic of a change to the diet of a hard-keeper. If too many calories are cut from the diet, the horse may enter a negative energy balance, where it has to draw from its own fat reserves. If the horse is rapidly losing weight, it will have limited energy available to support the healing process, which can prolong healing time or impact the quality of healing. A moderate reduction in calories can be made by decreasing the feed portion of the diet and assessing changes in body condition and energy level during the early weeks of stall rest and additional reductions can be made as necessary to maintain a healthy body condition (BCS 4-6).

Depending on the level of work that the horse was in, the requirements for some of the macro and micro nutrients, like minerals and vitamins, may be decreased. However, hay alone will not meet the horse’s basic nutrient requirements and will not account for the nutritional cost of healing. Many nutrients play a role in healing injuries. Antioxidants help control inflammation, amino acids help retain muscle mass, trace minerals are important for collagen formation and tissue healing and a whole host of nutrients support a healthy immune system.

Practical Tips for Designing a Diet During Stall Rest

Forage should always be the foundation of your horse’s diet and this is especially true during stall rest. Horses are natural grazers and their digestive system functions best when it has consistent access to forage. This is especially true during times of confinement, where risk of digestive upset increases due to stress and because the lack of exercise can result in decreased gut motility. Maximizing access to forage also helps keep the horse busy eating during stall rest, which helps them mentally cope with confinement.

For hard-keepers, access to free-choice hay is recommended. The easy keeper may become overweight on free-choice hay, but a minimum of 1.5% of body weight in hay should be fed. Splitting hay into multiple small meals and using a small-hole hay net is recommended for the easy-keeper. Feeding the easy-keeper a less calorie-dense type of hay, like a grass hay instead of alfalfa, will allow you to feed more total pounds of hay per day without the horse gaining excess weight.

For both the hard and easy-keeper, in addition to maximizing hay intake, we also need to focus on a high plane of non-energy nutrients (amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins) to support healing. This is best accomplished by using a ration balancer, like Essential K® or Wholesome Blends Balancer, as the base of the diet. This should be fed at the rate recommended for a horse at maintenance (1-2 lb per day for the average sized horse). I tend to recommend feeding on the top end of the range for the horse at maintenance to all but the easiest keeping horse to ensure non-energy nutrients for healing are abundantly available.

Forage with the added ration balancer will comprise the entire diet of the easy-keeper; however, some horses will need additional feed to maintain body condition. A low NSC (non-structural carbohydrate; sugar and starch) feed that is high in fat can be added, as needed, to maintain body condition. Low NSC, high fat concentrates, like Kalm ‘N EZ® or Senior Sport, are recommended in order to provide a “cool” energy source that is less likely to make them “hot” and also helps to keep meal sizes small.

Additional gut health support, like from the Constant Comfort® Total Gut Health System, is recommended during this time, as well.

What Feed Changes are Needed After Stall Rest is Complete?

As horses move back to their normal work and turnout program, their diet should be slowly shifted to account for the change in work level. Many horses will go back to the same nutritional program that they were on before stall rest, but make sure to make these changes gradually and account for the slow reintroduction to work.

If you have questions about your horse’s nutritional program, please contact us for a free, personalized equine feeding plan.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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