Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Transitioning to Wet Feed

“I’m not going to lie, the sound of slurping humans makes me want to gag, but a barn full of slurpy horses is delightful.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on getting horses to eat wet feed (even when some start out really, really preferring not to). 

The other day, a colleague/friend of mine explained my farm to others by calling it a barn full of fat Thoroughbreds. The enormous compliment was not missed. Certainly, some are still on that road from track-to-fat or other places to fat. But chonky is a good goal, and it is nice to remember that even when life seems to be on a solid struggle bus, that the horses generally are not.

In the past, I wrote a piece about feeding the “hard keeper.” Check that out if you can’t get weight on a horse. However, this article is geared more to convincing horses how to eat wet-down food. These are related, as in my barn, that wet food is integral to the getting fat side of things.

If you’re asking why you need to transition a horse to wet feed, doing so can provide a number of benefits:

  • Wetting grain is also good for making it easier to chew and more digestible.
  • Wetting the feed slows down their ability to inhale it (literally and figuratively) — slowing them down and making feed time more akin to a grazing style of eating rather than a hoovering (this is more of what their systems are geared for on one hand, but on the other, it also cuts down on choke and colic).
  • The water intake itself also helps keep colic at bay.
  • When paired with a forage mash, wet feed allows the grain quantity needed to fuel and fatten a high-metabolism Thoroughbred to be a bit less than would otherwise be expected.
  • It’s a great way to make sure that any powdered supplements or medications actually get eaten

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) had quite the glow up from a body score of a 2.5 to a 5 during her time here (she left even chunkier than this photo). Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

We don’t feed an enormous amount of grain here at Kivu Sporthorses. In fact, most of my competing event horses eat just two three-quart scoops of grain a day (that’s around five pounds). They do, however, eat a nearly equivalent amount of soaked (for at least 45 minutes) beet-pulp shreds and alfalfa cubes. The cubes and pulp soak in individual buckets first, then we add supplements and topper grain (shoutout to Hallway feeds here for stellar products). On top of this they have perpetual forage access to orchard alfalfa in stalls and in the fields as well as twice-daily feedings of high quality New Mexico Alfalfa.

Equine gold and a hell of a team to help stack it. Thanks, Jeff West, Alfalfa. Photo by Jeff West.

Quick caveats:

  1. Our horses who still need to gain weight also get rice bran (1/3 of a scoop 2x a day) and potentially a feeding of wet grain (2.5 lbs) at lunch. They all also get ground flax and salt as well as Madbarn Omneity (which I look at as a whole-horse multi-vitamin).
  2. If you don’t feed a beet-pulp and alfalfa cube base, don’t dismay. You can do similarly to what is described here with an all grain diet, you just have to create specific wet feed and dry feed. Soak designated portion of grain for 10-minutes to create a bit of a slurry and substitute that in for the cube-shred mash in the descriptions below. This will transition them to wet feed, even if you only feed straight grain. Then the pickiest of eaters will be able to figure it out and pack on the pounds while keeping up on their water intake.

How to transition from dry to wet feed:

The order of events matters only because when we feed our concoction of soaked cubes, pulp and grain + supplements, we upend a bucket into a pan and that leaves the soaked alfalfa (no longer in cube form) and the beet pulp on the top. The good stuff — the grain — is underneath. If I try to feed this (or a bucket of water with grain in it) to a horse straight off the track, who is likely accustomed to a few scoops a few times a day of only the dry recognizable grain portion, they’re likely to turn their nose up at the disappointing meal and either sulk or bang the wall in order to request better service, dammit.

Please ma’am, may I have some more? No Uno. Photo by author.

Instead, we have to transition them from dry to wet (and in our case, from full grain to grain + the soaked forage mash). Each process of transition is a little different depending on the horse. When a horse arrives with their own grain (or none, as is standard from the tracks) and is accustomed to dry, small portions of dry is exactly what we start with. Feeding simple dry grain gets them used to our feeding time(s) (which are always and somewhat intentionally variable) and encourages the expectation that they, too, get to eat when others are fed. This seems like a no-brainer, but it helps when you start bringing the water into the equation.

Then, over the next week, we move to the base (the beet pulp and alfalfa cubes) soaked in a separate bucket. We’ll dump the forage mash in their pan first, then add the grain on top. Most horses will inhale the dry grain off the top and pick at the mush underneath.  If you’re trying this at home, expect that in this phase they will leave most of the forage untouched. Dump it out before the next meal, rinse the pan and repeat.

Clark (JC Louis) is still a bit under weight for where I want him, but give him another month or two and he’ll be good and chunky. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

If they are really picky and barely getting through the grain before it gets wet, you can always try encouragement by eliminating distractions. Pull any delicious side dishes for a bit before feeding and wait for a while after before returning them. We feed ample free choice alfalfa and it is so good that most horses who are a little less than plussed with my feed room concoctions will leave their wet feed mix for the green stuff. So, we just make sure alfalfa feeding comes a little later and that they have had a chance to try to get breakfast or dinner down first.

Additionally, we feed in stalls. That solo space gives the horses plenty of time to give their new food an initial go, and then come back to it later once they’re still hungry. If you’re feeding in a group or in a field, I would recommend separating the new ones to transition them over before returning to group feeding. Easier said than done, of course…

Curry (Curlin Lane) took a while to get weight on and to transition to wet feed. But today he is fat, happy, and clicking around the 2’6″ with scope to spare. Photo by Dawn Lynch.

As the “grain on top and picking at the base” phase gets more normalized, I’ll move to the “side-by-side” tactic: The base (soaked cubes and pulp) goes on the left of the pan and the grain goes on the right. They’ll run into eachother and the grain will be partially (but not fully) covered with the wet base. Your horse might stare at you with a solid, “how dare you,” but they know the drill and they’ll go looking for the grain and eat some of the base along the way. Usually a few days of this and then voila — you can start upending the buckets into the pan with the grain on the bottom under the base.

So to break it down:

  • Day 1-2: Dry grain only
  • Day 3-7:  Wet alfalfa cube & beet pulp base on the bottom of the pan, dry grain on top
  • Week 2: Side-by-side wet cube/pulp mash and grain
  • Week 3: Upended buckets with grain underneath the wet mash

My favorite meatball (Uno, Hold Em Paul) making easy work of BN at a recent show. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

On top of that, we usually add another third of a gallon of water to make their feed super soupy and help prevent colic, especially in the shoulder seasons where temperature swings are extreme. My more sensitive horses, whose vet bills have proven they can’t quite drink enough water on their own, will get nearly a full gallon of water on top and are fed this soup in a 5-gallon bucket so that they can’t just dump it over and go find the good stuff. I’m not going to lie, the sound of slurping humans makes me want to gag, but a barn full of slurpy horses is delightful.

Tetris (Not A Game) is one of my “needs to be fed in a hanging bucket” kiddos. It has worked wonders for his weight and his health. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Shockingly, not all of these smart critters are food-motivated (Uno — Hold Em Paul — begs to differ). So if they look like they could use a few more pounds and are tending to be cheeky and dump their pans on their stall floors, I’ll move to feeding them in hanging buckets where it is far harder for them to sift the mash from the grain. The barn will be quiet (minus the slurping) when everyone is fed, but the somewhat frustrated bang of a bucket against a wall as they try to sift to the better bits is audible knowledge of the pounds being put on and grain (and money) not being wasted.

Enjoy the process to fat, healthy ponies folks — and on the human side, hell, we all probably need to go drink more water, too.

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