When I adopted my mare Emma from a Rescue nearby, I was relatively inexperienced with horses and hired a trainer to work with us once a week. My trainer wanted me to put some pounds on my skinny horse and recommended feeding rich alfalfa and some grains. I gave her three flakes of the green hay a day in addition to some oat pellets. She also got carrot treats a couple of times a day. After a few months it was time for Emma’s first vaccinations, and after some investigating I found a traveling veterinarian and made an appointment. The vet arrived at the ranch in a white truck fully loaded with veterinary medical supplies. He stepped in the barn and before I knew it he had pulled up a piece of Emma’s skin on her neck and injected a needle.
In less than a minute, she was all done. I was happy that this had been a small ordeal, even though the pretty hefty charge for the vet visit was putting a damper on things. As we walked out of the barn, I said “Oh, I forgot to give Emma a treat for doing so well.” “Hold it,” the vet said, “you really shouldn’t give her any treats because she is overweight as it is.” I couldn’t believe my ears and was getting all defensive, mustering up explanations of how she had been too skinny and how she was getting plenty of exercise, etc. The vet walked back in the barn with me and showed me how to test the thickness of my horse’s skin on her rips. “It is just like it is with humans,” he said, “you just need to limit what you eat or you get fat, and this horse is too fat.” I kept asking questions about what to feed her, but he came back to the simple fact that it’s not a matter of what food the horse gets as it is about quantity. He wanted me to restrict her food intake, “and keep her off the pasture completely from March to June when the grass is very rich. If you do not keep her weight down, she is at risk of founder, which, as you probably know, is a very debilitating disease.”
When the vet was gone, I went back into the barn and took a closer look at my mare. Had she really become too fat without me noticing it? She looked gorgeous to me, but the vet’s warning was still ringing in my ears. I was a bit confused though. The line between under and overweight must be very fine since only a few months ago my trainer had diagnosed Emma as being too skinny and recommended putting on some pounds. It was time to take my horse off the pellets and just feed the hay. She was out on pasture a lot too, but at this time of year, there was not a lot to eat in the fields. It stops raining in the California Central Valley around May while temperatures start climbing and stay in the nineties with occasional over one hundred degrees for up to seven months. Landscapes dry out. Without watering, nothing grows. The lush green meadows and hills of the winter turn yellow and are a reminder that much of California would be a barren desert landscape in the summer without the interference of humans who use ground and river water to turn the desert into valuable agricultural land.
I told my trainer about the vet’s comments, and she was a bit surprised. As I learned quickly, opinions about proper horsemanship varied among the horse professionals and semi professionals that I met as much as it did in the books and on websites I had been consulting. But it was not possible to ignore advice altogether since nothing seemed intuitive. I had figured out that Emma would eat almost non-stop if I would let her, so the need to restrict her food was obvious, but how much should I feed her? And what about not letting her out on the pasture when it was lush and green? Wasn’t that the prime time to let her graze? The time of year we were both waiting for – her to have a feeding frenzy and me to save some money on feed? Again, opinions were not in sync. What I did learn over the course of the following years was that horse owners need to study their horses and draw their own conclusions about what is best for them. All the advice I was receiving was true and correct for some horses but not for all. I was far from knowing my horse. I was learning more about who she was and what was right for her every day. Sometimes I was amazed that she was not getting impatient with me for not knowing what she wanted and needed.
Now that Emma has been with me for a few years, I have a much better understanding of her food requirements. I do let her graze on the green grass in the winter time, but only for part of the day. When the fields dry up in the summer months and there is nothing left to graze on, I feed her rye grass, which is not as rich as alfalfa. Emma is the kind of horse they call an “easy keeper,” meaning that unlike with many others, especially older horses, I don't have to worry about keeping weight on her body, but I don’t think there is anything easy about having to closely monitor her food intake. It is a little easier on the wallet though since rye grass is a relatively cheap feed. I haven’t had to go so far as a friend, who actually weighs her hay every time she feeds her horses in order not to overfeed. I can still eyeball it. And I still give her carrots and feed her apples from our orchard in late summer. I think Emma and I are both easy keepers. It doesn’t take too much to keep us happy; we need each other and we need to keep reminding each other that we need to exercise a lot to stay in shape.
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