One of the queries that I get regularly is how to feed a good doer when it is on enforced “rest” due to injury or illness.

The main worry being how to prevent weight gain in a horse whose exercise has suddenly been curtailed, whilst not increasing the levels of stress for the horse and the owner.

Change of routine

Box rest represents a big change for the horse. He is likely to be isolated to a lesser or greater degree from his buddies and may find that stressful.

If he has had an operation there may be bandages, dressings etc to deal with and of course the associated pain and discomfort.

This enforced situation means that his nutritional needs have also changed, sometimes overnight. Correct feeding can be an all important part of the healing process.

Forage first

With a reduction in exercise comes a reduction in the amount of energy required. This essentially means that your horse will no longer require the same type or quantity of feed that he usually receives.

The most important part of your horse’s feeding regime, as always, will be forage. Ideally this should be fed ad-lib ensuring that your horse’s digestive system is kept healthy and that his drive to eat is fulfilled, keeping his stress levels reduced.

With a good doer this scenario could result in weight gain depending on forage quality.

Do not starve them but try to limit the hay that they are able to eat by using very small holed hay nets or even doubling hay nets, soak hay for a minimum of four hours (preferably 12) to reduce sugar (and therefore energy) levels.

This will mean that they can still fulfil their natural desire to be constantly munching, keep their guts healthy and relieve boredom without piling on weight.

Vitamins, minerals and quality protein

Whilst your horse’s energy requirements have decreased he will still have a requirement for minerals (including trace elements) and vitamins.

Your horse’s body will be trying to heal itself and/or to fight off infection so their requirement for these crucial nutrients may actually be higher than that of a horse that is out of work or simply on holiday.

Feed a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement (check out Harbro One Scoop). The other nutrient that is important for the convalescing horse is quality protein (provided by soya, linseed and/or lysine, methionine etc).

The protein must be of good quality so that it can be utilised by the horse to heal any damage but also for later to rebuild muscles etc.

Linseed meal or full fat soya fed at 50g/100kg of bodyweight will ensure you are providing quality protein. Feed it alongside a low energy bagged chaff product.

Rehab time

At some stage you will get the ok from the vet to start to rehab your horse.

This can be an exciting time as you see the light at the end of the tunnel but soon can turn to trepidation as you realise that you have to ‘gently’ walk in hand 500kg of horse that has been cooped up for weeks on end!

At this stage it would be unwise to start to give your horse any more feed, and you may need to investigate using one of the many calmers that are available.

Throughout the rehab period it should not be necessary to give your horse any more feed than he had whilst on box rest. Gradually reintroduce his normal feed once he is back in full work and not before.

Feed the bugs

There are various supplements that may be of use for the convalescing horse.

The first as already mentioned would be a calmer, this can help at the start of box rest until they get used to their new routine and when you start to hand-walk and/or ride.

There are many on the market and different calmers suit different horses. The second one which I would always advocate for horses that have had an operation and have therefore been subjected to some serious abuse to their digestive system (starvation and normally antibiotics and other drugs) is the use of prebiotics and yea-sacc.

This is to help get their digestive system back on track as the poor old ‘good bugs’ in their gut will most likely have been affected by the fact that your horse has been starved and given broad spectrum antibiotics (which will basically wipe out bad and good bugs alike).

It is a worthwhile insurance to help your horse get back to being fighting fit.

In summary, use small holed haynets for forage provision to prevent excess weight gain and help combat boredom. Soak hay if necessary to further reduce energy intake and feed quality protein alongside a good vitamin and mineral supplement with an appropriate low energy chaff.